05 July 2008
Potsy Loves Sugarpuss (and vice versa)
Wow! Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper star, Howard Hawks directs, Cinematography by Gregg Toland, and based on a story by Billy Wilder. Given all this you'd think 1941's Ball of Fire had to be a terrific film.
And you'd be correct.
I'm unabashed in my love and admiration for Ms. Stanwyck and this movie is one reason why. Except for perhaps The Lady Eve, she is never sexier, smarter, or more to fun to watch. This wonderful film is similarly praiseworthy as it manages to be sweet and intelligent and a genuinely funny screwball comedy.
Basic plot: eight stuffy, totally cerebral professors are in the ninth year of their project to write an encyclopedia. In discovering they know too little about modern slang, one of them, Bertram Potts (Cooper), takes to the streets to pick up the lingo. He invites some slang users to the Institute – where the eight professors live and work – to help with his research. Among the invitees is nightclub singer, Sugarpuss O'Shea (Stanwyck). She couldn't be less interested. But O'Shea is the steady of a gangster played by Dana Andrews, who's under indictment, and she suddenly needs a hide out. Guess where Sugarpuss winds up? Not surprisingly O'Shea brings life to the Institute. Surprisingly, she and Potts fall head over heels for each other.
So you have a modern version of the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." You have comedy. ou have romance. ou have action. You have smart and snappy dialogue. You have a satisfying conclusion. You have cinematic gold.
Ball of Fire works for a very simple reason: with all the talent involved, how couldn't it? In addition to the stars, the supporting cast couldn't be better. Allen Jenkins, Dan Duryea (in his day Duryea was money in the bank as a gangster) and the incredible cast, from Oscar Homolka to Henry Travers, playing the other professors in between.
Ball of Fire is worth repeated looks because its characters are so endearing and Wilder's screenplay is so typically rich. And who can ever get tired of watching Barbara Stanwyck? I can't.
I close with the following non sequitur. Ball of Fire premiered on December 2, 1941, five days before...well, you know.