Sunday, August 18, 2013

Stubs – Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire (1941) Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Directed by Howard Hawks Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder. Story by Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe Run Time: 112 minutes. U.S.  Black and White, Screwball Comedy, Romantic Comedy

A group of brainiac professors have their lives turned upside down by the presence of a vivacious lady in their midst.  While this might sound like the premise of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, just to prove that there is nothing new under the sun, this is also the premise of Ball of Fire, the 1941 screwball comedy starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. But while The Big Bang Theory might be derivative of Ball of Fire, this film has a lot in common with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, except it’s played for laughs and there are eight instead of seven men.

This similarity with Snow White isn’t lost on the film, as it opens with its own Heigh-Ho moment, showing the eight professors on their morning constitutional through Central Park. It is Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), the youngest of the group, who ends the walk, telling his colleagues that it’s time to get back to work. He leads them back to the Daniel S. Totten Foundation building in New York, where they not only do their work, but also live. Besides Potts, the grammarian in the group, there are Prof. Gurkakoff (Oscar Homolka), math; Prof. Jerome (Henry Travers), geography; Prof. Magenbruch (S.Z. Sakall) physiology; Prof. Robinson (Tully Marshall), law; Prof. Oddly (Richard Haydn), botany; Prof. Peagram (Aubrey Mather) history; and Prof. Quintana (Leonid Kinskey), undefined. They cover all the major disciplines from history, math, science to literature.  

The other professors at the Institute and Miss Bragg who takes care of them.
The professors have lived together for nine years compiling an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. They are taken care of by Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard), who cleans and cooks for the professors, but doesn’t live with them. The encyclopedia is the vanity project of Daniel Totten, the supposed inventor of the electric toaster. Finding his biography omitted from the Encyclopedia Britannica, he set out to write a new encyclopedia so he will get his just recognition, which we learn should be about three quarters of a page, an appropriate amount.

But their financial backer, Miss Totten (Mary Field), drops by the foundation with her attorney Larsen (Charles Lane) and threatens to withdraw her support. The encyclopedia has gone over budget and Miss Totten doesn’t want to pay expenses for the three more year estimated work to complete it out of her pocket. However Bertram is prodded by the others to flirt with her. Charmed by Bertram's awkward flattery, Miss Totten changes her mind, agreeing to back the encyclopedia to its completion.

Miss Totten is charmed by Prof. Potts' attempt to flatter her.
Soon after, a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) appears in the foundation's library and asks the professors for help on some radio quiz show questions. Intrigued by the garbage man's picturesque slang, Bertram realizes his own work on slang is already outdated and requires further research. He then takes off to the streets, where he eavesdrops on a series of conversations, taking notes and invites several people to participate in a slang symposium the next day at 9:30 am.

But things get interesting when he goes to a nightclub, where his waiter is played by Elisha Cook and hears Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) sing Drum Boogie with the Gene Krupa’s orchestra. (Stanwyck doesn’t actually sing, the voice belongs to Martha Tilton.) (And for those who don’t know, Krupa was the Keith Moon of his day, at least when it comes to drum playing. If the Moon reference means nothing to you, please stop reading and find an adult to ask.)  

Matchsticks and drumsticks are all the same to Gene Krupa.
When he invites the sexy nightclub performer to attend his symposium on slang, Sugarpuss abruptly dismisses him. Unknown to Bertram, Sugarpuss is being sought by the district attorney in connection with a murder that her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), is suspected of committing, and she and Joe's henchmen, Asthma Anderson (Ralph Peters) and Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea), flee the club one step ahead of a subpoena.

With no safe place to hide, Sugarpuss decides to take Bertram up on his invitation and shows up at the foundation early the next morning. Although pleased to see the still scantily clad Sugarpuss, Bertram, whom Sugarpuss calls "Pottsie," refuses to allow her to stay the night, but is overruled by his sex-starved colleagues, especially when they see her in her shimmering nightclub outfit.

Sugarpuss shows up at the Institute looking for a place to hide.
Meanwhile, at the district attorney's office, Joe is confronted about monogrammed pajamas found in the murdered man's suitcase, which the district attorney suspects once belonged to Joe and was given to him by Sugarpuss. Concerned that Sugarpuss might be compelled to testify against Joe, his lawyer advises him to marry her but only as a means to preventing a wife from testifying against him.

