It's a wonderful thing when it happens- when you watch a classic film for the first time. Maybe it's one you've read about or heard about it; or it might star some of your favorite actors. Then you get a chance to see it and it actually exceeds your expectations. That is what happened last night with the Barbara Stanwyck-Gary Cooper comedy, Ball of Fire.
I am a fan of the screwball comedy and it's various offshoots. Some of my all time favorite movies, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, My Favorite Wife, even The Thin Man films are all outright screwball comedies or incorporate many elements (romance, rapid fire dialogue, eccentric characters, and running gag sub-plots) of the genre. Last night Turner Classic Movies showed Ball of Fire and the wife and I sat down to watch and it was great. The funny thing was is that even though a lot of the slang (a key plot point) in the film is outdated, it did not hamper the film for me at least. Most of the slang should be somewhat familiar to any classic film or cartoon fan. The plot translates well, even today. In fact, the wife commented that the film could be remade today with a very similar script and it would still be funny. Not that I necessarily would hope for a remake, but I concede the point. I think that underscores how well this film holds up for today. Many of the elements mentioned above show up from time to time in other films or even TV shows, like Moonlighting for example, to varying degrees of success. I think it is still a viable genre of film if done correctly and with and eye and heart to the original classics.
Ball of Fire is the story of a Professor Potts (Gary Cooper) and seven other Professors, who have been working to compile an Encyclopedia for the past nine years. After speaking with their garbage man, Potts realizes that his work on English slang was taken from outmoded books and he needs to go out to do field research. In the course of listening in on conversations on the street, riding the bus, and sitting in a nightclub, he discovers burlesque dancer and singer Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). She intrigues him and he invites her to take part in a roundtable discussion in which he will compile a newer work on slang. She rebuffs him at first, but then finds out she needs a place to hide out for a while. Her boyfriend is gangster Joe Lilac (played by Dana Andrews), who is being questioned and watched by the D.A.'s office. Lilac wants to put Sugarpuss where the D.A. can't find her so she can't testify against him. Sugarpuss decides to take Potts on his offer and hides out with the professors. The other seven professors, all of whom have distinct personalities and specialties (this is where the Snow White twist come in) are immediately smitten with her- but it is Potts who, after some initial fumbling, falls in love with Sugarpuss. O'Shea enlivens the Professor's lives and they treat her with respect and affection. She begins to truly care for all of them - and eventually begins to fall for Potts as well. When Joe Lilac decides that marrying O'Shea is the best way to keep her from testifying against him, things begin to get complicated for Potts and O'Shea and dangerous for all.
Billy Wilder co-wrote this script, and according to IMDB, he wrote the story for the script while still in Germany and sold it when he came to America. It has many earmarks of the Wilder comedies and his satire comes through in the script. Howard Hawks directed the film not too long after two of his other screwball comedies appeared, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940)- and those two films are considered masterpieces of the genre. So you have a film directed by a legend and co-written by legend- you gotta have legendary stars correct?
Barbara Stanwyck had a banner year in 1941, with Meet John Doe (also with Gary Cooper) and the fantastic The Lady Eve leading the way. Stanwyck had a real talent to blend into any genre of film she appeared in, and by reputation she was great to work with. Although most remember her for her Film Noir (Double Indemnity, Sorry, Wrong Number) or Westerns (Union Pacific, or TV's "The Big Valley"), and rightly so, she truly excelled at comedies. It is sad she did not do more of them. Christmas in Connecticut, Remember the Night (written by Preston Sturgess who cast her in-) The Lady Eve, and Ball of Fire are all wonderful films, some of which are greatly underappreciated. Her character in Ball of Fire, Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea is alternatively sweet, sexy, sassy, and tough. Gary Cooper is also legendary. His year in 1941 wasn't too shabby either. Again, he was in Meet John Doe with Stanwyck (MJD and BOF were their only films together) and in Sergeant York that year, and only one year away from his classic turn as Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. Coop is also well known for his Western, including one of my favorites, High Noon, but for me his comedic roles where somewhat hit or miss. His films were great (check out another great comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), and he was a fantastic actor, but at times you got the feeling his comedy was stifled. One particular film, The Fountainhead, which is considered a great dramatic film by some, comes off as overly-preachy and too stuffy. And yet, to me, Cooper has some funny bits in that film- but they were all unintentional. Maybe Stanwyck brings it out in him- or maybe the role of Potts has the right degree of stuffiness to suit him- whatever. It works. He is just funny to watch, and his handling of his dialogue full of two dollar words is earnest and genuine. It's funny to see him tackle "new" slang words in his everyday speech towards the end of the film. His portrayal is honest and warm, and compliments Stanwyck perfectly.
What really tops off the film is the great supporting cast. Any classic film fan knows that a supporting cast can make or break a film. The Professors are great, humorous, and warm and there are many familiar faces among them. Especially Henry Travers who played Clarence in its A Wonderful Life (remember this Shelf Classic about the film?) and was in High Sierra and The Bells of St. Mary's just to name a few. You also will recognize the great Hungarian-born character actor S.Z. Sakall who played Carl in Casablanca, and was in Christmas in Connecticut (also with Stanwyck), Yankee Doodle Dandy and others. One, who's voice will sound very familiar, is Richard Haydn. You will recognize his voice has that of the caterpillar in Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Lastly we can't forget Dana Andrews who played Stanwyck's gangster boyfriend. Andrews worked with Cooper before in 1940's The Westerner, and had many other roles in film and TV, among them The Ox-Bow Incident (great film) and perhaps his defining moment in the legendary Laura.
All in all, a wonderfully enjoyable film filled with legends, laughter and love. This is a classic that is garnering more and more fans as they "discover" it. Now yesterday I stated it was not yet on DVD. That is technically not true, but for all intents and purposes I was correct. It was available in Canada - but is now out of print. It has "cult classic" standing on TCM. With the amount of classic movies becoming available on DVD, it is possible that this one will make it also. It would be nice for some great extras- maybe a feature on Stanwyck or Cooper or a documentary about Screwball Comedies or on Howard Hawks. If you are interested- email TCM and let 'em know you want to see it again- or at least see it on DVD. Let's cross our fingers. Maybe Warners will surprise us with a Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection Box Set. She certainly deserves it. Until then, keep your eyes peeled for this great film.
Lastly, a brief note about an update to The Shelf. You will notice below our "What's on the Shelf" sidebar a new section "Shelf Tech and Support". Hopefully all the necessary tech and blog stuff is better organized and we are making use of the search this blog feature as well.
Added to the "Shelf Links" section: Images. Images is an online journal dedicated to film. Although put out quarterly, articles and images are added fairly regularly. The article "30 Great Westerns" earned them a permanent link. Also, check out their great "The Cinema of Hitchcock" feature. Added to the "Shelf Community" section: In the Balcony. Just check it out- a lot of fun and information. Lots of reviews and news about upcoming DVD releases of cinema classics. Libertas is a blog for the Liberty Film Festival website. It's an interesting, thoughtful look at movies and current films from a more conservative view. Check out this most recent article on current filmmaking and politics.
Until next time, go out and shelf the 'net. Enjoy.