Royals Review reader RoyalDUF mentioned a baseball movie in last week’s post that I’d never heard of before. I decided to read up about it, and after reading about it decided I should give it a try. So here we are. The premise of this series is to answer the question about whether a movie holds up or not and the answer to that direct question is an unsurprising no. But the really interesting thing to me was just how very different movies were in 1949 as compared to the last 30 years or so.
The first thing you’ll notice if you watch this movie is that it’s in black and white. That’s not terribly surprising or remarkable given when it was made. The next thing you’ll notice is that it has opening credits. Those have fallen way out of favor in the past few decades probably in part because of the other thing you might notice: the credits are a fraction of the length they are now. I also couldn’t help but notice that the music over the credits didn’t feel like it had much to do with the film that followed. It’s as if it were written for the sole purpose of adding sound to a set of credits and nothing more.
That’s all well and good, but what about the story-telling in the movie? This is where it gets kind of interesting. The basic premise of the movie is that a scientist named Vernon Simpson wants to marry the love of his life but fears he can’t because he’s too poor. He accidentally invents a substance that repels wood when a baseball crashes through his lab window. When he tosses the ball away he realizes the potential ramifications if a baseball coated in his substance were used in a professional game. He joins the team in St. Louis and leads them to a World Series win using his amazing substance.
I noticed almost immediately one massive difference in this movie from more recent films. Modern cinema writing dictates that you invent characters as necessary to give your main characters someone to talk to and explain what they’re doing if it doesn’t make sense for any other character to be there. Vernon’s discovery of the substance near the beginning of the film has him performing multiple experiments to prove it to himself. These are all done in silence, except for the movie’s score, because he’s alone in his lab. That would never happen if the movie had been written today.
Vernon, who goes by King Kelly when he’s a pitcher, tells his teammates that the substance is hair tonic when it’s discovered in his room by his catcher. Because they think it’s hair tonic, the catcher and another player apply it to their hair because they fear they’re balding which causes Kelly to run out of it right before Game Seven of the World Series. He manages to win the game through sheer luck, talented defensive play by his teammates, and getting just enough of the substance by rubbing his catcher’s head to finish the game. However, he also fractures his hand in multiple places catching the final out and the doctor declares that he’ll never pitch again. He returns home where he discovers that the owner of the team has donated funds to his school to build a new lab on the condition that he’s made director - which comes with a large pay raise. Now he has the money to marry the girl of his dreams and he can do the job he always wanted to do!
A more recent movie would try to make this into a moral. Vernon would have gotten a big head about his success, he would have fought with his catcher, and then things would have gone downhill. In the end he’d have had to believe in himself and his teammates. He probably would have been caught cheating and had to go back to his life as an underpaid college professor where he would have discovered he could marry the love of his life without very much money after all. Older stories seem content to have been far less complicated than the ones written in this century. Ultimately this story could be summarized, “Man needs money to get married. Man gets money. Man gets married.” Modern stories have B and sometimes even C and D plots to pad out run time and keep the audience guessing. And there’s always a twist. I won’t say that one style of writing is better than the other, but it’s certainly different.
However, that brings us back to the matter of this movie not holding up. There are a variety of reasons for which it does not. Even if we discount the weirdness of different periods - can you imagine any college now refusing to spend more money on athletics? - there’s the matter of the entirely acceptable romance between a college professor and one of his students. It might be legal but as a society we’ve mostly agreed these days that the power dynamic means such relationships are taboo even if they aren’t forbidden. Then there are the flaws in the story itself.
It seems exceptionally improbable that a scientist on the verge of inventing a substance that would repel insects from wood would find that he’d accidentally invented one that repelled wood, instead. I can’t say for sure that a baseball team in 1949 wouldn’t pay a player entirely in cash without doing any sort of background checks but they definitely wouldn’t do it now so Vernon’s attempts to go unrecognized would have been made much more difficult. There’s also the matter of the substance he used on the ball. It makes the ball move in an entirely natural way. He’d have been caught during his tryout, most likely, and if not then certainly sometime during the season someone would have complained he was using an illegal substance. Even assuming he wasn’t caught the fact that most if not all of his innings should have ended in strikeouts would have meant the opposing team’s pitcher would have been using the same ball and would have seen similar success. And yet, the movie is well-liked. It only received one negative critic review that I can find mention of, and fans generally enjoy it, as well.
There were a few interesting trivia bits I found while researching this film. Most of the baseball games were played in Wrigley Field. No, not that Wrigley. There was a Wrigley Field in Los Angeles that was home to two minor league teams and that’s where they filmed. If you watched it you also probably notice that team nicknames are never mentioned, only cities. The commissioner of baseball at that time, Happy Chandler, refused to officially sanction the movie because of the cheating (I imagine he especially objected to the cheater getting away scot-free without no one the wiser.) The production company had originally intended to have real MLB players cameo in the film as well but were unable to accomplish that for the same reason.
Even 70 years later, it’s still a charming little film. If you’re willing to view it as a product of its time and just take what it gives you, you can have an enjoyable 90 minutes of a viewing experience. I can’t say I especially recommend it, but I’d choose to watch it again over at least a couple of the other films I’ve already reviewed for this series. So you could definitely do a lot worse.