It Happens Every Spring that chemistry professor, Vernon K. Simpson becomes distracted. He’s been working on a formula to repel wood for some time and can barely get through his lessons each day because his mind wanders back to his experiment. Out of the blue one day, as I suppose such things happen, Simpson’s experiment pays off when he saturates a baseball with his concoction, making the ball unhittable with a wooden bat.
Realizing the possibilities of an unhittable ball, Vernon Simpson takes an immediate leave of absence from his professor duties to try out his experiment in the big leagues. Before long Simpson becomes a pitching sensation for the St. Louis team where he’s known as King Kelly, a name he chooses in order to hide his real identity. After all, he’s supposed to be working on his experiment in a lab somewhere. Instead, spending his time on a pitching mound, Kelly is unlike any other pitcher, striking out every batter he faces with pitches that swing and swerve just like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Spoiler alert – although we all know how this story will end – the story as depicted in Lloyd Bacon’s It Happens Every Spring, by the way in case you’re unaware.
So, it turns out that King Kelly’s pitching talent gets St. Louis to the playoffs. Or rather, the potion he uses to smear the baseball lasts all season. It’s during the crucial, deciding game of the season as St. Louis battles it out against a big, bad team from New York that he realizes he has to go without the potion. I won’t say whether the series is a win or a loss for St. Louis, but King Kelly and his pitching career are no more as of that deciding game. And it all turns out for the best. Vernon never had aspirations for sports notoriety and by the end of a season in the majors he’s ready to return to his normal life with his normal girl.
There are a few interesting tidbits with regard to Major League Baseball (MLB) and its connection to It Happens Every Spring. To start, its noticeable while watching the movie that there are no team names or recognizable stadiums. As explained during Ben Mankiewicz’ introduction of the movie on TCM recently, the commissioner of Major League Baseball at the time – somewhat ironically named Happy Chandler – refused to sanction the movie because he felt strongly the movie’s message encouraged cheating, which is a hoot for a sport with a history of trying to glaze over scandals. 1919 ring a bell? Also as a result of MLB’s reaction there are no cameos by real baseball stars, which would have been a nice added attraction. Despite all of that, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox loved the script by Shirley W. Smith and Valentine Davies and went ahead with the picture anyway. The script would later receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story.
Something else worth mentioning is the fact that baseball had been integrated for only two years by the time Every Spring was released – needless to say, a blotch for all sports until that time. Although, it should be noted that by all accounts Happy Chandler supported integration in the midst of several owners being vocal against it. To his credit, Chandler threatened any and all teams with some type of sanctions should they act in a biased manner against Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in baseball when his contract was approved. Go Happy! Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox didn’t take the opportunity to make even a slight statement in It Happens Every Spring in support of integration even two years after the fact as there is not one African-American player/actor in the movie.
Oh – OK – one last thing because I was curious about it – with regards to locations used in the film, specifically whether any actual stadiums were used. I found only two mentions of this. One is a brief, external shot of Yankee Stadium with the sign changed to read “St. Louis Stadium.” The other is stock footage of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Otherwise shots of local, smaller stadiums were used as well as the footage filmed at the 20th Century lot.
It Happens Every Spring is a new-to-me movie, one I watched for the purpose of this post and I enjoyed it. It doesn’t tug at the heartstrings like so many other sports movies, it doesn’t have the requisite sit-at-the-edge-of-your-seat sports moment, nor is it particularly funny for a comedy. But it does have a lot of charm for a far-fetched, lightweight story because it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. As Leonard Maltin noted about it, it’s unpretentious. I almost want to say the movie’s cast outshines its story although it’s not the best in the repertoire of any in the impressive lot. As the unlikely star pitcher, King Kelly/Vernon Simpson is the debonaire Ray Milland, the always enjoyable Paul Douglas plays Monk Lanigan, catcher for the St. Louis team and Kelly’s roommate. Jean Peters plays Debbie, Vernon’s intended, Ed Begley plays the owner of the St. Louis team, Jessie Royce Landis plays Debbie’s mother and Vernon’s future mother-in-law and a very young Alan Hale, Jr. appears in a smaller part as one of Professor Simpson’s students. All of these and several other supporting players in the movie are worth your time in anything. But perhaps the best reason to watch It Happens Every Spring is that it has a bit of what seems to be missing in baseball these days – magic.
This post is part of the Big League Blogathon, a celebration of baseball in film hosted by Forgotten Films. Be sure to visit the host site to read about baseball in film, what happens every spring.