It Happens Every Spring

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(4/10) A university professor invents a wood-repelling baseball and decides to become a star pitcher in order to get enough money to marry one of his students. Ray Milland stars in this predictable 1949 major studio comedy which offers more feelgood than belly laughs.

It Happens Every Spring. 1949, USA. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Written by Valentine Davies and Shirley Smith. Starring: Ray Milland, Jean Peters, Paul Douglas, Ed Begley, Ray Collins, Alan Hale Jr. Produced by William Perlberg. IMDB: 6.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 83/100. Metacritic: N/A. 

1949_it_happens_every_spring_001Professor Vernon Simpson is, as his future father-in-law says, “a great kid”, although played by 47-year-old Ray Milland. The beloved chemistry professor’s only problem is that said future father-in-law, his boss, Professor Greenleaf (Ray Collins) won’t let him marry his daughter Deborah (23-year-old Jean Peters) unless he somehow manages to become rich. Another problem is that it’s April, and, as one of his colleagues puts it, he is soon prone to have one of his kooky spells, because “it happens every spring”.

Of course, another thing that happens every spring is the beginning of the baseball season, and Vernon just so happens to be a huge ball fan. But right now, he’s got other things on his mind, as he is just about to complete a time-consuming experiment which he hopes will result in a coating solution for wood that will repel insects. If it works, he can sell the formula and ask for Deborah’s hand in marriage. But, alas! just at the crucial moment the kids in the yard throw a baseball through his window, shattering the beaker with his precious experimental fluid. However, when he picks up the ball from the mess in his sink, he realises that instead of creating insect-repelling wood, the accident has created a wood-repelling fluid. When he tries to hit the drenched ball with a stick, the ball nimbly jumps out of the way. A new idea starts brewing in Vernon’s brain …

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Ray Milland as the nutty professor and Jean Peters as his student/girlfriend.

Vernon realises that the goop in his sink — which is now naturally impossible to reproduce — is his golden calf. By rubbing it on a baseball he can be sure that no batter in the world will be able to hit when he is pitching. So he hides a rag beneath his pitcher’s glove and presents himself to the St. Louis baseball team as the world’s greatest pitcher, one that the team now desperately needs. The only problem is that he can’t let anybody at home know his secret, because his future father-in-law hates sports, so he falsifies his name to “King Kelly” (no relation to the actual baseball player King Kelly). After impressing the doubtful team brass, he emerges as a new baseball star, and forms a legendary tag team with the simple but kind-hearted catcher and roommate Monk Lanigan (the wonderful Paul Douglas). But as his team continues winning, “King Kelly’s” fame grows, and it becomes ever harder for him to stay out of the papers. And as the season progresses, his reserve of miracle goop grows ever thinner. At the same time, of course, he needs to be careful not to reveal even to his team mates that he is actually cheating the whole time. All of this, naturally, builds up to very predictable complications.

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Paul Douglas and Ray Milland.

It Happens Every Spring from 1949 is one of a a rather substantial number of films that mix sports and science fiction — many of them comedies. The combination isn’t surprising: Sports is all about being the strongest, the fastest, the most accurate or the most agile. It’s every sportsman’s dream to be able to use wacky science in order to obtain superpowers. Of course, today it would be called doping. I won’t be reviewing every one of these films, since on the whole they tend to fall more in the fantasy than in the SF category, and what little SF there is tends to be used as a gimmick MacGuffin more than anything else. However, It Happens Every Spring has a stellar reputation. It holds an impressive 83% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes and has a very decent 6.8/10 rating at IMDb. So I figured it worth a look-see.

The praise for the film was encouraging. Daniel Egan at Film Journal International gave it 4/5 stars, calling it “excellent”, while TV Guide gives it 3/4, naming it a “side-splitting comedy”. Samuel Stoddard at At-A-Glance Reviews awards it with 3.5/5 stars, calling it “one of those pleasant cinematic fantasies that leave behind a lingering taste of humor and good nature that movies from the forties so often do”. AllMovie has it at 3/5 stars, and critic Mike Cummings states that It Happens Every Spring is “one of the finest sports films ever made”. And as icing on the cake, the script was nominated for an Oscar.

