by Heath Holland
It was around this time last year that the original 1951 Angels in the Outfield landed on my list of five underrated baseball movies. I championed the film for its restraint and class, noting that it didn’t take the easy path and left a lot up to the audience to interpret themselves, which I didn’t think the remake was interested in. I’ve had the opportunity to watch both versions of the film again over the last week or two and to refresh myself on their strengths and weaknesses. There are some things I’ve changed my mind about, and some things I think I was flat out wrong about when I wrote that piece last year. Let’s compare.
The plot of 1951’s Angels in the Outfield is relatively simple: the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team sucks, the coach has a huge temper problem, and no one has any confidence in the team. Enter a group of angels that the coach can’t see but can hear, and an orphan girl who actually CAN see them. The angels have made a deal with the coach, and if he gets his life right and becomes a decent human being, they’ll help his team become winners. Every time a run is scored, an angel gets his wings. No, wait. Wrong movie.
Directing duties were handled by Clarence Brown, who had been directing films since the silent days. He claims hits like the second-ever filmed version of Last of the Mohicans in 1920, Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo in 1935, as well as National Velvet and The Yearling. Several of his movies were massive successes and Brown was nominated for six Best Director Oscars during his career. He was kind of a big deal, and I hear he was HUGE in Paraguay.
What I’ve always liked about the movie (besides the vintage 1940s footage of actual baseball stadiums and players) is that the film doesn’t beat you over the head with the themes. It’s a little preachy, but it’s not preachy like a lot of movies about the subject would be. We never see the angels themselves; we just see the results of their involvement. What I’d forgotten is that they do actually make themselves known quite a bit. The coach can hear them, and sometimes others can as well. The concept of “this guy who thinks he talks to angels is crazy” doesn’t really get much mileage at all because the movie makes it VERY CLEAR that he’s not crazy and is, in fact, actually talking to angels. And that’s fine. It’s cute, and we’re never treated to footage of angels flying players around because the budget nor the technology would have allowed that. I had previously thought this was because the film had restraint, but re-watching it proves that the film would absolutely have gone there if it had been able. Ultimately, 1951’s Angels in the Outfield is a sweet story made during the golden age of Hollywood that anyone can sit down and watch and probably come away from it feeling great, if not slightly bored.
Don Jon) as the pitcher, and pre-fame Adrian Brody, and Matthew McConaughey, one year after his role in Dazed and Confused as outfielders. A tiny Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon again) plays a kid whose deadbeat dad (Young Guns actor Dermot Mulroney) has essentially made him an orphan. His best friend is Milton Davis Jr., an ADORABLE kid who seems to have left acting just a few years and a couple of roles later. Both kids spend the entire movie looking like they need a hug, which is a testament to successful cute-kid casting. I understand now many women still want to give Joseph Gordon-Levitt a hug, but THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. Oh yeah, Christopher Lloyd is Al, the head angel, and only Levitt’s character can see him.
This time out, directing is handled by William Dear, the man we have to thank (?) for Harry and the Hendersons and the 1991 Richard Grieco vehicle If Looks Could Kill. In the years since he directed Angels in the Outfield, his career seems to have flourished by directing made-for-TV movies that play on family networks.
The 1994 remake shifts the focus from the coach to the kids, and allows the audience a more naïve and innocent vantage point, which helps the movie. It also helps the film to convey the magic that baseball holds for little boys. There’s a certain wonder and innocence about baseball that certain movies capture better than others, taking us back to a time when all we were living for was the summer and when tomorrow didn’t matter. That spirit is thankfully present here.
By the way, what happened to the kid’s sports film? Movies like this used to be a dime a dozen, and were staples all throughout the ’70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Now they’ve been replaced by the so-called inspirational film, almost always “inspired by true events” (I just threw up in my mouth) like The Blind Side and Remember the Titans, and Million Dollar Arm (here it comes again!). How does a kid learn anything about life from those movies? Gordon-Levitt’s character in the 1994 version of Angels in the Outfield has a dead mom and his dad doesn’t want him. On top of that, Christopher Lloyd’s character Al tells him that a member of the team (I won’t spoil who, in case you haven’t seen it) is GOING TO DIE in six months because of years spent abusing his body, but that this is essentially all okay and not to worry about what can’t be changed. It feels harsh when I type it, but it felt sweet when taken in the context of the movie, like a grown up teaching a child to accept the changes life throws at them. It bums me out that we’re so far from this type of movie now. You can make fart and poop jokes as much as you want, you can even have a CGI character eat a urinal cake, but you better not say the word “shit” in a family movie. What a backwards cinematic day and age we find ourselves in.
That doesn’t happen in this movie. You’ve got balls, Angels in the Outfield, and I’m not talking about the kind you hit with a bat.
The newer version obviously takes a more modern approach to the story, yet somehow comes across as stronger than the original. I still think that 1951 film is underrated and I’m so glad it exists, but I connected pretty deeply with the remake on this last viewing, and I think it holds a pretty decisive edge over Clarence Brown’s black and white classic.
I’m really happy I got the chance to revisit these movies recently, and I’m a fan of both, but I have to admit that the 1994 remake is a pretty remarkable little film. 1994 for the win!