Monday, January 03, 2011

The Siren by Request: Ball of Fire (1941)



(Requested by Bill Wren of Piddleville, Happy Miser and Oshimoi.)

Ball of Fire is a two-hander--”on the one hand...on the other...” On the one hand, it’s intensely lovable, and was requested by more individuals than any other single movie. On the other hand, despite the amazing array of talent, it’s got some problems. This was the Siren’s second encounter with Ball of Fire, and she spotted the same flaws she did on the first go-round. But she still had a great time.

Ball of Fire was produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1941, and was the last movie Billy Wilder made before moving on to directing. One of Wilder’s conditions for writing the screenplay was that he be permitted to observe every day of Howard Hawks’ shooting, and Hawks was happy to let Wilder hang around and learn. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov argues that Hawks’ fluid, understated, harmonious visuals were ultimately a stronger influence on Wilder the director than his acknowledged idol, Ernst Lubitsch. Hawks had nothing but praise for Wilder and Charles Brackett as screenwriters. (But when Hawks later claimed credit for pointing out that “hey, this is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!”, an annoyed Wilder said that had occurred to him on his own, thankyouverymuch.)

Samuel Goldwyn felt aggrieved that his most valuable contract player, Gary Cooper, was having more success in movies made on loanout than in Goldwyn-produced pictures. So Goldwyn obtained Wilder and Charles Brackett on loan from Paramount and put them to work on a vehicle for Cooper. After Wilder rejected a number of old ideas, he hit on a tale he’d written years earlier, concerning a professor of linguistics who gets involved with a burlesque singer and has a run-in with the lady’s gangster associates. Wilder and Brackett set to work on the script that would become Ball of Fire, with Cooper as a professor whose initial interest in jazz singer Sugarpuss O’Shea is her facility with American slang.



Who besides Billy Wilder would look at Gary Cooper, the most laconic speaker in Hollywood, and think, “Linguistics!” Not only is that genius, it’s unparalleled mischievousness, and with Wilder, the two qualities are joined at the hip. Everybody seems to have accepted casting Cooper as a language maven as a self-evidently great idea, with the exception of Cooper himself, who was fine with playing a professor but got the shrieking blue fantods when he laid eyes on the dialogue. According to Sikov, Cooper described his polysyllabic lines as “gibberish” and declared, “I can’t memorize it if it doesn’t mean anything.” The actor made an appointment to complain to Samuel Goldwyn, the only person in Hollywood with more of a reputation for giving English a wide berth, and Sikov observes, “That must have been a real meeting of minds.” Give Goldwyn credit, however. When Cooper emerged from the producer’s office, he’d agreed to do Brackett and Wilder’s dialogue almost without alteration. “Two-dollar words, okay, but not ten-dollar words,” was Cooper’s final say.

Let’s swing here into the things about Ball of Fire that don’t work, so we can move on to the things that do. Counting down in reverse order...

4. Cooper had a point, in the sense that the movie, at 111 minutes, is too long and a bit sluggish. Hawks was aware of this and according to Todd McCarthy, he defended the picture by pointing out that “when you’ve got professors speaking lines, they can’t say ‘em like crime reporters.” Still, one hallmark of a wholly successful comedy is pace, and a screwball (which Ball of Fire is, fundamentally) is fast. The flawless timing of Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday is missing from Ball of Fire. Even Dana Andrews, playing a gangster who might conceivably be a fast talker, is a beat or two slower than he should be. (He’s so handsome, though, that the Siren doesn’t much care; she was drooling over him more than Cooper.)

3. Richard Haydn. The Siren admits to the personal nature of this quibble, but Haydn’s adenoidal speaking manner as Professor Oddly drives her up a wall. She’s convinced that Mel Blanc must have had this actor, in this role, in mind when he voiced Marvin the Martian. Each time Haydn speaks the Siren hears, “The Illudium Q36 Explosive Space Modulator! That creature has stolen the Space Modulator!”



2. Cooper doesn’t have much chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck. The Siren believes Bertram Potts is attracted to Sugarpuss, as with the fabulous line, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.” And the Siren believes that Sugarpuss is attracted to “Pottsie”; Stanwyck is so great she could make the Siren believe she’s got the hots for S.Z. Sakall. But when Stanwyck stands on some books and it’s time to get the yum-yum on with Coop, they ignite a Zippo lighter, not a bonfire.

