Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ball of Fire (1941)

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Ball of Fire, indeed.
I'd love to be a fly on the wall when this script was pitched. "It's kind of a modern day fairy tale," the writer says.  "You know, a take off on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Only the dwarfs are lexicographers, holed up in their brownstone, I mean cottage, writing an encyclopedia. And Snow White is called 'Sugarpuss O'Shea,' a nightclub singer. And the evil stepmother is her fiance, mob leader Joe Lilac." Samuel Goldwyn shakes his head sadly, and asks where Prince Charming fits in. "Oh, there is no prince," the writer says. "Sugarpuss falls for one of the dwarfs." Of course, the writer was Billy Wilder, so presumably Goldwyn knew enough to trust his instincts even if the sense of the thing was not immediately apparent.

It does appear that the fairy tale motif got away from him a bit. The parallel is made way too obvious at the beginning of the film in some rather unnecessary narrative text, and then never seems to make its way back in, apart from a few risque quips about apples. But then, setting aside its idiotic premise and gaping plot holes, Ball of Fire is a perfectly delightful film on its own merits.

The seven dwarfs (and there are eight of them) are played by a motley collection of some of the finest old man character actors in Hollywood: Oskar Homolka (The Seven Year Itch, Sabotage), Henry Travers (It's a Wonderful Life, The Bells of St. Mary's), S.Z. Sakall (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy), Tully Marshall (Scarface, The Big Trail), Leonid Kinskey (Casablanca, The Talk of the Town), Richard Haydn (Alice in Wonderland, The Sound of Music), Aubrey Mather (House of Fear, Adventures of Don Juan), and Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees, High Noon). One of these things, is not like the others...

Sugarpuss O'Shea and the eight lexicographers.
Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) is trying to revise his entry on slang when a chance conversation with his garbageman leads him to the terrible discovery that all of his slang is twenty years old. He goes out into the world in search of modern colloquial language and somehow ends up with scantily clad nightclub singer Sugarpuss (Barbara Stanwyck) slipping off her stockings in his living room at three in the morning. Here, then, we have the most unbelievable plot hole of them all: the pretense that he is only interested in her vocabulary and she is only interested in anonymous room and board while she hides out from the police so they can't make her testify against her mobster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).

The devil, they say is in the details, and it is certainly the detailed craftsmanship that Wilder and director Howard Hawks brought to this film that gives it its punch. The seven supplemental dwarfs are every one of them individuals, or at least individual takes on the fuddy-duddy old academic. Although they do tend to move in a pack (or a conga line) and seldom show much difference of opinion from each other, they also never seem like one character in seven bodies.

Sugarpuss's nightclub act is very capably backed by Gene Krupa and orchestra, although even this hardly seems necessary, as Stanwyck's legs surely need no musical accompaniment. As an encore, the band gathers around a table and reprises the song ("Drum Boogie") with a pair of matches for drum sticks and the tune being carried by hushed staccato whispers. All too often musical numbers in non-musicals end up cumbersome and irrelevant, weighing the film down with several minutes of non-plot. That is assuredly not the case here. Not only is the music interesting in its own right, but more importantly, it all serves to advance one of the primary themes of the film, i.e., that Barbara Stanwyck is sexy as all get out.

Dana Andrews, left. Coop learned how to box by reading a book in the car.
The film's vocabulary is both fresh and baffling, with several key characters, including Sugarpuss and the garbageman, seeming to speak in nothing but slang. "She jives by night," a waiter says of Sugarpuss. "Root-zootin' cute, solid, to boot." Although we are not likely to be as hopelessly lost as poor, bumbling Bertram, the film's idiolect is so packed with irregular word choices that after a while it does start to seem like it must be in another language, albeit one closely connected with our own. It doesn't take much, of course, to deduce that "yum yum" and "hoi toi toi" are roughly synonymous, or that Stanwyck's trademark tongue click, usually accompanied by a wink, is code for whatever the Hays office won't let her say.

Coop is well at home in this sort of role, as a bumbling, naive, boy next door, and makes the young professor both believable and likable, without appearing impossibly stupid, as often happens with "living under a rock" types. After Sugarpuss demonstrates the meaning of "yum yum," he dashes from the room to apply cool water to the back of his neck before he can continue talking with her. When he returns, he shyly mumbles, "Would you, Miss Sugarpuss, would you yum me just once more?" Ordinarily, dialog as hoky as this would break the spell for me, making me groan in pain rather than sympathizing with the character's own awkwardness. Yet somehow here, it's just adorable.

Somehow I don't think Walt's Snow could pull off a dress like that.
The real prize in Ball of Fire, though, surely must go to Stanwyck. She's so strong and forward, without ever being brassy or arrogant. Highly sexualized yet innocent, a good girl who is somehow unapologetic about her involvement with the mob (no "we grew up together and he used to be such a good boy" back story here, thank goodness). She lies but wishes she didn't have to, is never moved by material considerations yet "cries if she has to wear last year's ermine." She's certainly no Snow White, yet for all that she's a more believable and appealing fairy tale princess than you'll find in any Disney movie.

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