Tuesday, June 10, 2014

'It Happens Every Spring' Was One of Best Sports Flicks

Manager (Ted de Corsia): Kelly's not indispensable.

Monk (Paul Douglas): I know, but the team can't get along without him.

Early in "It Happens Every Spring," which premiered 65 years ago today, some folks at the college where Ray Milland's character was a teacher were talking. The subject was Milland's potential as a chemistry professor. It was observed that he was a top–notch instructor during the fall semester, but he was iffy in the spring. That was when he was "absent–minded."

"It happens every spring." That's what the head of the chemistry department told the school president (Ray Collins).

Based on the context of the story and its title — and the trailers most movie audiences probably saw before they saw the movie — it probably was assumed to be baseball. And, to be sure, the movie was about baseball.

It was also about Milland's classroom work — but mostly as it related to baseball.

See, Milland was working in his chemistry lab when he stumbled onto a formula that would make an object (for example, a baseball) go over, under or around an object made of wood. He confirmed this astonishing property in an early morning tryout with a couple of student–athletes, one of whom was played by Alan Hale Jr., 15 years before he became Skipper on Gilligan's Island.

(When I first saw this movie, I could have sworn it was inspired by Walt Disney's "Flubber," but "Flubber" didn't come along until nearly 50 years after "It Happens Every Spring" was in the theaters.

(And the movie upon which "Flubber" was based — "The Absent–Minded Professor" — came out more than a decade after "It Happens Every Spring.")

Anyway, armed with this formula, Milland's character won a spot on a ballclub that was looking for a pitcher and became a sensation, striking out every batter he faced. (The scene where he pitched to the batters on the team and impressed management enough to offer him the spot on the club was reminiscent of the scene in 1984's "The Natural," when Roy Hobbs drilled every pitch that was thrown to him into the stands.)

It really isn't as predictable as it sounds. In fact, I found it to be very creative and entertaining. The script was quite clever. At one point, Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas) mistook Milland's formula for hair tonic. He ran some through his hair and then tried to comb it with a wood comb — unsuccessfully, of course.

As entertaining as the rest of the movie was, I think it saved the best for last — when the team was facing its greatest challenge of the season in the deciding game of the World Series, and Milland's character was out of his formula. Consequently, he had to do — on his own — what his formula had done for him all season. Did he succeed?

I won't tell you that! There are some things people need to discover for themselves.

All I will tell you is that "It Happens Every Spring" — in its understated way — is one of the best sports movies ever made.

And, in her own way, actress Jean Peters helped make it what it was. Peters played one of Milland's students — his fiancee, actually (I guess schools were more liberal about such relationships 65 years ago) — and she gave a strong performance in support of Shirley Smith's and Valentine Davies' story — which was nominated for an Oscar, by the way.

They didn't win, but at least they were nominated — which is more than anyone else involved in the production could say. They lost to Douglas Morrow ("The Stratton Story").

That's a shame. "The Stratton Story" was good, but it was also mostly true. True stories write themselves.

"It Happens Every Spring" required the kind of creativity that should be rewarded.