Monday, January 9, 2023

Screwball Watch: Ball of Fire (1941)

Watched:  01/07/2023
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Howard Hawks  

Skewing towards the end of the screwball cycle, Ball of Fire (1941) is an absolute g-d delight and another entry in the "yes, Stanwyck is that good" file.  

You would think the movie was made during the crush of the war as the large cast of supporting males are mostly over sixty, but also features Gary Cooper (43 here), Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea also popping up (Andrews and Duryea didn't serve for legit reasons).   Directed by Hawks with his usual flair, the script and story is by Billy Wilder in part, something I spent no small amount of time pondering while watching.  

Wilder arrived in the US in 1934, driven out of Germany by the Nazis, and like some people who have an outsiders perspective - he saw America clearly and showed it back to us.  And, in fact, I'd guess his attempts to understand American English and slang were in part what led to the set-up for this movie.  

Gary Cooper plays Professor Potts, one of eight scholars of different fields working to develop a set of Encyclopedias to compete with Britannica, sharing a brownstone in Manhattan where they live and work under the largesse of a millionaire's daughter still financing her deceased father's vanity project.

Cooper is a professor of English, and has just finished a 23-page article on Slang for the encyclopedia when he realizes that his research is inadequate and outdated, and so he takes to the streets of New York to assemble a small group to help him break down the etymology of 1940's slang (something I am sure Wilder was baffled by as he learned English).  

At a nightclub, Cooper sees Sugarpuss O'Shea (Stanwyck), the chanteuse of the program, and seeks her inclusion.  Sugarpuss's boyfriend Joe Lilac (Andrews), it turns out, is a gangster and the cops want to question her, so Lilac sends his goons to stow her.  She takes the opportunity offered by Cooper to bunk with the scholars, act as an assistant, and participate in the slang round-table.  But, of course, a fast-talking songstress with legs is a massive disruption to the staid and managed, monk-like lives of the scholars - who more than welcome the change, minus Cooper (of course).  

Stanwyck is maybe as close to a Glenn Close or Meryl Streep as anyone I can think of from old Hollywood.  She can play anything - O'Shea is as far removed from her Christmas in Connecticut role as anything.  It's even a different flavor of sexy from Double Indemnity.  And, hats off to Howard Hawks for getting one of the sexiest and chaste seduction scenes on film I can think of from the Hayes Code era as Stanwyck convinces Cooper to let her stay.  But she's mostly just hilarious - maybe not the first thing I think of with Stanwyck, but... yeah.  Playing against the clutch of old nerds and especially against the hausfrau, Miss Bragg, she's a riot.

It's a terrifically entertaining movie, upping the stakes repeatedly in the way of the best of these films, right up to the finale - and a film student's study in how to map dramatic action for comedy or otherwise.  


Steven said...

Wow this is begging to be remade with the dudes a bunch of startup guys and the female, Zendaya.

The League said...

there's *definitely* a way to do it, and maybe this is it! It's a bunch of guys born in the 1800's in this film, so it needs a lot of polishing to work, but sure seems possible. That said, it's maybe a little close to season 1 of Big Bang Theory in that mode?