William Haines plays Jack, a shipping clerk with enough golf skills to wow all the rich swells at the local country club. He falls head over heels for Allie (Joan Crawford) but knows he must marry a rich woman in order to maintain his lifestyle on the links.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Fore! Or possibly five!
I must open this review with an apology: I think golf is very silly indeed. Sorry, but there it is. The office where I used to work was on the edge of a golf course, you see, and so I had a bird’s eye view to all sorts of foolish behavior, most of it involving the abuse of golf carts and the recovery of the ball from private, gated property. There is nothing in the world that lowers your opinion of golf more than close proximity to same. Get a few golf balls through the window and you’ll agree with me.
I mean, if golf is your thing, then you do you. At least loud checkered plus fours are out of style so that heaven for small blessings.
What all this is leading up to is that I don’t know a birdie from a bogey, nor do I want to. And so, I must take this motion picture at its word that golf is fun and addictive.
The main character of Spring Fever is Jack Kelly (William Haines) and he certainly thinks that golf is wonderful. He’s a shipping clerk by day and a master golfer… also by day. As you can imagine, this puts his employment in peril or would have if the boss, Mr. Waters (George Fawcett), hadn’t been a golf nut himself. In fact, Waters dreams of golfing glory and after seeing Jack’s skills, he decides to take him to his country club for a week as his golf instructor.
Williams Haines is a bit of a love-him-or-hate-him performer and always has been if movie reviews of the silent era are to be believed. Personally, I like his lively screen presence and enjoy his vehicles very much, but I can understand how the mischievous behavior can come off as obnoxious if its overdone. There is a risk of that in the early workplace scenes, but the film quickly finds its rhythm with the character.
Our hero is fitted out with a new set of golfing togs (accidentally losing the trousers in the process) and sets out for the country club to meet Waters. He immediately spots Allie Monte (Joan Crawford) but she gives him the cold shoulder until he is able to help her with her golf game and she falls in love with his favorite club, the Spoon. Jack’s own golf game makes him the toast of the club but it also gives him a swelled head and he comes up with the mercenary plan of marrying a rich woman so he can keep playing golf forever.
Unfortunately, Allie confesses that her father is bankrupt and she herself is looking for a wealthy spouse. Jack thinks he can give her up and chase a richer woman instead but he finds that it’s not so easy. Is an elopement with Allie the only answer?
Spring Fever is one of those movies that I was desperate to like. I like the cast, I like the basic concept, I liked almost everything except much of what actually ended up on the screen. Don’t get me wrong, this movie has a lot to recommend it but the story cannot support the pretty baubles that hang from it. This is very much a case where I nitpick because I care.
(I am going to delve into the structure of the film, so spoilers from here on out.)
Haines is very much in his comfort zone as a brash young fellow who must learn that he doesn’t know it all. Crawford is not as lively as she usually is, alas, but she has a few good moments as the leading lady who knows more than she lets on. She is really Mr. Waters’ niece, you see, and claimed to be poor in order to test Jack’s love. But, come on, we all could see that coming a mile away.
Spring Fever didn’t really work for me but I don’t blame the performers. It’s the screenplay that’s the problem. Albert Lewin and Frank Davis deliver a disjointed screenplay that never manages to create enough forward momentum on any one plot thread.
Instead of going in one direction, Spring Fever races off in six directions at once, not really giving itself time to deal with any one of the situations properly.
Jack’s overall deception: It turns out not to matter at all that he lied about his wealth and status at the club and there is never much suspense that he will be found out.
Jack’s ego: Jack is ashamed of his father when he shows up at the club but this is never addressed or dealt with except as part of his overnight realization that money isn’t everything.
Golf rivalry: Nothing ever comes of the rivalry on the golf course.
Romantic rivalry: The other characters chasing Haines and Crawford respectively never really enter the plot except as window dressing.
Allie’s deception: While I’m glad she wasn’t really duped or bullied into marriage, anyone could see the plot twist of Allie’s intact wealth the moment she claimed to be poor so why not let the audience in on it from the start?
Golf, just golf: It turns out that golf doesn’t matter to the story after all. And the transactional nature of all of Jack’s relationships is never really examined either.
Now, I am not saying that any one of these directions would have saved Spring Fever from being cliched but we would have at least had some forward momentum rather than the peculiar start and stop effect every time the film ditches one plot point for another without finishing the ones it has already started.
As someone who doesn’t really like any sports movie (Cool Runnings can stay) I can’t believe I am saying this but Spring Fever could have benefited from a few more sports film clichés. Golf is presented as the all-important thing from the first moments of the film and it is also quickly established that the Spoon is an irreplaceable item that enhances Jack’s game. However, by the end of the picture, both are shown to be just window dressing for the romance. Which would have been okay but we spent all our time on golf, remember? So, the romance was kind of sidelined to make room.
I don’t usually rewrite movies when I review them but let’s indulge ourselves in a game of what-if. Suppose that instead of eloping with Allie, Jack decides to enter a big tournament in order to pay off her father’s debts and give her the life she deserves, using every penny of his savings on part of the entrance fee and asking Mr. Waters for an advance for the rest. That $10,000 purse suddenly means something. But Jack impulsively gave Allie the Spoon as a parting gift, so his best club is unavailable for the game.
Meanwhile, Allie learns the truth and realizes what he is doing for her so she races to the course. The big moment comes, he’s in the sand trap and then Allie arrives just in time to deliver the Spoon when it is needed most. He wins and proposes and then Allie reveals her true identity.
Now, isn’t that better than a no-stakes tournament and Allie just showing up to casually hand back the Spoon?
Unfortunately for Spring Fever, it sets itself up early as a spoof poking fun at the craze for the game of golf. That would have been fine but, as mentioned above, it kind of abandons its own central theme and the subject to addiction to a leisure activity was already explored in a better, funnier way in Chess Fever. The Russian comedy manages to pack a great deal of humor at the expense of chess addicts into its brief running time and still manages to come across as droll and amusing to viewers who have never touched a chess piece in their lives.
And if you want the story of a successful sportsman who forgets his roots, The Busher with Charles Ray, Colleen Moore and John Gilbert is available as well. If you want a rom-com about a poor young thing trying to marry money during a posh-but-abbreviated vacation, The Garden of Eden is absolutely delightful.
What I’m saying is that there are far, far better options available. However, if you are just gaga for either Haines or Crawford, which is perfectly understandable, there’s nothing about Spring Fever that is particularly bad or offensive. I am just irritated because there was potential in the cast and setting and it was merrily squandered for no good reason. Wasteful filmmaking annoys me.
Critics of the time had a mixed response to the film. All agreed that the story was thin but it was a dealbreaker for some and not others. I’m afraid it was a dealbreaker for me. I should note, though, that the picture sports some witty title cards and there is a nice sequence in the dark in which Crawford and Haines hunt for her nightgown via intertitles alone. This is still an MGM production and there was a baseline of competence. (The Boob excepted.)
Fans of the leading players will no doubt find something to like about Spring Fever but they’ve both been better elsewhere and the picture doesn’t really have all that much else to recommend it. Still, it’s not the worst way to spend a movie night. I say go for it if you like MGM, Haines, Crawford and/or golf.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Warner Archive with a fine score by Darrell Raby.
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