There is a stat that I find somehow totally unexpected, even though I'd have guessed it right if you asked me beforehand: the highest-grossing baseball movie in history is A League of Their Own, the story of the first season of the short-lived All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded during World War II as a way of keeping the great American pastime alive when able-bodied men were meant to be overseas killing Germans. That's without adjusting for inflation - adjusted, it's the highest-grossing baseball movie by more than half. And on top of being only the second movie ever directed by a woman to pass $100 million at the U.S. box office (it shares director Penny Marshall with the first, Big), this tells us something startling and important: oh my god, you guys, women like to see movies. And that may very well have been a talking point back in 1992, I don't recall; I was too young to pay attention to hand-wringing editorials in the entertainment media. But it's something to think about the next time that a comedy with a female lead makes enough money for it to become a full-on news story with pundits acting like this is the most astonishing conceivable development in the history of commercial cinema. And never fear, there will be a next time.

But anyways: women like movies, men like movies, most people of all builds and identities like movies. And the sublime genius of A League of Their own was in figuring out how to service all of them. This is not, entirely, a good thing. The film is sweet-natured and fun and likable, but there's something kind of chilly and precise about it. Marshall is a better filmmaker than her brother Garry (I honestly don't know if that counts as a controversial opinion), but his career-long study in finding ways to burnish off anything genuinely personalising about his television shows and movies, giving the audience exactly what they think they want by copying what they've already liked, certainly seems to have rubbed off on her a little bit, more here than in Big. Underneath the sweetness, there's a lot of calculation at every level, from the script to the casting to the ba-da-dum execution of many of the gags. If it is a film that can appeal to everybody - and it certainly does, assuming we excuse from "everybody" the people who are inherently opposed to ever enjoying a commercial Hollywood film - it's hard to shake the feeling that it doesn't come by that organically.

Rather, it feels like something created in a lab: strong female protagonist for the women, no nonsense sharp-tongued catcher Dottie Hinson; an acerbic, irreverent co-lead for the men, drunken team manger Jimmy Dugan; and those two played by Geena Davis at the height of her popularity and Tom Hanks in the early stages of his.* It's a somewhat accurate version of history for people who want movies to be informative as well as entertaining, and an easily-digestible comedy for people who just want the entertainment. Hell, it even has some relatively thoughtful photography and period design elements for people who care about cinema as an art form and want even fluffy, audience-pleasing comedies to be made with careful, deliberate craftsmanship.

Which is as much to say: it's a deliberately machine-tooled movie driven by its marketing angles, from an era when such things were especially in vogue - the 1980s were the childhood and adolescence of the high concept, but the 1990s were when high concept filmmaking really became an art form - but at least as importantly, it's a largely successful one. Sure, a huge amount of work was done simply by casting Davis, and especially Hanks (this was one of the very last films he made as a full-on comic actor, and he wonderfully showcases the full range of tricks he'd honed over a decade of being a charming goofball). But it's easy to imagine worse versions of A League of Their Own than this one, and very hard to imagine a better one.

Marshall's sense of characterisation and comic timing were trained by her time on the popular, slightly dreadful sitcom Laverne & Shirley in the '70s and '80s (which was co-created not only by brother Garry, but by Lowell Ganz, co-writer of this very movie with Babaloo Mandel, as well), and this certainly shows, particularly in the broad-strokes treatment of virtually the entire cast, who are all stock types (Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna, the most heavily featured of the side characters, are also unfortunately the most grating of the stereotypes, playing "abrasive New Yorker" and "abrasive, sexually active New Yorker", respectively). But she had picked up, somewhere along the way, a kind of world-weary sarcastic sensibility. This shows too, and it's responsible for A League of Their Own having a sardonic bite that you might not notice at a first glance: underneath the cheery airbrushed feminism, a mordant irritation at the dimwits running the world that feminism had to act against in the first place; underneath the charm and charisma of its cast, a willingness to let the two leads offer up some nasty, cutting angles where you wouldn't expect it. And again this is more pronounced in Hanks's case, simply because his role offers more places where surprisingly sharp cruelty is sitting right underneath the screenplay. Still, there are plenty of films on this model that wouldn't let a likable movie star playing a sympathetic character to go there, and there are even more films where Davis would have to scale back on the peremptory, smarter-than-everybody vibe she gives off almost constantly.

The feeling this lends to the film is absolutely necessary. Without it, the possibility of an A League of Their Own that flirts with pied-eyed admiration of history and its characters raises its head in the ugliest way. With it, A League of Their Own gets to be a snappy depiction of living characters, not fuzzy-minded concepts about what Mom or Grandma was like when she was young. It's not flawless in this respect: the end is a tone so brightly au courant that it never entirely feels like an authentic depiction of the 1940s, in language or attitude or sense of humor. But better a bit of anachronism than smiling wax mannequins laboriously enacting a tale of That Thing That Happened That One Time.

It's tremendously engaging human story as a result, breezy and sly enough to skip unimpeded through a seemingly unjustified 128-minute running time in which almost all of the most interesting material on a plot and character level takes place in the second half. Or through its lack of any real overarching narrative - the final quarter of the movie feels around the possibility of making it retroactively about Dottie's overbearing relationship with her sister, Kit Keller (Lori Petty), or about Dottie's terror at the thought of losing her husband to the war. The foundation isn't exactly there for either of those things (for a film whose inciting events are intimately tied to the fact of WWII, it's peculiarly disinterested in thinking about what home life during wartime actually consists of), and the film feels a lot more shapeless than that, just a series of snapshots of the life of an all-woman baseball team across one season. Which is all it needs to be: the cast is full of nice little performances of uncomplicated but appealing characters, the quips fly freely ("There's no crying in baseball!" is the film's money quote, but it's not the best line, nor even the best line Hanks delivers), and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček uses just enough subdued, melancholic colors to remind us that we're looking at living history, and to spare a minute sense of dignity and gravity to the proceedings. It is not Great Cinema, but it's really freaking good entertainment, smart without being brainy and nice without being saccharine. Commercial filmmaking all the way, but the 1990s were a period in which commercial filmmaking was obliged to try a little harder than in the decade preceding or following, and pleasurable, socially-minded trifles like this one were among the very best beneficiaries of that.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1992
-Sharon Stone's murderous vagina drives Basic Instinct into the year's box office top 10
-Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs kicks the nascent U.S. independent scene into overdrive, inaugurating the most important decade in indie film history
-After more than a decade in director jail, Robert Altman re-enters Hollywood's good graces by mercilessly satirising it in The Player

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1992)
-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang makes his feature debut, Rebels of the Neon God
-Jean-Claude Lauzon makes the nasty-minded Quebecois coming-of-age comedy Léolo
-Irish director Neil Jordan makes The Crying Game in the UK, causes everyone to care more about a mid-film twist than the actual content of the script