Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ball of Fire (1941) - A Fine Peek at Stanwyck ... and the Future of English



 Barbara Stanwyck, who was nominated for this role, wasn't even the first choice to play the lead in this film directed superbly by Howard Hawks and written by Billy Wilder.  Ginger Rogers turned it down as beneath her (having won an Academy Award for "Kitty Foyle" the year before), and Lucille Ball was all set to play the part when Stanwyck became available.  To say that Lucy wasn't the best actress for this film isn't to besmirch her, for Stanwyck fits this like a glove.

There are seven professors (aside from Cooper) just like in "Snow White"



The first hour or so of the film is perfection.  Gary Cooper's character is researching slang for the encyclopedia that he and some other professors (perhaps the best collection of character actors ever assembled) are writing, so he escapes from his cloistered environment to do research by listening to paperboys, gossiping girls and the like (which, apparently, was exactly what the screenwriters of this film actually did themselves).  He drops by a nightclub (featuring Gene Krupa and his band!) for his research and it turns out the nightclub singer,  Stanwyck, is on the run.  She comes up with the idea of hiding out at Cooper's home, as he conveniently left the address.

"Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper
Tryin' hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper)"



Stanwyck came straight from the nightclub, of course, so when she shows up, she is dressed in her sexy stage outfit.  She engages in repartee with Cooper that is loaded with double entendres that you won't have to think too hard about to appreciate.  But the bad guys are chasing her, and you know all about bad guys - they eventually show up.




So, that's the set-up.  Babs sparkles here as few screen sirens ever get the chance to do, playing the gangster's moll (Sugarpuss (!) O'Shea) forced to live at the professors' home while "on the lam."  Few entrances in film history are this vivid, with Stanwyck wearing a sparkly and revealing nightclub outfit for what seems like the entire first half of the film. The contrast of the vibrant and sexy Stanwyck with a roomful of men who are mostly three times her age is striking,  It makes her the undisputed center of attention, despite Gary Cooper's best efforts playing the youngest of the good professors, which should be every actress' dream.

These are publicity still, not from scenes in "Ball of Fire."

I think that, if Hawks could have figured out a way to extend Stanwyck's arrival at the professors' home for about, oh, another hour or so, he would have.  She is simply stunning in her barely there red dress, and she plays it for all she's worth (though these are just publicity shots, the actual scenes in the film are just as hot).

Too bad these scenes weren't in "Ball of Fire."


This film is good on so many levels that it is difficult to list them all. First and foremost, it's a brilliant comedy, with all sorts of sexy puns and wisecracks that will delight any fan of screwball snappy patter. The humor is usually very highbrow, but the use of cutting edge (for 1941) slang introduces elements that also successfully play to the lowest common denominator. It's also a fine romantic comedy, as leads, outstanding in their own particular fields of endeavor, are completely lost in the other's world.  This leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and malapropisms. The film is also completely self-aware about what it's doing, giving knowing winks at every turn (Cooper diagrams the meaning of the word "corny" on a blackboard!) and thereby satirizing film conventions. The double entendres fly fast and furious ("You can start working on me right now," "I figured on working all night," "Feel that foot. It's cold, and it's wet," "Open your mouth. Wider!") and keep right on coming.  This is one of the sexiest films in the history of the Hayes Code if you peek just below the surface.  That's kind of subversive when you realize this is a modern re-telling of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," a big hit for Walt Disney just a few years before.



While all of these elements are wonderful, the intellectual element keeps your mind working.  This is a brilliant examination of the development of the English language, almost like a research class in contemporary slang.  All sorts of 1941 lingo is thrown out, some good, some bad, some plain awful. A certain very small fraction has survived, most petered out long ago, and a few died stillborn in this very film (calling a phone an "Ameche" because Don Ameche had recently played Alexander Graham Bell in a biography, that was a non-starter right there). Calling a boyfriend the girl's "daddy," well, that one is still kind of risqué to this day. This film shows that, once upon a time, phrases such as giving someone "the brush" and asking "what's the big idea" were considered exotic intrusions into normal English.

This scene pretty much captures the tone of the film
One of the delightful aspects of this is that Stanwyck keeps you guessing as to her real feelings.  One minute she is delighted to plan her escape from the professors' lodgings, the next she is delightfully seducing Cooper.  Which is for real?  She plays both scenes so well, it is impossible to tell.  She also pronounces some difficult words perfectly, which a suspicious Cooper later picks up, then she apparently deliberately mispronounces something simple for effect.  A delightfully wacky performance of the "caught between two diametrically opposed worlds" variety.  The mobster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) even points this out about Sugarpuss at one point, that "when it comes to leveling off, she gets chicken."  But who is she chicken about?



No need to over-think this one, though. It is worth catching if for no other reason than to see Stanwyck working Cooper over as only a world-class flirt could do (watch her eyes while bantering with Cooper).  Cooper's double-take when Stanwyck takes off her coat is priceless, holding his ground with her must have been a real struggle. Fabulous fun, a tour de force for Stanwyck and, ultimately, a sweet love story.  Oh, and everyone should see how Babs explains what "yum yum" means to the good professor.

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