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An overlooked charmer of a comedy, 20th-Century-Fox's It Happens Every Spring (1949) opens with a mock-sappy duet of the title song played over credits and a series of well-executed cartoony drawings of animals frolicking amorously in the springtime (boy sheep chases girl sheep, boy bunny chases girl bunny, etc.). The movie proper opens on a college campus accompanied by sprightly, silly music and a printed quote by Albert Einstein! This winking juxtaposition is a clear indication that the viewer is in for something different. For the record, the Einstein quote is as follows: "The results of scientific research very often force a change in the philosophical view of problems which extend far beyond the restricted domain of science itself."
The man conducting scientific research in this case is Prof. Vernon K. Simpson (Ray Milland), a chemistry professor at a Midwestern college. Serious and energetic, Simpson knows that he must finish his doctorate and earn more money so that he can marry Debbie Greenleaf (the beautiful Jean Peters), a senior at the school who also happens to be the daughter of the college president, Prof. Alfred Greenleaf (Ray Collins). Prof. Simpson is somewhat older than Debbie he has been delayed in his studies by war service and by a string of "bad luck" but he is on the verge of discovering an important new compound a "biophobic" that will keep insects away from wood. A contract with a biochemical company will be financially rewarding enough that he could ask for Debbie's hand in marriage. The many months of his carefully crafted experiments are literally shattered, though, when a baseball slams through the window into his elaborate setup of beakers and Bunsen burners. A hodgepodge of mystery components collect in the lab sink, and when Simpson retrieves the soaked baseball, he discovers that it is repelled by wooden objects! He conducts a practical experiment on the school's diamond with jock students Schmidt (Alan Hale, Jr.) and Isabell (Bill Murphy) and discovers that, indeed, a dab of the solution hidden in his glove turns him into an unhitable big league pitcher! Simpson takes a leave of absence, travels to the training camp of the St. Louis ball club and convinces team owner Edgar Stone (Ed Begley) and manager Jimmy Dolan (Ted de Corsia) that he can win the Pennant for them. Under the name "Kelly" Simpson becomes their star rookie, but Stone and Dolan assign catcher Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas) to keep his eye on the new pitching phenomenon.
It Happens Every Spring is a one-note trick film, to be sure, but the trick is a very good one, and the playing by the leads is winning and the situations feel genuine and are varied enough to maintain one's interest throughout. Several convincing, human details also make for a believable show. For example, when rookie Simpson is put into his first real game, a wild pitch lets the opposing team score a run. His nervousness continues as he throws several balls before he finally finds the plate. The always-interesting Ray Milland plays the baseball-loving professor as an earnest, determined character rather than a cartoon or an absent-minded clich. Told he is thought of as a "screwball" by the ball club's front office, he insists that he is "quite the opposite everything I do is perfectly logical."
The laughs then proceed in a similarly natural fashion; catcher Monk is obviously rooting for the rookie he has been assigned to room with, and he has many of the best lines as he affectionately looks out for the new pitcher against opposing teams and the press. Monk also has his own run-ins with the solution; told by Simpson that the stuff is hair tonic, Monk uses it on his head and watches his hair dance a jig on its own to avoid a wooden brush!
The critic for Time magazine felt that the premise of the film was slight, although the movie ultimately worked for him: "Making baseball history is a cinch with the help of a moist pad concealed in the hollow of his pitcher's mitt. Every time his wood-repellent ball comes steaming across the plate, it takes a neat little hop over the advancing bat. ...With remarkable skill, this single-cylinder fantasy has somehow been kept in motion by director Lloyd Bacon (Mother Is a Freshman, 1949) and writer Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947), who apparently have a gift for making a fairly funny movie out of a downright silly idea. Even so, without the sly comedy sense of veteran Milland and the pug-faced antics of Paul Douglas, Every Spring could easily have struck out in the second reel."
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times likewise finds the setup for the film to be one-note in nature, writing that "like a pitcher who has but one fast ball or one curve in his pitching repertoire, It Happens Every Spring... has but one cute idea. ...Somehow or other, [screenwriter Valentine] 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. As a matter of fact, if anybody could make such a catcher bearable, that somebody is Paul Douglas and, fortunately, he plays the role. Mr. Douglas, who will long be remembered as the lummox in A Letter to Three Wives , is delightfully droll for a short while, playing dubious, baffled and dumb. But finally the very dullness and monotony of the script puts even him in a bad light."
Critics aside, It Happens Every Spring performed fairly well at the box-office. The Variety year-end wrap issue of January 4, 1950 published a list of the top-grossing films of 1949. Of the 92 films that promised to gross $1,500,000 or more in domestic (including Canadian) film rentals, It Happens Every Spring ranked at number 58, with an estimated gross of $1,800,000. (For comparison's sake, the number 57 film on the list was White Heat, now one of the most highly regarded pictures from that year).
A little over a decade after It Happens Every Spring was released, Walt Disney Productions got into the habit of turning out shrill fantasy comedies with a sports angle, such as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961 basketball), Son of Flubber (1963 - football), and The Love Bug (1968 auto racing), but the slapstick in these films was broad and characters like Fred MacMurray's Prof. Brainard were gratingly absent-minded. Disney would have done better to try and emulate the more naturalistic charms of Prof. Simpson and his "baseball with a hop."
Producer: William Perlberg
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Valentine Davies (screenplay and story); Shirley W. Smith (story)
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: Bruce Pierce, Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Ray Milland (Prof. Vernon K. Simpson), Jean Peters (Deborah Greenleaf), Paul Douglas (Monk Lanigan), Ed Begley (Edgar Stone), Ted de Corsia (manager Jimmy Dolan), Ray Collins (Prof. Alfred Greenleaf), Jessie Royce Landis (Mrs. Greenleaf), Alan Hale, Jr. (Schmidt), Bill Murphy (Tommy Isabell)
By John M. Miller