It Happens Every Spring (1949)

It_Happens_Every_Spring_VHSDoes this film glorify those who cheat and deceive taking advantage of others through the advances of modern science? Certainly not! Well, maybe a little but this is one of those ludicrous stories that never makes a pretense of being real life or a moral tale for that matter. It’s just a zany story that’s actually quite rewarding to be a part of.

At its core is a middling college researcher. He’s in love with a girl but not rich enough to offer her much of anything. What’s more intimidating is that her father is the dean of the school and Vernon’s tireless amount of research is getting him nowhere fast. Another seemingly trivial detail remains that every spring he gets obsessed with baseball and becomes distracted in his lectures, in his lab, and in life in general.

If you want to think about one of Disneys live-action classics, it’s easy to draw some similarities between this film and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). In the latter film, flubber is used for an advantage on the basketball court. Here it’s all about baseball.

Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) discovers the extraordinary characteristics of his new substance methylethylpropylbutyl quite by accident when he rolls a dampened baseball by a block of wood only to have the two repel. His eyes almost pop out of their sockets when it works time after time. The implications are simple. He can harness this discovery to make it in the MLB and S.T. Louis has aspirations for a pennant but needs pitching. This is his chance to realize his dreams.

The film admittedly doesn’t explain much about why Vernon is infatuated with baseball. Perhaps it was enough that most Americans still were taken with it since it was “The National Pastime.” Regardless, he hurriedly gets a leave of absence from work and provides a cryptic message to his girl not to worry about him.

His baseball career as chronicled by the film is a meteoric rise that totally revels in its completely ludicrous nature. He walks into the clubhouse talks with the manager (Ted De Corsia) and the teams head executive (Ed Begley) who doubt this adamant thick-headed nobody who brags he can win 30 games. Boy, does he shut them up and they’re glad he did.

Most everything is textbook as far as a film about a science researcher playing major league baseball and using a miracle substance to win ballgames can be. His girlfriend thinks he’s involved with the mob. He tries to keep his true identity a secret under the pseudonym King Kelly, and he begins to form a bond with his veteran bunkmate and backstop Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas). I’ve always been a fan of Paul Douglas as an actor because he plays his characters straight with a gruff yet palpable sincerity. It’s little different here. Milland though hardly an American bred on stickball nevertheless is a charmingly scatterbrained lead.

I didn’t realize it until now but I’m rather fond of science fiction baseball comedies. It breaks every rule of baseball. It’s absurd. There’s so much to call into question and yet I don’t want to. But just for the fun of it all, let’s look at a few obvious inaccuracies from It Happens Every Spring.

King Kelly would never get a win if he came into a game that his team was already winning and yet he asks for $1,000 in compensation for such an appearance. Furthermore, it looks like he’s committing a balk about everytime he winds up. And if he’s not then baserunners would be stealing on him all day because he never pitches from the stretch. He’d be an easy target.

Believe it or not, Kelly actually doctoring the baseball, secret formula aside, definitely is not all that ludicrous. Pitches such as the spitball and scuffball were famously used in the games early days. Pitchers like Burleigh Grimes, a personal favorite of mine, made a living off the pitch and though the spitball, in particular, was outlawed in 1920, pitchers like Grimes were grandfathered in. He continued throwing it until 1934.

Still, that didn’t completely deter later pitchers from using it like another Dodger great Preacher Roe and then Gaylord Perry in the modern era. As long as you didn’t get caught there was no recompense and the same can be said of Kelly. Again, we’re not glorifying cheating. Don’t get any ideas.

3.5/5 Stars

Niagara (1953)

800px-Marilyn_Monroe_NiagaraRainbows, the soft misting of waterfalls, and honeymooning couples going through the tunnel of love. It hardly feels threatening at all, but that’s what makes film-noir so delicious. As the film style most reflective of the human condition, it proves that the dark proclivities and jealousies of the human heart can crop of anywhere–even a gorgeous tourist trap like Niagara Falls.

Niagara’s frames are composed of grandiose and lush imagery, and the film is greatly aided by on location shooting which develops an even more engaging world for this technicolor noir to take place.

