Follow by Email

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ball of Fire

I needed to see one more film to complete my little run of Howard Hawks' screwball comedies, and it's a gem. How did I live this long without seeing Ball of Fire? Not only is it directed by Hawks, but it was written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. I think it's vaulted into one of my favorite films.

An update of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film is about eight men who are writing an encyclopedia. They are all unmarried (one is a widower) and have cloistered themselves in a mansion, having taken nine years to get to the letter S (strawberries, Saturn, and sex are a few ot the items being written). Gary Cooper stars as Bertram Potts, the grammar expert. After meeting an every-day fellow, he realizes he's way out of touch with slang, so he goes out to to research.

He ends up in a nightclub and sees Barbara Stanwyck perform. She's full of modern sayings, and Cooper wants to interview her. She says no, but then is informed that because of her boyfriend, a gangster named Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), she's being sought by police. Andrews has his lieutenants stash her out of harm's way, which happens to be with Cooper (without his knowing the real reason, of course).

He's not happy about it, but the other seven scholars are like little boys, tripping over themselves to interact with her. It's all very innocent--they act like they've never seen a woman like Stanwyck before (which they probably hadn't).

Of course, Cooper falls in love with Stanwyck, and this leads to a confrontation with Andrews. But the plot isn't nearly the most interesting thing about Ball of Fire. What makes this film work is Cooper, Stanwyck, and the very funny screenplay.

A few things stick with me. Kathleen Howard plays Miss Bragg, the fierce house mother to the scholars. She is aghast at Stanwyck staying with them, and demands that either she goes, or Howard goes. Cooper is ready to send Stanwyck away, but when he kisses her he changes his mind. Howard tells him the taxi is waiting, who will go? "It's all yours, Crabapple Annie," Cooper says, a delirious crooked grin on his face, using one of the new slang terms he's used.

I have a hunch I will see this movie again, probably when I need a pick me up. The scholars are played by some wonderful character actors, including Richard Haydn as an old botanist and Oscar Homolka as a Russian science expert. Henry Travers, who would later play Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life, is on hand as the geography expert, and two actors, Leonid Kinsky and S.Z. Sakall, would show up in Casablanca two years later (Kinsky as Sasha the bartender, and Sakall as Carl).

Cooper and Stanwyck work great with each other. Stanwyck really was a fine actress, and of course Gary Cooper, though known as a tough guy today, was brilliant at comedy. Wilder watched Hawks work, and would soon be directing his own pictures, including Double Indemnity, which would star Stanwyck.

No comments:

Post a Comment