Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Hometown Manager Has Eyes For New Owner in “It Happened in Flatbush,” With William Frawley

Lloyd Nolan and Carole Landis star in this vintage baseball romantic comedy, also featuring a future legend of the early TV era.

by Rich Watson

This post is part of what’s known as a blogathon. That’s when a bunch of bloggers gather to write about a given topic. This one is called “The What a Character Blogathon,” devoted to supporting actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. In my previous blog I took part in it for years, and 2021 marks its tenth anniversary. At the end I’ll tell you where you can read more entries in this event.


In 1951, William Frawley was sixty-four, a veteran of not only a hundred-plus movies, but vaudeville as well. Rumor had it, though, he was an alcoholic and difficult to work with. It seemed he was approaching the end of his career in entertainment.

Then he heard about an opportunity in the new medium of television: a sitcom about a ditzy housewife and her musician husband. The show was looking for a duo to play their neighbors, an older married couple. Frawley, eager to land the role of the husband in the older couple, called the lead actors and co-creators of the new program: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. 

They gave him a chance. Despite initial resistance from the network, CBS, Frawley, paired with Vivian Vance, was an anchor of what would become I Love Lucy, one of television’s greatest programs. Years later, Arnaz would testify that Frawley always came to work on time and was a total professional.

Lucy was the highlight of a long career for Frawley, the former court reporter from Iowa who toured the vaudeville circuit with his brother Paul, singing and writing, before moving to Broadway and eventually, Hollywood. 

Frawley and sports movies

Frawley appeared in, among many other films, Roxie Hart, Ziegfeld Follies (with Ball), The Virginian, Monsieur Verdoux and Miracle on 34th Street, but like Joe E. Brown, he had a knack for turning up in sports-related movies.

He was Brown’s manager in Alibi Ike. He was also the coach in Rose Bowl with Buster Crabbe and The Quarterback with Wayne Morris. Plus, he was in Touchdown Army, Ex-Champ, Golden Gloves, the Jim Corbett biopic Gentleman Jim with Errol Flynn, The Babe Ruth Story, starring William Bendix, Winner Take All, featuring the comic strip boxer character Joe Palooka, and Kill the Umpire, also with Bendix.

In 1962, the year after the great home run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the duo made a movie together called Safe At Home. They played themselves in a yarn about a boy who claims to his friends that his father knows the star players, and is forced to prove it. Frawley portrayed the manager, in what would be his last film role before his death four years later. 

This week’s subject is a film from 1942 called It Happened in Flatbush, a romantic comedy in which Frawley played the general manager of the Dodgers—or at least, a professional baseball club from Brooklyn. The movie never actually calls the team by name, but there can be no doubt as to who they are. It’s a movie that celebrates mid-twentieth-century Brooklyn culture.

Dis, dem and dose: Brooklyn’s pugnacious identity

Today, Brooklyn is a sophisticated, multicultural hipster’s paradise known for its hip-hop stars, bike-riding commuters and artisanal mayonnaise, among other things. In 1942, it was perceived as the home of scrappy, street-wise underdogs—and the Dodgers had everything to do with shaping that identity.

Brooklyn became a borough of New York City in 1898, a decision that rankled some. Indeed, that attitude is prevalent amongst some older characters in Flatbush. In the subsequent decades, Brooklyn became more fully integrated with NYC at large, but the differences remained, and perhaps nowhere else was this more apparent than with the city’s three baseball teams: the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers.

For the Dodgers, the Giants were enough of a pain, being from Manhattan, but then the Yankees won World Series after World Series. On top of that, the Dodgers suffered losing seasons throughout the 1920s and 30s, which earned them the moniker “Dem Bums.” It got so bad for the Dodgers their fans started attacking the umpires—a real moment reproduced in Flatbush.

They had begun to turn their fortunes around by 1942. The coming of Jackie Robinson five years later, of course, would signal a sea change not just for the team, but for all of baseball. Either way, Brooklyn loved the Dodgers, with a passion matched by few fanbases in sports history.

