Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Heath Holland On...Angels in the Outfield vs. Angels in the Outfield

by Heath Holland
It’s that time again! Baseball season starts this weekend and millions of people across America are going to be root-root-rooting for their home team and chomping on Cracker Jack. What better time to take a look at the two versions of Angels in the Outfield and compare the classic baseball film from 1951 to the remake from 1994? Play ball!

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.
The classic film doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of star power. It features Paul Douglas, a sports-announcer-turned-actor who had appeared in a couple of noir films for Fox and starred opposite Judy Holliday in 1956’s The Solid Gold Cadillac. Douglas had a really good run in the 1950s and gave some memorable performances before succumbing to a heart attack in ’59. His costar in Angels in the Outfield is Janet Leigh, who is a screen legend because of her contributions to Halloween: H20. JK, ROFL! She’s obviously an icon because of Hitchcock’s Psycho, not to mention a slew of other noteworthy roles in classic films like Touch of Evil and The Manchurian Candidate. Once you get outside those two leads, there aren’t many faces you’ll recognize in the film.

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.
1994’s remake of Angels in the Outfield is not as different as I had remembered and does a lot of the same things, but in a more engaging way. The cast is stellar: instead of the Pittsburgh Pirates, we have the Angels (get it?), a team consisting of Danny Glover as the coach, Tony Danza (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.
The remake is also very funny; at least, it is for me. There’s the broad comedy that you’d expect from a movie about angels helping a baseball team find a winning streak, but there’s a lot of subtler humor as well that plays for older viewers. Speaking of older viewers, there’s a fair bit of content that wouldn’t make it into a “family” movie these days. Characters smoke and drink (like real people do), and there’s even some mild four-letter words that used to be acceptable in family films before the genre completely went in the toilet. It’s clearly a product of Michael Eisner’s tenure as the CEO of Disney; the films made under his watch seemed a little bit grittier, but also more relatable and less antiseptic. They usually feel lived-in, often in ways that all those Disney movies from the seventies that starred Kurt Russell, or Don Knotts, or a cat from outer space, never quite did.

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.
Oh, I have one last thing to say about the 1994 version. This could be considered a mild spoiler, but it shouldn’t diminish your enjoyment of the movie in any way, I promise. If this story were filmed today, you’d expect the climax to go something like this: it’s the bottom of the ninth and our team is losing. For some reason, the angels haven’t appeared to lend their help, and now it’s almost over. Then, against all hope, Joseph Gordon-Levitt sees a flutter of wings in the outfield, and slowly stands, flapping his arms up and down to let the coach know that the angels have finally arrived. Help has finally come. The pitch is made, the bat cracks, and the ball is going, going….and suddenly everyone in the stadium can see the angels in the outfield, carrying the ball over the fence into a game-winning home run.

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!


  1. Oddly enough, movie has been on my list since I was like 7. I saw the trailer a thousand times because it was on my Lion King VHS, but never got around to watching it. It's that time of year where I like to crank through some of these baseball movies myself, like Rookie of the Year, Bull Durham, and Fever Pitch (which is criminally underrated IMO).

    1. I hope I haven't oversold it, but I'd love to know what you think about it when you watch it.

  2. I remember liking the movie a lot although I think parts of it made sad as an 8 year old back then so It wasnt high on my rematch list. Excellent point about how kids sports movies don't get made like they used too. Movies like sandlot, mighty ducks, rookie of year, little giants Filled my child hood with happiness. Guess that trend ended with the success of remember the Titans.

  3. Heath - just wanted to send you a shout out on opening day. Good luck to your White Sox. My Yanks are in for a long ass season. We look woeful. I know, you don't allow Yankees fans to complain, but few remember that we were the laughing stock of the league for a long time in the 80's and early 90's so I've been through the shit before. Plus - I think LA has just destroyed the old notion that the Yanks have the biggest payroll. Luckily, I live right outside of DC so I can go to Nats park and root for them as my NL team.

    1. Thanks, Chaybee, and I feel you, brother. Luckily, baseball season is long. Good luck to you guys!

  4. When I was a kid I thought this movie (the remake) was childish. As an adult, after watching it 300+ times thanks to my sister, who has autism, who watches it on repeat for year-long stretches, I think it's well done and mature! Is that weird???

    It's happened to me many times that I DISLIKE watching a movie because I think maybe it's overacted. Then I watch it several more times (thanks to sister usually), and it grows on me such that I think it's WELL acted but badly edited. ("It's the editor's fault!"). It's still kind of a strange phenomenon. Conclusion: I love Angels in the Outfield.