3 April 2004 | clydestuff
The Strange Case of Professor Simpson
There have been many pitchers in Major League Baseball who were quite adept at doctoring a baseball. Some, such as Gaylord Perry and Burleigh Grimes, were known to add a little saliva or in Perry's case perhaps a little Vaseline. Doing this would cause the ball to suddenly drop when reaching home plate as if the bottom had fallen out of it. Then there was Whitey Ford, who was said to be able to put a few nicks or scratches in the old cowhide causing the laced sphere to do some mighty strange things. None of these players comes close to being as interesting as baseball legend Professor Vernon Simpson.
Professor Simpson was a chemistry professor at a Midwestern college. He was in love with the Dean's daughter, Deborah Greenleaf and hoped that someday they would be married. College professor's salaries being what they were in the late forties, his only hope of being able to financially support Miss Greenleaf depended on an experiment he had devised that would someday change the world. Like all normal American men of his day, Vernon was also known to get caught up in the Rite of Spring better described as the opening of the baseball season. One day while in his lab working intently on his experiment, some of the young college students were outside practicing baseball. Unfortunately, an errant ball came crashing through the window destroying the Professor's experiment and mixing his chemicals into a convoluted mess. Or so he thought.
While cleaning up the destroyed experiment, Vernon accidentally discovered that the mixture of chemicals left behind had the unique ability to resist wood. After testing the formula in his lab, he recruited the young college baseball players to scientifically examine the reaction of this chemical when applied to a baseball. After acquiring enough data to prove to himself that when the formula was applied to a baseball no hitter could touch it, Professor Simpson had no alternative but to offer his services to the St. Louis Cardinals who were themselves in desperate need of pitching. Although skeptical at first, the owner of the Cardinals did give Vernon a tryout to teach him a lesson. It was of course Vernon and his secret formula that taught the manager and the owner of St. Louis the lesson, and they signed him to a contract that would pay Vernon $1,000 dollars for every game he won.
It Happens Every Spring is a whimsical tale of an innocent sports era that has long passed. It's the kind of story one might imagine as a Disney film from the sixties or seventies starring Kurt Russell as The World's Greatest Pitcher or some other lame inappropriate title. I am eternally grateful that Disney never discovered this gem in order to film a plasticized silly remake. It Happens Every Spring is good enough as it is and far better than any of those films about World's Greatest Athletes or Computers in Tennis Shoes.
A large part of its success can be attributed to Ray Milland. As Professor Simpson, he never lets the character sink into the foolishness of Fred MacMurray's Ned Brainard from The Absent Minded Professor films. That is not meant to deride MacMurray's performance in those films, as his character was played as it was written, but the fact that Milland's Simpson appears more scholarly and analytical makes this film work even better. He sees his accidental discovery as a means to achieving two necessary goals: Making enough money to be able to wed Deborah (Jean Peters)and helping the Cardinals win the pennant.
As Deborah, Jean Peters is gorgeous, charming and delightful. After Vernon's mysterious disappearance, she sets out to discover what became of him and through a series of mistaken coincidences believes he has joined the mob. Paul Douglas as Monk Lanigan, Vernon's catcher, has most of the funniest lines and some of the best scenes, one involving him wearing a splint while trying to catch, and another when he uses Vernon's formula as a hair tonic. He's a pure delight in what I consider one of his best roles.
In the cynical sports world of today, one has to wonder if a remake of this film would even work. Much of what occurs is able to happen because it came from a time when there were no multi-million dollar athletes, no wall to wall TV coverage on ESPN and no cynical sports analysts to dissect every play. One of the major plot lines in this film has to do with Vernon being able to hide his identity, and any redo of this film would just have to dispense with that possibility altogether. In the time in which this film occurs, it works marvelously, and is a joy to watch. If set in the year 2004, one doubts that it could be the same enjoyable experience. It Happens Every Spring may not be the most remembered or notable films about baseball, but it one of the best. And when you are one of the best you get my grade which for It Happens Every Spring is an A. Batter Up!!!!