Monday, May 27, 2013

'It Happens Every Spring'


Of the four baseball movies I’ve reviewed, “It Happens Every Spring” is the one I had seen previously and, after another viewing, remains the best of the bunch.

There’s something comforting about watching a formula at work. This time it’s a semi-absent-minded professor helping a St. Louis team during the pennant race. Ray Milland plays Vernon Simpson, a college chemistry professor who is admired and respected, except when baseball season begins. Then he becomes distracted and obsessive about the national past-time, even to the point of turning on the radio during a class to listen to a game.

He’s in love with one of his students, Deborah Greenleaf (Jean Peters), and her father happens to be the college’s president (Ray Collins), who sees Vernon as a good catch for his daughter. (Frankly, this is unintentionally amusing as such antics today would probably get the professor fired.)


Vernon has been working on a formula for a company that wants a product that would keep insects away from wood. Unfortunately, an errant baseball from a nearby diamond crashes through the laboratory window, smashing the equipment. A distraught Vernon now believes his research chances are ruined, as well as his opportunity to marry Deborah.

However, a tray in a nearby sink catches some of the fluid from his experiment, as well as the baseball. When Vernon removes the baseball from the tray, it rolls across the counter and jumps away from anything made of wood. A shocked Vernon asks for – and is granted -- immediate leave from the college, with the excuse he’s taking a research opportunity at a nearby lab. Instead, he joins the St. Louis baseball team, in dire need of a pitcher. This allows him to test out this substance and fulfill his desire to play ball. Wanting to avoid scrutiny, he calls himself King Kelly and becomes a pitching sensation.


 
Once again there are few surprises, but there are few detours as well. Valentine Davies (“Miracle on 34th Street”) received an Oscar nomination for his straightforward story (co-written by Shirley Smith) that keeps the proceedings light and fun. Dependable veteran director Lloyd Bacon keeps everything moving briskly along, while Milland is his charming self. He was such an effective light comedian that when I see him in something more serious or as a villain, it reminds me of his great and perhaps overlooked versatility.

Interestingly enough, Milland and co-star Paul Douglas each starred in other baseball movies that I reviewed. Douglas was enjoying his major breakthrough in 1949, his first year in movies, and here he’s the lovable catcher who defends the mysteriously odd King Kelly. Peters is lovely in one of her early films, and the self-described tomboy seems most comfortable when she’s on the floor looking at newspaper photos of King Kelly to determine if it’s Vernon.

Check out “It Happens Every Spring.” In fact, check out all of the baseball movies I have reviewed so far. They will get you in the mood to cheer for your favorite team (unless you cheer for the Cubs, who once again are already a lost cause). Later this summer I will return with more baseball films, but next up is some love for Ginger Rogers.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

'The Kid From Left Field'


Fictional baseball movies appear to share the same premise: some catalyst turns a hard-luck team in last place into a lovable underdog that makes its way to the pennant race.

“Angels in the Outfield” featured divine intervention, a reformed foul-mouthed manager and a rejuvenated Pittsburgh Pirates. In “Rhubarb,” the fictitious Brooklyn Loons find luck in their new owner, a cat.

In 1953’s “The Kid From Left Field,” it’s a former ballplayer and his son jump-starting the Bisons. If the first two films are comedies, “Left Field” is touching, a heartfelt father-and-son story. The two share a love of the game that ultimately brings them closer together.  

Dan Dailey plays Larry Cooper, a former ballplayer who sells peanuts at Whacker Stadium, home of the Bisons. They are a losing team that sets records for low attendance, and team owner Fred Whacker (Ray Collins) says their new slogan should be “You can lose them all.” This means single father Larry struggles to make ends meet for himself and his son, Christie (Billy Chapin). Christie idolizes his father and believes him to be a former baseball hero, unaware that his dad’s career was not a stellar one.

When Larry loses his job and goes on a bender, Christie manages to get his dad’s job back and then is hired to be one of the team’s batboys despite his small size. While father and son love baseball, Larry is soon telling Christie what is wrong with each of the Bison players, and Christie shares with infielder Pete Haines (Lloyd Bridges) how to get out of his hitting slump. Soon Pete is following Christie’s advice, and it doesn’t take long before other players are asking for the pint-size batboy’s guidance, which irks the team’s manager (Richard Egan), who tries to take all of the credit for the team’s turnaround.