A romance grows in Flatbush

The love story in Flatbush is slight and given minimal importance compared to the baseball elements. Lloyd Nolan is a former player and a Brooklyn native. He comes out of retirement to manage his old team at owner Sara Allgood’s request. (Hers is a brief but impressionable role; I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more of her.) Nolan is remembered in Brooklyn for an error that cost the team a pennant, much like Mickey Owen’s passed ball in the 1941 World Series against the Yankees.

Allgood dies, however, and her daughter Carole Landis heads a group of relatives who inherit the team. Nolan wines and dines Landis to get her to invest in new players that can help the team win. Eventually, of course, it becomes less about winning the pennant and more about hooking up with her.

I would’ve liked more tension between Nolan and Landis. For instance, he stands her up to make a dinner speech for the team’s boosters. She seems miffed by it, but it doesn’t feel like enough of a conflict, though the movie tries to turn it into one. By the time she encourages him to stick with the team when things go bad, we don’t get the feeling the moment has been earned. It’s as if she sticks with him because the plot demands it.

Other comments about Flatbush

For those used to seeing Frawley as the grumpy-yet-lovable curmudgeon Fred Mertz on Lucy, it’s good to see him as a nicer character in Flatbush. At times, Nolan seems more in charge than Frawley, but at least he knows Frawley remains in his corner after Allgood’s death.

Mediocre as it may be, this movie provides an impression of what that generation of Brooklynites and their world was like. They’re presented as immigrants and children of immigrants. They’re presented as the working class who helped shape the identity of New York City: Irish, Germans, Jews, and more. 

Robinson’s arrival in 1947 would expand the Dodger fanbase and lead to their one and only championship in 1955, before their departure from Brooklyn two years later. No one could’ve foreseen that in 1942, though.

Frawley in later years

Frawley, a Yankees fan whose Lucy contract stated he didn’t have to work during the World Series if the Yankees were in it, became a five-time Emmy nominee for Lucy, despite never getting along well with his co-star Vance. When they were offered a spin-off series, she declined. He did, however, appear on Lucy’s successor program, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, as well as Ball’s solo series The Lucy Show

In 1960 he joined Fred MacMurray as a regular on My Three Sons. A year later, Frawley was the featured guest on This Is Your Life. MacMurray was among the well-wishers. Among Frawley’s gifts included a lifetime pass to Angels ballgames. Not a bad way to celebrate a career that only got better as he got older.

The What a Character Blogathon will take place December 4. It can be followed at the blogs Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Between them, the women who run these blogs know more about old movies than you can imagine. Check them out—and tell them I sent you!


  1. Excellent choice for your new blog and the character blogathon.

    It Happened in Flatbush lets us down on a lot of movie fronts but the next time we cross paths I will remember what you said about its Brooklyn credentials.

    Frawley was certainly worth the trouble. So glad he was cast in these roles and that he kept his word regarding I Love Lucy.

  2. I didn’t wanna give up on blogathons. The problem was in finding the right opportunity for one.

    I liked doing this post because it permitted me to talk about the Dodgers in more depth. The Mets built CitiField practically as a tribute to Ebbets Field, and perhaps it acknowledges that era a bit more than it should, but eh. While researching this post I read an article which argued Mets fans have become Brooklyn Dodger fans in spirit.

    Frawley was great in LUCY but I could never understand what Fred and Ethel saw in each other to begin with!

  3. I am loving the hisotry on baseball and Brooklyn here, Rich. Thanks for this! And for joining us.


  4. Hi Aurora. So far, my new blog hadn’t provided many opportunities to join in a blogathon, but when I saw What a Character was celebrating its tenth I had to make an effort. I was lucky to find a subject that fit—I had no idea William Frawley made so many sports movies.

  5. This guy fit into sports movie like a hand in glove - there's just something about him. Actually, he seemed to fit in just right no matter where he was. Such a great choice for the blogathon!

  6. Which is unusual since Frawley wasn’t an athlete.

  7. I loved this tribute to William Frawley, along with all the Booklyn+baseball info. He was a diehard fan, indeed, if he negotiated Time Off for playoffs in his contract.

  8. I might’ve done the same if I was him.

  9. This was so enjoyable! I loved the history on Brooklyn and of course, William Frawley. It's hard to imagine what the movies and I Love Lucy would have been without him. He's irreplaceable.

  10. Thanks a lot. Come by again anytime.