League of Their Own, A: Penny Marshall Directs Tom Hanks and Gena Davis

The idea of Penny Marshall’s new winning comedy, A League of Their Own, is so good that you wonder why no one has thought about it before.

In 1943, professional baseball suffered depletion, as many players became soldiers. While all leagues were affected by the War effort, the minor leagues really suffered; many actually closed down. But a group of women in the Midwest created something unusual, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Marshall’s aptly titled movie provides a comic look at the amazing women who left their homes to become part of the league the Rockford Peaches.

Though based on actual events, the film fictionalizes its characters and incidents. The story begins in rural Oregon, where Capadino (played by droll comedian Jon Lovitz), a scout for the new league, recruits the gifted softball player Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), a married woman whose husband is off to war, and Kit Keller (Lori Petty), her younger, not very able but very jealous, sister.

The comedy vividly captures the obstacles faced by the women: cynical skepticism of the large public, biases of league owners, prejudices of coaches. Seen from the mainstream, i.e. white male, perspective, these women had talents they were not supposed to have and, what’s more, they had the “nerve” to use them. But against great odds, the female leagues endured for over a decade, even achieved some success.

The film is based on similar narrative logic of service comedies and action pictures, detailing the women’s recruitment, training, adventures, success and failure. In the hands of commercial writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (Splash, Parenthood), the material’s treatment is often too farcical–the script goes after the one-liners and easy laughs.

The main story line is interspersed with anecdotes from the women’s personal lives, which, for the most part, are only intermittently funny. At the center, is the sibling rivalry between Geena Davis and Lori Petty, who end up becoming professional competitors. Unfortunately, the comedy is not always successful in mixing the women’s professional adventures and personal tribulations.

Most of the film is one long flashback, framed between a weak beginning and even poorer ending. In her excessively sentimental coda, which pays tribute to the real women of the league, and was shot at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Marshall can’t resist accentuating the schmaltzy aspects of the story.

Marshall loves actor and acting, perhaps because she began her career as a performer. She elicited excellent performances from Tom Hanks in Big, and from Robin William and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings. In this movie too, she shows good work with her actors. In the lead role–and film’s emotional center–Geena Davis gives a tour-de-force performance, holding together almost single-handedly the often-disjointed film.

The earlier scenes of Tom Hanks, cast as Jimmy Dugan, the alcoholic down-on-his-luck manager, are routine and too broad; he badly overacts. But Hanks’ work improves as the film progresses, and he has two really good scenes with Davis.

Of the large talented cast of women, Rosie O’Donnell stands out as the tough and brassy Doris Murphy. Madonna, however, is typecast again; here as “All the Way mae.” There is also good work in supporting roles by David Strathairn as Ira Lowenstein, the league’s promotion man, and Gary Marshall (Penny’s brother) as candy bar magnate Walter Harvey, the league’s owner and originator.

It’s too bad that the comedy is too broad and story too sentimental, two liabilities that work against the picture’s overall impact. Columbia Pictures major release this summer, the studio might have been under pressure to broaden the movie’s appeal so that it could compete with the other summer comedies, like Whoopi Goldberg’s formulaic Sister Act, which probes to be bonanza at the box office.

Still, A League of Their Own is a charming and original comedy that occasionally bursts with genuine energy and vitality. And it celebrates values that are not often seen in American movies–female camaraderie and achievement in traditionally male-dominated enterprises. Indeed, the film is timely and relevant: With all the talk of the progress women have made, they are still immensely underrepresented in sports.