“The Kid From Left Field” may not be great filmmaking, but the simplicity of the narrative works, as does the screenplay by Jack Sher. It’s a straightforward film, one that doesn’t force the emotional moments. Director Harmon Jones previously worked with Dailey on the Dizzy Dean baseball biography “The Pride of St. Louis” the year before. Harmon guides Dailey through a terrific, understated performance of a man who clearly loves his son but lacks self-confidence in his own abilities.

Appearing in one of her first films is Anne Bancroft playing Marian Foley, secretary to Fred Whacker and Pete Haines’ girlfriend. It’s amusing that the poster makes you think Dailey and Bancroft are an item when, in fact, I don’t believe they even share a scene together! She’s playing the usual “girl” role, but she is not the typical starlet and therefore Marian is not the typical love interest, which is a very good thing. Although there’s not much to the role, Bancroft gives Marian intelligence; she’s more than just a pretty face, and a decade later moviegoers would know just how talented she was.

But Dailey and Bancroft take a backseat to Chapin. The youngster may not be a great actor (late in the film he faints and it’s an amateurish effort even by kids’ standards), but he’s earnest and likable, which is all that’s needed for him to carry the film. And the supporting cast – including Bridges, Collins and Egan – does fine work.

Sometimes simple is the best approach, and “The Kid From Left Field” wisely follows this path. Even with a fairly predictable plot, the film is surprisingly touching in its own quiet way.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

'Rhubarb'



Last week I wrote about angels in the outfield. This week it’s a cat in the owners box.

“Rhubarb” is another 1951 baseball film, a comedy about an eccentric millionaire who leaves his fortune – and ownership of a major league team – to his cat, Rhubarb. I had never seen this one, but I’m a sucker for films about smart animals with lovably cantankerous owners.

And that owner is Thaddeus J. Banner, played by the wonderful Gene Lockhart. Banner is fixated on a mangy yet feisty cat that steals golf balls at the local golf course. He must have him and orders Eric (Ray Milland), the PR man for his baseball team, the Brooklyn Loons, to catch him.

Eric eventually traps the wild animal, and Banner gives it a home and a name – Rhubarb. In addition to being a plant, “rhubarb” is slang for a baseball altercation (first used on-air by Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber in 1943). Banner and Rhubarb become best friends, a situation that does not sit well with Banner’s exercise-obsessed daughter, Myra (Elsie Holmes).



When Banner dies, he leaves much of his fortune to Rhubarb, who is left in the care of Eric. Myra is enraged and vows revenge. Meanwhile, Eric is trying to marry Polly (Jan Sterling), daughter of the baseball team’s manager, Len (William Frawley). Unfortunately, Polly discovers she’s allergic to cats.

Players for the struggling Loons are not happy with being owned by a cat. They threaten a boycott by feigning various maladies and conditions. But Eric slyly convinces them that Rhubarb will bring them luck. Soon the team is winning, and Rhubarb is the toast of Brooklyn, although all is not well with the scheming Myra, bookies who are loosing a fortune and Polly’s allergy.

The film is based upon a 1946 book by H. Allen Smith, which was so popular that Smith wrote two sequels. Orangey, the film’s feline star, is the only animal to win two Patsy Awards for this film, his cinematic debut, and for playing Cat in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” a decade later. Orangey also appeared as Minerva the Cat on the “Our Miss Brooks” TV show.



 Orangey may be the star, but the human actors are a solid ensemble. Milland is always a dependable player and a relaxed comedian, whether he’s trying to catch a cat or run a baseball team. Sterling is feisty and fun, and Lockhart is always a delight. Plus there’s a fun cameo at the end that should please classic movie lovers.

Director Arthur Lubin was known for light comedies, having directed a number of Abbott and Costello’s biggest comedy hits for Universal. He also did well with animals of all sorts, directing the Francis the Talking Mule series and developing “Mister Ed” for TV. Lubin’s most prestigious work was the 1943 remake of “Phantom of the Opera.”