1. The cinematography. And right now, the Siren’s readers are checking the credits, seeing Gregg Toland’s name, and lining up to feel her forehead and ask if she’s feeling herself today. Yes, complaining about Toland’s cinematography may seem the product of delirium or glaucoma. But this isn’t a question of skill or beauty--of course it’s beautiful, it’s Toland and Hawks--it’s a question of what suits the material. Ball of Fire’s pacing problems are exacerbated by a look that’s disconcertingly gloomy. The house where the professors are compiling their encyclopedia is lit like Xanadu, and instead of emphasizing the contrast between the eccentrics and what one of them calls “a mausoleum,” the visuals just muffle the action further. All the deep-focus shots keep pulling the Siren into the sets, when she wants to concentrate on the conga line.

Nits picked. On to the fun stuff. Again, in reverse order:

4. Oscar Homolka as Professor Gurkakoff, the scientist/mathematician. This may be another perception unique to the Siren, but he’s her favorite dwarf. The Siren once worked for mathematicians, and Homolka’s performance, combining a certain innocence with common sense and kindness with oddball humor, is a compendium of all the things she loved so much about those guys. Coop aside, he’s also the only professor with a little bit of sex appeal. (Like the Siren said, this may be a personal thing...)




3. The movie’s sweetness. Even Joe Lilac (Andrews) gets a signature color that's a nudging joke and some pretty funny moments, considering he’s described as the head of Murder Incorporated. Dan Duryea, one of the movies’ most reliable sadists, also goes easy as thug Pastrami. So do his partner Asthma (Ralph Peters) and the professors’ battle-axe housekeeper Kathleen Howard. But the real tell is the gentle, loving treatment of the Seven Dwarfs. Intellectuals get sent up a lot in American comedy; as stuffed-shirt targets, they--oh all right, we--are irresistible. The profs are babes in the Central Park woods, the first ones you’d pull out of a crowd for a cozy little game of three-card monte. But we like them that way. When Sugarpuss arrives, they’ve got all the equipment needed to join the conga line and overcome a bunch of gangsters. The eggheads do it, however, without changing their essential natures. Witness the lovely scene where, after Haydn has described his sexless, John-Ruskin-esque honeymoon with a watercolor-painting virgin named Genevieve, the professors serenade him with the old Victorian song of the same name. They sing without a trace of condescension or pity; they’re just performing an act of lovingkindness for an old friend.




2. The dialogue. Nobody, but nobody ever venerated and immortalized American slang like Austrian-born Billy Wilder, and this was his chance to shoot the works. “Root, zoot, and cute--and solid to boot!” “Brother, we’re going to have some hoy toy toy.” “Scrow! Scram! Scraw!” “Blitz it, mister, blitz it, will ya!” “Patch my pantywaist.” “A slight case of Andy Hardy.” And one the Siren admires for its Code-proof double entendre: “Shove in your clutch.” What a feast this movie is. And the Siren thinks that while Wilder and Brackett recorded authentic phrases, they also just made shit up, and did it so well you think it’s something you’ve been hearing all your life. Of the lines above, which ones would you have heard on the street in 1941? The Siren can’t tell you. Maybe all, maybe none. Example: when Stanwyck says someone is going to “throw me out on my tin.” The Siren’s heard a lot of euphemisms, and seen a lot of movies, but that’s a new one on her. (She’s adopting it forthwith, by the by.)

And now we come to the Siren’s number-one favorite thing about Ball of Fire, the place where the whole movie comes together.




1. Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea. She was, incredibly, fifth choice, behind Carole Lombard, who disliked the character and the story, Jean Arthur, whom McCarthy says Hawks didn’t really want, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers, who was offered the part and turned it down because, she told Goldwyn via her agent, she only wanted to play “ladies” from now on. (Goldwyn’s response: “You tell Ginger Rogers ladies stink up the place!”) That’s an impressive list, and any of them could done have a creditable job. But not like Stanwyck, oh no. She was as sexy in this movie as any in her career, especially in the early scenes with her nightclub costume swaying around those gams like spangled vertical blinds. The Brooklyn that never entirely left her low-pitched voice gets free rein in lines like “Say, who decorated this place, the mug that shot Lincoln?” and “This is the first time anyone moved in on my brain.” Her dawning love for Pottsie is so perfectly calibrated it’s like watching a thermostat turned up notch by notch. Her attack of late-movie remorse over having deceived Pottsie is delivered with one line, “a tramp,” spoken in a way that tells more than her tears seconds later. In a movie stacked with some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, one gorgeous future leading man and one eternal legend, Stanwyck still carries the whole thing. She is, as Professor Bertram Potts might say, the complete conjugation.