Joseph Cotten takes on a menacing role as the tortured husband, his most notable ominous turn since Shadow of a Doubt, however, a tad more sympathetic. Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe takes a turn as a seductive siren, the other half of this troubled couple spending a weekend at a Niagara Falls Cabin B.

She’s given plenty of screen time to strut her stuff and though early in her career, she would soon enough be catapulted to stardom forevermore with the likes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. As they often say, the rest was history and more so than that, she indeed made history.

If you look at her performance as Rose, while not her most enduring, it still catches the eye, due to the way she carries herself–even how she walks down a cobblestone road. You cannot help but be at least moderately mesmerized by her whole image.There was no one before or after, quite like her. She was a singular figure with no true equal.

Jean_Peters_mends_Joseph_Cotten's_hand_in_Niagara_trailer_1Without a question, Jean Peters becomes our favorite character as Polly, and it was an eye-opening for me personally to see her in a role so vastly different than Pickup on South Street. I had pigeon-holed her, rather erroneously as such a character, but Niagara shows a more tempered side to her persona that felt more representative of her as an actress. Max Showalter plays her husband, the genial and oblivious Ray Cutler, who takes his lovely wife on a long overdue honeymoon, only to have it totally ravaged thanks to the Loomises.

Henry Hathaway as per usual is a capable filmmaker, who utilizes his stars and location quite well. Charles Brackett builds this conflict between a vacationing husband and wife with his script, but it really is the visuals that elevate it to the heights of a surprisingly compelling noir. The scenes within the catacombs of the falls and at the very edge of the drop off are of particular note–both beautiful and raging in the same instance. The climactic moments between a lurking husband and his fleeing wife in the clock tower are also remarkably stylish, reflecting how a color film can still style drip with noir sentiment.

It’s a film checkered in shadows and bathed in darkness as much as it is rainbows. In some ways, that makes it all the more harrowing. Colors don’t necessarily make everything bright and cheery, they distract from what is really going on, and in this case, the falls prove to be more than an opportune locale for a honeymoon…and murder. 

3.5/5 Stars

A Man Called Peter (1955)

A_Man_Called_Peter.jpgThe film’s tagline reads, “Your heart will sing with joy” and that about sums up A Man Called Peter.

Henry Koster was the director behind such underrated gems as The Bishop’s Wife and Harvey, and although this film is starkly more realistic, it shares the same unabashed earnestness of its predecessors. Its tone is similarly reverent of its subject matter, the story of the man Peter Marshall (Richard Todd), but that’s hardly a point of derision because its sincerity feels well-founded.

The narrative cycles through his changing life and times from his childhood days as a rebellious boy in Scotland to the defining moment when he truly resolved to follow God’s plan in his life. Following his days in seminary, he goes on to two parishes in Covington and Atlanta, Georgia. One church flourishes from humble beginnings and the latter, while boasting a large congregation is weighed down by apathy and financial problems.

It is there where Peter Marshall’s impassioned sermons begin to breathe life into the dead bones in the pews, leading people from near and far to take heed of his words. Like any charismatic speaker like a Dr. King or even a John Knox, his words are rich and passionate. To use a film term, the sermons become stirring monologues from the pulpit delivered unbelievably convincingly by Richard Todd.

He talks emphatically about the rationality of the Gospel and the idea of relying on a certain amount of faith.  He elucidates the character of the real Christ of the Gospels with tremendous vigor. He muses on human love and what that means for him and others — most of the young ladies present listen with baited breath.

One such admirer and a longtime faithful parishioner is the young college gal Catherine Wood (Jean Peters), and it is no wonder she falls for him. However, initially, her love for him is not so much unrequited as it is unknown. That is until the day she comes to meet her hero face to face. Their love story is equal measures tearful and romantically splendorous as they come together, pursuing what they truly perceive to be God’s will.

And they lead a humble albeit happy life before Peter makes the biggest transition of his pastoral career, moving congregations to a historical relic of a church which formerly had presidents in attendance. Now it’s a building half full of old hypocrites and a handful of apathetic souls, but once more Reverend Marshall comes with a fervency in his sermons, while still exhibiting an underlying graciousness. For lack of a better word, he drops truth bombs. Some people aren’t ready to hear, but many are.