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Jean Peters, Ray Milland and Paul Douglas.

The film certainly has a lot of things going for it. It was produced by William Perlberg for major studio Twentieth Century-Fox, and written by Valentine Davies, who had a year previously won an Oscar for his script for the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Including It Happens Every Spring, Davies was Oscar-nominated four times. Director was Lloyd Bacon, veteran of such musical classics as 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933). Plus, the movie has a great cast in Ray Milland, Paul Douglas, Ray Collins, Ed Begley and newcomer Jean Peters.

Still, for me It Happens Every Spring felt strangely underwhelming. It’s not a bad film as such. It’s, as Samuel Stoddard points out, “pleasant”. The production values are good and the direction is solid. The script isn’t awful and the story is amusing enough. It doesn’t chafe. But I fail to see how this can be counted as “one of the finest sports films ever made”. I’m no big fan of sports films, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a couple of dozen of those that are a lot better, more interesting, dramatically engaging, better written, acted and directed and a lot funnier than It Happens Every Spring. Exactly at what point the reviewer from TV Guide managed to split hir side remains a mystery to me. It seems all the critics extolling how funny the picture is cite the exact same two moments. The first one is when Monk tries to use the mystery goop as a hair lotion, with the effect that his hair becomes a brush repellent. It’s a fun gag, but it’s ten seconds in an 87 minute film, and the reason all critics pick this moment is that for a screwball comedy. It Happens Every Spring has precious little screw in the ball, other than on the baseball field. TV Guide writes: “The most uproarious scenes take place on the baseball fields, where Milland’s doctored ball sends players and fans into hysterics.” Again: It’s a fun gag, but after the first couple of times it starts wearing a little thin.

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Valentine Davies’ novelisation of his own script, and two alternative posters.

Now, unlike some harsher critics of the film, like Adam Kuhn at Corndog Chats, I don’t feel like the film is in poor taste because it’s setting up a cheat as the hero of the movie. We all love a scoundrel. No, the problem rather lies in the way that it goes about the whole business. It’s kind of never acknowledged that what Vernon is doing is somehow morally dubious, and just when it looks like we’re building up for the climax at the end of the movie, where Vernon runs out of goop and has to face the consequences of his actions, he is miraculously saved by a deus-ex-machina, thus robbing the audience of the catharsis. I don’t want to give too much away, but when the movie ends on a very happy note, I’m thinking: “What, wait? Is that it?”

How this film managed to get an Oscar nomination is beyond me, and either I’m missing something or Valentine Davies was nominated on the strength of his former merits. Granted, there were about a dozen awards for screenwriting back in 1949: Screenwriters were nominated for three different awards, Best Screenplay, Best Story and Screenplay and Best Motion Picture Story, and It Happens Every Spring was nominated in the final category.

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Ed Begley and Ted de Corsia of the team brass trying to kick Ray Milland out of their office.

And I’m not alone in being befuddled by the high praise heaped on this picture. Afore-mention Kuhn gives the movie 2/5 stars, writing: “With the premise as a weakness, there isn’t much else to stand on. Paul Douglas attempts to save the film as the kooky sidekick catcher Monk, but ultimately It Happens Every Spring is built on too thin of a plot, with too little in the way of romance between Vernon and Deborah, too little conflict built between Vernon and Mr. Greenleaf, and not enough of the unexpected from the baseball storyline to merit recommendation.” Richard Scheib at Moria also gives it 2/5, saying: “With no villain or any particular drama to the plot, it hardly goes anywhere and certainly takes too long to do so.” Sylvia Bagley at FilmFanatic writes: “Unfortunately, there’s very little to recommend about It Happens Every Spring unless you’re a baseball fan who takes great delight in seeing creatively rigged games. There is exactly one joke here (that darn baseball keeps swerving away from the bat!) extended a bit to include a running gag about clueless joes who use the serum as a hair tonic (and thus can’t put a wooden-handled brush to their head), but the entire scenario could easily have been distilled into a half-hour sitcom episode.” And while I usually poke a little fun at Andrew Wickliffe’s propensity for handing out zero-star reviews to everything that moves over at The Stop Button, this time I’m siding with his 1.5/5 star critique: “The writing is all right in spots–I particularly love how Douglas can get any piece of dialogue out and make it sound good–and it’s by Valentine Davies, who worked on The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which is great. Still, he couldn’t make this film move. It’s less than ninety minutes and it drags.”