70 comments:

Bill Wren said...

The cat's pajamas! This is the movie where I "discovered" Stanwyck. I was aware of her prior to this but only passingly. When I saw this, I start going back over her other movies.

And the first time I saw Ball of Fire, I marveled at Gene Krupa's drum solo with matchsticks.

I hadn't thought about it before, but I agree about the set and cinematography. It is a pretty gloomy look for what is essentially a screwball comedy.

Thanks for the review! Loved it!

Arthur S. said...

I rather like this film because its much slower than the 30s screwball comedies and also for Barbara Stanwyck. And Toland has no issues lighting up the club for the Drum Boogie number with Gene Krupa as himself(foreshadowing Hoagie Carmichael's immortal appearance in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT).

Gary Cooper speaks French in the opening of Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR LIVING, but then people probably forgot that when BALL OF FIRE came off.

It's not major Hawks but as the old song of les politiques goes, its still greater than anything out in theatres these days.

Interesting thing about Hawks being as important as Lubitsch for Wilder. Of Their collaborations, NINOTCHKA might perhaps reflect Lubitsch's influence more but BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE(also with Gary Cooper as a tycoon who crassly lies in Louis XIV's bathtub not caring who Louis is) is more Wilder.

Ed Howard said...

I love this one. Is it as good as Hawks' other screwball comedies? No, not really, but few films are. Does it have some issues? Sure, though nothing too distracting to me. It's still brilliant and tons of fun, with so many great moments - the matchstick drum solo, all the banter between Stanwyck and the dwarves, the scene where Cooper gives himself a quick lesson in boxing to punch out the gangster, and so much more. Best of all is probably the memorably shadowy scene where Cooper inadvertently confesses his love to Stanwyck - tell me that cinematography isn't gorgeous. Stanwyck apparently played it in blackface so she'd blend into the darkness more thoroughly.

The Siren said...

Bill, the matchstick drum solo is charming and it helps establish Sugarpuss as someone with a playful side, important for the story development. Dan Callahan and I talked about the lighting and sets before i rewatched this (he actually lent me the DVD) and we agreed about the looks.

Arthur, you're right, he does speak French, and he's understandable, too. Cooper's timing is also swifter and surer in Design for Living, although he's mostly just fine in Ball of Fire. I like the knowing, yet still nerdy way he flirts with Miss Totten.

Ed, the silhouettes are lovely and the screen cap at your place is so nice I couldn't bring myself to steal it. (As is the cap of Stanwyck's face reflected in the nightclub tabletop--also lovely.). The blackface was Toland's idea, because Hawks wanted only Stanwyck's eyes to show. And I have to say, though, that it didn't work for me, insofar as when I saw it, cold and knowing nothing, I said to myself, "Gad, that's weird, she's in blackface." I don't know if that would have struck people in 1941 but it sure stuck out to me.

Gloria said...

I agree on Homolka's sex-appeal... Particularly with that moustache!

VP81955 said...

This capped off Stanwyck's 1941, arguably the best year any actress has ever had. "The Lady Eve," "Meet John Doe" -- and a romantic comedy no one remembers called "You Belong To Me," with Fonda as her leading man. Dalton Trumbo wrote the story, Claude Binyon the screenplay, and Wesley Ruggles directed.

I'm still trying to figure out what Lombard didn't like about "Ball of Fire"; while I can't imagine Carole would have bettered Barbara in it, she might have added some nice touches of her own.

The Siren said...

VP, I wonder the same; all I can think is that the grasping, deceitful side of Sugarpuss must have put Lombard off more than she was attracted to the playful side. I'm sure she'd have done well with the part but Stanwyck just tears it up. I saw You Belong to Me and it's also enjoyable. Maybe it'll turn up on Netflix; I can't believe all the goodies showing up there on Instant of late.