What follows is a radical religious revival throughout Washington D.C. His congregation becomes a young people’s church and a welcoming haven for governmental officials still kicking the tires of religious faith. But Peter Marshall welcomes all in and in turn has an exponential impact on not only his community but the very fabric of this nation. He becomes trusted counsel to Congressmen, plays ball with local children and helps set up a local canteen for outgoing soldiers.

By anyone’s standards, it seems like Peter and his faithful Catherine have done so much good. But as often happens, tragedy hits their humble family with a vengeance. Catherine is stricken with tuberculosis which keeps her bedridden for many months. But together they get through it and she recovers, only to have Peter be offered a position as the chaplain of the Senate. However, once more, bad things happen to good people and Peter suffers a coronary thrombosis. Only days later he’s dead and it truly feels that only the good die young.

It simply does not make sense, but if we look at Peter Marshall himself for guidance, he gives us a roadmap of how we can try and cope. Even when his wife is sick, he encourages her that God does not trade retribution with us. It’s not like all the weight of our past misdeeds are stacked up against us. Still, he cries out to his God with the illness of his wife like the psalmists of old. He doesn’t have to be content with suffering, and he’s not, but he’s also fearless in his own life. He lives with almost reckless abandon, because of a certain confidence in his faith.

For some, this religious biopic will be admittedly pious and slogging but there’s a surprising richness to Marshall’s story, embodied quite excellently by Richard Todd. Its colored frames are rich equally matched by Marshall’s own mellifluous brogue and personable humanity. Jean Peters subverts my expectations once again with heartfelt depth. It’s a film made in an age when shot lengths could linger, allowing us to ride the waves of a single performance or a bit of dialogue. But most astonishing of all, it’s quite easy to draw parallels to now, because as it happens, there’s nothing that new under the sun.

It should make us beg the question, what if pastors and their churches were living out these kinds of lives? Genuinely loving other people well and dramatically impacting the communities around them — in a sense breathing new life into tired and weary people. If Peter Marshall is any indication, there’s a possibility for dynamic change. Reverend Marshall passed away at the age of 46, but it’s easy to conclude that his was a life well-lived. If only we were all so lucky. Thankfully there’s still time.

3.5/5 Stars

Pickup on South Street (1953)

bf34b-pickuponsouthstreetFrom American cult film director Samuel Fuller comes a brief, yet potent film-noir laced with communism, pickpocketing, and a lot of shady business on the streets of New York.
Grifter Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is just recently out of the can, and he is back on the streets up to his old tricks again swiping wallets. His victim this time around is a pretty young dame named Candy (Jean Peters) who has a mission of her own to drop off a package. Neither of them knows quite what they have gotten into and to start off with, nothing happens. What exactly has Skip stumbled upon? The answer includes microfilm, spies, and the Commies. All of a sudden things are hot, as McCoy tries to cut a deal with the Reds, and Candy tries to recover the film she unknowingly lost. Candy gets caught in the middle of her boyfriend who is sided with Communists and Skip who wants to cash in on his good fortune. Between Skip and Candy begins a wild and passionate love affair that seems destined for disaster. Both have their own agendas, but it is ultimately Candy who drops hers because of her new found affection. McCoy is callous at first but he comes around, in the end, leaving this noir on a surprisingly positive note.
Thelma Ritter was usually colorful in her many screen appearances and she has another memorable turn as the wheeler-dealer Moe Williams in this film. However, Moe does not just deal ties and secrets; she is a woman with a conscience and a touch of good old-fashioned patriotism. In her own simple way, she is a hero whether people know it or not.
Widmark played a similar conman in Night and the City (1950), but this time around things worked out a little differently for his character. The pickpocket sequences were perhaps less elaborate but still similarly intricate to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). It is possible that he got some of his inspiration from Fuller’s work here.
This is a real communist era thriller that Fuller injects with passion, grit, and some unadulterated violence. It is not a pretty film necessarily, but that is not what Fuller is going for, and he never does. Instead, as a former journalist, he reveals to his audience the nitty-gritty of South Street up close and personal. He succeeds with flying colors in delivering a first rate scoop of uncompromising pulp.
4/5 Stars