Thursday, May 16, 2019

Hey, Isn't He Cheating?

It Happens Every Spring (1949) is a great movie to watch at the beginning of the baseball season. It's a funny, charming and completely unpretentious film that mixes a little bit of slapstick with a lot of clever, dialogue-driven comedy.

It stars Ray Milland as a mild-mannered college professor who is in love with the college president's beautiful daughter (Jean Peters). He doesn't make enough money to marry her. But when a foul ball from a nearby baseball diamond crashes into his lab and smashes his latest experiment, he ends up with a solution that repels wood. That means if you rub it on a baseball, the ball would loop around a baseball bat.

Milland is a baseball fan (which proves he's pretty smart), so he comes up with a plan to make money. He'll try out as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, keep a small piece of felt coated with the solution in his mitt and pitch balls that literally cannot be hit.

Both the owner and the manager think he's just a nut when he shows up at the stadium, but he manages to annoy them both enough to get a tryout just so they can watch him make a fool out of himself. But, to their surprise, he consistently strikes people out.

From there, the movie draws comedy from several situations: his growing friendship with his catcher (Paul Douglas); his desire to keep his new career as a pitcher a secret (he's working on the assumption that it would bring shame to the science department at the college); and his girlfriend's growing conviction--drawn from several misunderstandings--that he's become a gangster.  It's great comedy.

But the movie also shows how a work of fiction can--on occassion--blissfully ignore some problems with the logic of its plot. For instance, Milland has a pitch that can't be hit. He's shown to be winning consistently and becoming a national star, which is fine. But shouldn't his fame be even greater? Shouldn't the solution on the ball mean he's pitching no-hit shutouts with 27 strike outs every single time?  He probably walked a few guys, but all he really had to do was lob the ball into the strike zone three times for every batter. No one mentions his stats, but this is something that should have been impossible to ignore.

Perhaps more importantly, Milland is cheating by coating the ball with a foreign substance. He's throwing the world's most effective spitball. Even if he's never caught in-universe, shouldn't our attitude about him be tarnished by this?

But we like him just fine. It Happens Every Spring is a perfect example of how ambiance, humor and the likability of the characters allows us to overlook logical holes in the plot. The problems I detail in the above two paragraphs really aren't problems at all. Even if we think about them while watching the movie, it really won't bother us. The movie exists in a world where coating a baseball with a secret scientific formula doesn't constitute cheating. And that's just fine. It's too funny and just too darn pleasant to allow us to worry about such things.

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