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Ted de Corsia coaxing Ray MIlland onto the field.

So, all in all, this seems to be a movie that divides critics. It may be as simple as a matter of taste and preference. For me personally, the movie is way too predictable and has too little of either drama or comedy. And this isn’t simply a question of the movie’s vintage. The film was a moderate success at the box office, but The New York TimesBosley Crowther gave it a scathing review: “Somehow or other, Mr. Davies and the people at Twentieth Century-Fox, which produced this hopeful little picture, made a woeful mistake. They assumed that the ludicrous spectacle of a batter swinging wildly at a ball which trickily dodges his bludgeon is funny innumerable times. They also assumed that a dumb catcher who doesn’t comprehend the pitcher’s trick can keep on killing an audience just by acting dumb. […] Lloyd Bacon’s uninspired direction is as monotonous as the script. Once the audience gets onto the one snapper, it’s all over with this film.”

Still, it’s the same kind of feelgood movie as, say the afore-mentioned Miracle of 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where everyone is a kind heart beneath the sometimes cold exterior, where the audience isn’t really forced to consider any really cumbersome questions. It’s a movie where there’s nothing that can’t be solved by a guardian angel or a fortunate coincidence. I suppose your degree of liking the film depends on to which extent this sort of sentimentalism is enough to cover up the inadequacies of the script. It’s a heart-warming comedy.

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Jean Peters and Ray Milland behind the scenes.

As stated, the actors involved were top-notch. Ray Milland was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, especially known for noirs like The Uninvited (1944), Ministry of Fear (1944) and The Big Clock (1948). His crowning achievement came in the lead of Billy Wilder’s noir drama The Lost Weekend (1945), for which he won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Milland was especially good at playing the everyman getting caught up in fantastic situations, which is, of course, exactly what he does in It Happens Every Spring. Like the film, he is pleasant in the role without having much of a character to work with.

1949_it_happens_every_spring_003 ray milland 1962 X

Ray MIlland in the 1962 movie X.

Unlike a lot of the hot leading men of the forties and fifties, Ray Milland continued acting steadily well into the 1980s, and unlike people like Gregory Peck, Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart he didn’t shun genre work. His second science fiction film after It Happens Every Spring was one which he directed himself: Panic in Year Zero (1962), a stark post-apocalyptic drama about a family surviving the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. He appeared in the lead in Roger Corman’s surprisingly good X (1963), about a scientist who gives himself X-ray eyes, with disastrous results and the unsurprisingly bad low-budget films Frogs (1972) and The Thing with Two Heads (1972). In 1973 he had a large supporting role in the low-budget spy-fi movie The Big Game and in 1975 played one of the leads in Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain. He appeared in two TV movies, The Darker Side of Terror (1979) and Starflight: The Plane that Couldn’t Land (1983) and the Spanish cult film Hydra: Monster of the Deep (1985), which was Milland’s last theatrical feature. He also appeared in a number of horror movies, and worked regularly on different TV shows, and had guest spots in such SF series as The Name of the Game (1968–1971), Night Gallery (1969–1973) and not least Battlestar Galactica (1978–1979).

Jean Peters is perky in the female lead, but doesn’t get much to work with in this film, as the goody-two-shoes girlfriend of Vernon. 23 at the time, this was only her third feature, and without being age-insensitive, perhaps a tad young to be wooing her college professor, or conversely, Ray Milland at 47 was getting a bit old to be wooing college girls. Peters had a short, but successful acting career before she disappeared into the reclusive life of her husband, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in 1955.

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Alan Hale Jr. in The Giant Spider Invasion (1975).

All other actors involved were seasoned veterans, meny who had had or were going to have long careers in film, or on particular on TV. Much could be written about any of them, so let’s focus on those with some interest to the genre at hand. Quite a few of them appeared in a number of science fiction TV shows. But if we stick to feature films, the most interesting one is perhaps Alan Hale, Jr., whom US readers in particular will remember as Skipper in the TV show Gilligan’s Island. But Hale also appeared in two incredibly bad SF movies, the first being The Crawling Hand (1963), where he had a big supporting role as the town sheriff, and the second The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), in which he played … the town sheriff. And of course, he voiced Skipper in the animated series Gilligan’s Planet in the early eighties.

