THERE'S nothing Hollywood likes more than a "little-known slice of American history," as it's known in the trade. Point an enterprising filmmaker in the direction of some offbeat event that hasn't been "put into development" before, and the result could be - several million dollars later - a potential blockbuster at your neighborhood multiplex.
Considering that American culture has generally been ruled by men, it isn't surprising that the littlest-known slices of history are often those that center on women. It's gratifying when male-dominated Hollywood chooses to explore one of these. It's even better when a woman gets to sit in the director's chair - and, in the case of Penny Marshall's new picture, the executive producer's chair as well.
"A League of Their Own" is a sparkling example of women directing, starring in, and dominating the action of a major motion picture - and doing all this with an energy, professionalism, and pizazz that the Old Boys Moviemaking Club couldn't easily top. It's not a deep-thinking film, and I wish it probed more thoroughly into the feminist issues it raises, instead of finessing them in a goopy finale. But much of it is first-class summertime fare, generating plenty of humor while examining a slice of Americ ana that's as revealing as it is entertaining.
The events that inspired the movie commenced in 1943, when serious-minded Americans had two towering concerns on their minds: winning the war against fascism, and accomplishing this without sending all the baseball players overseas.
Alas, the second goal seemed more difficult than the first. Shortages of men caused a number of minor leagues to fold, and the majors appeared to be next. Into this breach stepped a few rich and powerful baseball fans, with a rich and powerful new idea: an all-female league that would do for sports what women were already doing for plants, factories, and other workplaces deprived of males by the war effort.
"A League of Their Own" begins on an Oregon farm where two young baseball buffs, the Hinson sisters, are recruited by a fast-talking scout who spotted their talents on the local softball circuit. Soon they're members of the Rockford Peaches, one of the brand-new teams being fielded by the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Like most of their teammates, they've never taken baseball too seriously, and they can hardly believe that fans would buy tickets to see them play. They're also surprised by the league's methods for making sure those fans show up. Players are chosen for looks as well as skill; team "uniforms" are dresses with perilously short skirts; promotional stunts have little connection with athletic ability. "Catch a foul and get a kiss!" reads a billboard on the ballfield, bringing the great American pastime to ne w heights of male-chauvinist piggery.
"A League of Their Own" is in a league of its own when it focuses on the Peaches as they pioneer new athletic territory. The dialogue is peppered with mischievous humor, and at times a ringing feminist message rises above the din of the stadium, reminding us that the Peaches are always at the mercy of male power brokers. Like their "Rosie the Riveter" counterparts in wartime factories, they're applauded for their efforts at the moment, but expected to fade gracefully into the kitchen when the war ends an d Johnny comes marching home.
Other elements of the picture are less engaging. The screenplay - written by two men, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel - is stronger on momentary incidents than sustained plot development. It also relies too often on cheap vulgarities, including a string of ugly-girl jokes that taints the movie with sexism of its own. Making most of the male characters unappealing (the manager is a drunk, the scout is a boor, the owner is a miser) isn't enough to cancel this. Nor is the sappy conclusion, which drags out th e story with a needless cloudburst of overstated emotion.
Back on the bright side, the performances range from solid base hits to triumphant home runs, orchestrated by director Marshall into a smoothly functioning ensemble.
Standouts include Geena Davis and Lori Petty as the Hinson sisters, Tom Hanks as their dissolute manager, and Madonna - in her most tempered and assured screen performance to date - as a flirtatious teammate. Praiseworthy in smaller roles are Jon Lovitz as the sharp-tongued scout, Megan Cavanagh as a loud-mouthed power hitter, and the inimitable Garry Marshall as the league's money-minded owner. The smart-looking cinematography is by Miroslav Ondricek, and George Bowers did the snappy editing.
"A League of Their Own" would be closer to a grand slam if emotionalism didn't even eventually run away with it. But even the movie's ninth-inning weepiness may help its prospects at the box office, where - at a reported cost of nearly $50 million, causing many jitters in Hollywood circles - it needs all the summertime spectators it can get, including moviegoers who like shedding a sentimental tear as the lights go up.
Part history, part comedy, and part soap opera, "A League of Their Own" casts a pretty wide net. For the most part, it's a net that's good fun to get caught in.