Three days go by and the professors become enamored of Sugarpuss’ femininity, and she begins to grow fond of them, too. Sugarpuss, who has been helping Bertram dissect a long list of slang expressions as well as teaching the other professors the conga, is visited by Asthma and Pastrami. The thugs present her with a pricey diamond engagement ring from Joe, and eager to become the wealthy Mrs. Lilac, Sugarpuss signs the marriage license and agrees to stay at the foundation until they can safely take her to meet Joe.

The other professors take a shine to Sugarpuss.
Meanwhile, Miss Bragg, the professors' prim housekeeper, demands that Sugarpuss leave, as she has become too much of a disruption. When Bertram asks Sugarpuss to go, admitting that her feminine ways have distracted him from his work, Sugarpuss declares that she is "just plain wacky" for him and demonstrates to Bertram the meaning of the phrase "yum yum" (kisses).

Sugarpuss gets ready to show Prof. Potts what the slang yum yum means.
Bertram is so taken with Sugarpuss' kisses that he decides to propose to her, and the next morning, he gives her a diamond engagement ring, which is dwarfed by the one she received from Joe. Bertram's ardor saddens and confuses Sugarpuss, but before she can respond, Pastrami telephones her at the Institute. While he has her on one payphone, Asthma has Joe on another. In an effort to give the cops the slip, they put the receiver of one phone up to the receiver of the other. Somehow the results are crystal clear. As Joe has identified himself as "Daddy," in case the cops are listening, Bertram assumes he is Sugarpuss' father and asks him for permission to marry her. Joe, seeing an opportunity to get Sugarpuss past the police's dragnet, goes along with the misconception and requests that the wedding be performed in New Jersey, so that her invalid mother can witness it.

Dana Andrews is Joe Lilac in Ball of Fire.
Excited, Bertram sends Miss Bragg to pack up Sugarpuss’ suitcase. But instead, Miss Bragg finds newspapers Sugarpuss had hidden inside detailing her connection to Lilac and possibly to a murder. Miss Bragg confronts Sugarpuss and threatens to call the police on her. But Sugarpuss hits Miss Bragg, knocking her out, and locks her in the bedroom closet.

Bertram and the other unsuspecting professors depart for New Jersey. On the way, Professor Gurkakoff, who is driving with a long expired license, crashes into a truck on the bridge and later into a signpost, the latter disabling the car. The wedding party is forced to spend the night at an auto court, but when Sugarpuss calls Joe with the news, he insists on picking her up that night. While she waits in her bungalow, Professor Oddly, a widower, tells Bertram and the other professors about his honeymoon. He is the only one of the professors to ever marry and they see him as the expert on all things matrimonial. After his emotional reminiscence he retires for the night, but Bertram still has some questions for him and seeks him out for clarification. By accident Pottsie ends up in Sugarpuss' darkened bungalow. Her room number, 9, has slipped and resembles the 6 that is on Oddly’s room.

At the bachelor dinner, Oddly speaks fondly of his marriage and honeymoon.
Believing that he is speaking to Oddly, Bertram describes his deeply felt passion for Sugarpuss, and moved by his words, she reveals herself and kisses him. At that moment, however, Joe and his gang arrive and expose Sugarpuss' deception to the professors, two of which come to retrieve Bertram. Finding lipstick on Bertram's face, Joe then strikes the hapless professor.

Meanwhile Miss Bragg has escaped and with the police tracks the professors to the auto court, based we’re told on the accident report. After sending the police on a wild goose chase, Bertram confronts Sugarpuss about Joe. She tearfully apologizes, but Bertram returns to New York, angry and humiliated.

Later, at the foundation, Oddly reveals that Sugarpuss gave him a ring to deliver to Bertram, not his, but Joe's. Bertram is buoyed by the professors' deduction that the singer is in love with him, and has kept the ring she really wants, his. The professors are unshaken when a scandalized Miss Totten arrives with Larsen to announce the termination of the encyclopedia project. Even Bertram’s charms and his taking full responsibility aren’t enough this time.

Asthma and Pastrami then appear and hold everyone at gun point as a ploy to win Sugarpuss’ cooperation. She is, they’re told, refusing to marry Joe. Pastrami tells Sugarpuss over the phone that they’ll open fire unless she goes through with marrying Joe. To protect the professors, Sugarpuss proceeds with the ceremony, which is being conducted in New Jersey by an addled-brain and hard of hearing justice of the peace, but delayed until after the JOP’s lunch and nap.