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Debra Paget in Fritz Lang’s 1959 film The Indian Tomb.

Worthy of mention is Debra Paget in a very small, early role. Paget, as the reader probably knows, later became a box office draw in romantic leads in films like Broken Arrow (1950) and opposite Elvis in Love Me Tender (1956). She also had the honour of playing the lead in one of Fritz Lang’s last films, the two-part remake of his own Oriental epic The Indian Tomb (1929), split up into two movies in Germany under the titles The Tiger from Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (both 1959), but edited down for a US release into a single movie called Journey to the Lost City (1960). More specifically of SF interest, Paget played the female lead in Byron Haskin’s Jules Verne adaptation From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and nuclear mutation movie Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961).

One of the extras in the background of It Happens Every Spring is Grandon Rhodes who had substantial supporting roles in Renenge of the Creature (1955) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). He also appeared in the background in Them! (1954) and The 27th Day (1957). Douglas Spencer, in another small role in It Happens Every Spring has some claim to science fiction fame. Spencer played second lead as the reporter in Howard Hawks’ legendary movie The Thing from Another World (1951), had a substantial supporting role in the mad scientist Cary Grant/Ginger Rogers screwball comedy Monkey Business (1952) and played The Monitor in This Island Earth (1955).

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Nancy Reagan, Lew Ayres and Gene Evans in Donovan’s Brain (1953).

In a small role as an extra there’s also a minor cult star in the genre of SF, namely Gene Evans. This was one of Evans’ early outings, but he soon became a noted character actor, racking up large supporting roles in westerns and even leading man roles in war films like Fixed Bayonets and The Steel Helmets (both 1951). The stocky, red-headed actor played second lead along with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan in the SF movie Donovan’s Brain (1953) and played lead in Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959). He had a small role in the 1989 low-budget film Split, and was also one of the leads in the 1974 cult horror movie Peopletoys.

This being a film from Twentieth Century-Fox, most of the principle crew are Academy Awards winners. For our purposes, though, one of the more interesting people is art director Lyle Wheeler. “The dean of Hollywood art directors” worked on over 350 films in his carers and won 5 Oscars. Wheeler was also art director for the classic SF movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Monkey Business, The Fly (158), The Return of the Fly (1959), The Alligator People (1959), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and Marooned (1960). The special effects of the movie are well crafted, using wirework, rear projection and animation. The special effects artist was Fred Sersen, twice Oscar awarded and credited with creating the best special effects department in Hollywood at Fox in the late thirties. Among other things, Sersen created the shot of the flying saucer landing in The Day the Earth Stood Still and many of the impressive effects shots on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

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Makeup artist Bill Nye helping David Hedison with his hairdo on The Fly (1958).

Makeup artist Ben Nye worked on numerous films and tv series during his career. He was principle makeup artist on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Monkey Business, The Fly, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), Our Man Flint (1966), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Way … Way Out (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). He worked alongside the great Dick Smith on The Alligator People and was one of the many makeup artists on Planet of the Apes (1968).  In 1967 Nye created the Ben Nye Makeup Company, which primarily served, and continues to serve, professionals on stage, in film and TV, but which also sells everyday makeup for normal use. The company sells everything from foundations to fake blood and liquid latex, and the CEO is currently Ben’s son Dana Nye.

Janne Wass

It Happens Every Spring. 1949, USA. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Written by Valentine Davies and Shirley Smith. Starring: Ray Milland, Jean Peters, Paul Douglas, Ed Begley, Ted de Corsia, Ray Collins, Jessie Joyce Landis, Alan Hale Jr., William Murphy. Music: Leigh Harline. Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald. Editing: Bruce Pierce. Art direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler. Costume design: Bonnie Cashin. Makeup artist: Ben Nye. Sound: Eugene Grossman & Harry Leonard. Special effects: Fred Sersen. Produced by William Perlberg & Darryl F. Zanuck for Twentieth Century-Fox. 

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