“Rhubarb” offers no surprises. It’s breezy and fun and a great way to get into baseball spirit.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

'Angels in the Outfield'



The strangest feeling of nostalgia recently hit me like a line drive.

It was about baseball, a sport I don’t follow. As a kid, I went through the requisite baseball phase but because I was never any good playing it, I quickly lost interest. Sometimes my older siblings occasionally reeled me in with their enthusiasm for the game, and I remember playing Wiffle ball, baseball and even softball with them.


With the late arrival of spring just hitting the Chicago area, my thoughts inexplicably turned to baseball. As I fondly remembered a few childhood memories, I also thought about a few great baseball movies I had seen. I also discovered that I had not seen a slew of others.

So, over the summer, I’m going to play ball at Classicfilmboy, periodically mixing some fleeting memories with a review. This week, I’m inspired by the large front yard in which my siblings and I along with the neighbors would play ball. We lived next to the main road through town, and if one of my brothers managed to hit the ball over the road, it was a rare thing – and miraculous that the ball didn’t hit a passing car.

Just as miraculous are the angels seen by Guffy McGovern in “Angels in the Outfield,” a delightful 1951 comedy starring Paul Douglas as the manager of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. Guffy’s foul-mouthed tirades (imaginatively presented, due to the Production Code, by garbled, echoing sounds coming from his mouth) and temper-induced scuffles have won him few fans, especially sports announcer Fred Bayles (Keenan Wynn). When Guffy gets him fired, Fred vows vengeance by becoming an announcer for the rival Giants. 


One night alone on the field, Guffy is visited by an angel (voiced by James Whitmore), who tells Guffy if he cleans up his act, the team might start winning with the help of ball players who are now part of the heavenly squad. Guffy begins displaying restraint, and soon enough the team responds by showing signs of life.

Meanwhile, plucky Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), the local Household Hints editor, has been tracking Guffy and notices the change in his demeanor. Then Bridget (Donna Corcoran), a girl at a Catholic orphanage, claims to see angels in the outfield. Jennifer writes a story about Bridget, and Guffy seeks out Bridget, whose vision validates his own conversations with an angel.

Many of the game scenes were actually played at Forbes Field, home to the Pirates until 1970 when the team moved to Three Rivers Stadium. Two fires struck Forbes Field, and it was demolished in 1971. What may be lost today is the fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates had not finished first since 1927 and had been a sub-par team for years, without a winning season between 1948 and 1958. Pirates fans must have been praying for angels for years after this film was released.

One fun sequence in the movie involves interviews with notables after the Pirates begin winning. These include Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb and Bing Crosby, who was part-owner of the Pirates from 1946 until his death in the 1970s.

The story sags slightly toward the end, when a hearing is called to determine if Guffy is fit to lead the team. The central point comes down to whether angels exist, and it feels like a pale imitation of the debate regarding the existence of Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
  


Otherwise, the film works, in large part to a cast that is clearly having fun. Leigh is as delightful as ever, Corcoran (whose brother Kevin found fame at Disney) is the rare child actor who is charming without trying to be so, and Wynn is a nasty delight. Bruce Bennett, Spring Byington, Ellen Corby and Lewis Stone (not to mention Mrs. Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsley as a hat-check girl) round out the strong supporting cast.

However, it’s the affable Douglas who is the film’s MVP. Known for playing gruff and belligerent men, especially in his breakout role as Harry Brock in the original Broadway production of “Born Yesterday,” Douglas is the ideal actor to play Guffy. He’s completely believable as a sour baseball manager who loves his steaks more than his players, and he’s just as believable when he softens and begins to let down his defenses.

In 1959, Douglas was finishing up work on an episode of “The Twilight Zone” playing an umpire. The episode was written for Douglas by Rod Serling, who was inspired by his performance in “Angels in the Outfield.” Sadly, Douglas died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 52, and the episode was reshot with actor Jack Warden.

Disney remade the film in 1994, adjusting the story and moving it to Los Angeles. I remember it as pleasant but not quite up to the 1951 version, which was made for MGM and directed by Clarence Brown, known for his sensitive touch behind the camera. The original “Angels in the Outfield” is a charmer. It’s also a great way to kick off the baseball season.