Pastrami holds Prof. Potts at bay. Joe wants Sugarpuss' cooperation with the wedding.
Sugarpuss' fate appears sealed until the professors outsmart their captors, who are starting to shoot the place up. They use the sun’s reflection to burn the cord holding Totten’s portrait, causing the heavy painting to fall on Pastrami and then taking Asthma by surprise, the professors overwhelm them. With help from the garbage man, who was also been taken hostage when he came back with another quiz question, the professors travel back to New Jersey. Everyone goes, even Miss Totten and Larsen, who have to hold on to the back of the truck the whole way. On the way, she claims that this her encyclopedia and she’s going to stick with it. Inside the storage bin, the professors tickle information out of Pastrami and he reveals Sugarpuss' location. Meanwhile Bertram reads a book on boxing to ready himself for an encounter with Joe.

The Professors use a garbage truck to get them to New Jersey to stop the wedding.
The professors, armed with machine guns they’ve taken from Pastrami and Asthma, thwart the wedding. But Joe isn’t going easily and takes Sugarpuss as a hostage. But Joe can't resist Bertram’s challenge to a fist fight. While Bertram is busy remembering the Marquess of Queensberry rules, Joe decks him. Finally letting his anger show, Bertram turns the tide, flinging himself on Joe with his fists a flying.

Prof. Potts thinks he's ready for a fist fight.
The professors deliver the gangsters to the police. Sugarpuss doesn’t think she’s good enough for Bertram, but he convinces her she is by using a passionate "yum-yum" kiss as the clincher.

You have to hand it to Sam Goldwyn. This is a class act from above the line to below. Not only does he have Howard Hawks direct a screenplay co-written by Billy Wilder, but he also has Gregg Toland handle the cinematography, Alfred Newman the music and Edith Head to design Stanwyck’s costumes.

Before we talk about the leading actors, a nod should be given to the supporting cast, especially the seven other professors. Perhaps the most recognizable are Henry Travers (Prof. Jerome), best known as angel Clarence Oddbody in It’s A Wonderful Life; S.K. Skall (Prof. Magenbruch), best known for Carl the headwaiter in Casablanca, Leonid Kinskey (Prof. Quintana) perhaps best known for his role in Casablanca as Sascha the bartender; and Richard Haydn (Prof. Oddly) perhaps best remembered as the voice of the Caterpillar in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951). Also worth mentioning is Dan Duryea who made a living playing criminals in all genres of film; Charles Lane and Elisha Cook, who between them seem to appear in just about every movie from this time period. Everyone is good. And I almost forgot Allen Jenkins, who seems to have a real way with comedy.

In the 14 years since Wings, Cooper had become about as big an actor as you could get in Hollywood. In 1941, he starred in three major films, including Meet John Doe, directed by Frank Capra and co-starring Stanwyck; Sergeant York, directed by Hawks for which Cooper would win an Academy Award for Best Actor. And Ball of Fire, again opposite Stanwyck and directed by Hawks.

Stanwyck was a very talented film actress, adept at playing comedy as much as she was drama. She could play Sugarpuss in this film and be as good as she would be as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity as well as many other movies. She is a fascinating actress to watch and usually always brings her A game to any part she plays.

Dana Andrews who plays Joe Lilac, who a relative newcomer at this point, having made his film debut in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940). Andrews would go on to play bigger roles and the lead in such films as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) to name, but a few of his films. Andrews would have a well-known bout with alcoholism, which he finally got under control in 1972.

Howard Hawks, who has come up in several reviews, was one of the directors most associated with the screwball comedy, even though his career was not limited to this genre. Screwball comedies were very popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s while America was in the depths of the Great Depression.

The genre is characterized by farcical situations, a combination of slapstick and fast paced repartee, a struggle between economic classes and plot lines involving courtship and marriage. As Andrew Sarris, a noted film critic, described the genre, screwball comedies are “sex comedies without the sex.”

Other examples, but certainly not a complete list, of the genre, include The Front Page (1931) directed by Lewis Milestone, It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), My Man Godfrey (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Vivacious Lady (1938), Bachelor Mother (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Mr. and Mrs.Smith (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). (I’m sure I’ve left out someone’s favorite screwball comedy.)

While the world moves much faster nowadays than in 1941 (it’s hard to imagine any research taking twelve years to compile), the movies don’t get funnier than Ball of Fire. Everyone seems to give it their all and the audience, whether then or now, should not be disappointed. If you need a good laugh at the end of the week, Ball of Fire is a good bet.

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