A.C. said...

While this isn't my favorite Hawks comedy, I'm a sucker for anything from Wilder and, as you said, his dialogue here is as witty and funny as ever.

I'll never forget when I was watching this at home and my 23 year-old brother (who isn't in to classics) walked in the room, got one look of Sugarpuss O'Shea and said, "Look at those gams!" Stany's appeal is timeless!

The Siren said...

A.C., I sincerely try not to use old movies to beat up on new, but one thing that repeatedly occurs to me is that women's legs in old movies were a lot sexier. The current fashion for extreme thinness means a lot of modern actresses have legs that remind me of underfed chickens. Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Marlene, Grable, Colbert, and oh yes Stanwyck, now those were gams.

William said...

That movie inspired me to download Drum Boogie - what a movie!

William said...

That movie inspired me to download Drum Boogie - what a movie!

William said...

That movie inspired me to download Drum Boogie - what a movie!

JustJoan said...

My late lamented best lover really loved this movie, as did I. Whenever I would move in with intent for a kiss he would murmur, "Here's the yum..."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Your cabeats are duly noted, Siren, but I never found any trouble in sailing though this film with unalloyed pleasure.

I was probably too distracted by Stanwyck's legs to think about the pace.

Oscar Homolka turns up again for Wilder, most memorably in The Seven Year Itch when he defines the title for a MM-struck Tow Ewell.

In his youth Homolka starred in Brecht plays. Lovely I'm sure but Billy Wilder is always more fun.

Juanita's Journal said...

I had no trouble with the Cooper/Stanwyck screen chemistry. Hey . . . different strokes for different folks. Also, the funniest moment for me was watching Cooper trying to restrain himself from enjoying Stanwyck's "rendition" of "Drum Boogie". I found his performance in that scene one of the best examples of comedic acting . . . and without the use of dialogue.

Vanwall said...

"Throw me out on my tin " I've heard of derrieres referred to as that before, so I'm assuming they cockney'd it a little by dropping - speaking of which, can you imagine that film in England? The mind boggles enough at "berk" as it is. BTW, "Shove in your clutch" would have to be followed by "Let out the clutch and pedal to the metal!" to get goin' - Just sayin'.

I can see this as a German film as much as an English film, Wilder prolly being quite cognizant of both slanguages, rich in personal and place make-ups and mashes, and every so often it has that "People Will Talk" vibe of cultures-slightly-out-of-focus that German adaptations have sometimes.

Cooper plays the big brain a little too obtusely, but fun anyway. Homolka always seemed like he knew what was up, a sly chap in everything he did.

Then there is Stanwyck, un-approachable as a comedic energy source - nobody was more alive that her in screwballs. And the best-looking, too, for my vote.

Nice breakdown and salute, Siren!

Vanwall said...

Oopsie, I meant to type "Tin Can" for the behind reference.

Kent Jones said...

Siren, I think I agree with every single word of your carefully considered and elegantly written take on this movie. I would only add that the Goldwyn factor, which translates as a certain anxiety about the display of "production values" in every shot, is another constraining factor.

Funny you should single out Oscar Homolka. I was just watching him in THE TAMARIND SEED, giving an amazingly sharp and spirited performance as a Soviet operative in the London embassy, his forehead trimmed with a Brezhnev unibrow. What an actor...

Yojimboen said...

Homolka + I Remember Mama = the be-all and end-all of H’Wood ‘character actor’ performances.

I have always felt that Wilder was less an acolyte of Lubitsch, than an earnest emulator of Wilson Mizner (who really was God).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mizner? That's a Sondheim song cue if I ever heard one.

Ed Sikov said...

Thanks for the reference. I appreciate it.

maready said...

OK, reading The Siren on 'Ball of Fire' requires that I momentarily unlurk in order to thank both her and her followers for my favorite blog on any subject tout court. Thanks!

Happy Miser said...

Thanks for the fun, appreciative post, Siren.
FYI:Richard Haydn did do a voice in a Warner's cartoon: Super Rabbit. He sounded just like Oddly and was voicing a professor.
I'm forever grateful to Barbara for being " a pushover for Streptococcus".

The Siren said...

William, I like Drum Boogie X3 as well.

Aw Joan, my condolences; what a romantic devil he sounds.

David and Juanita, I do love it, I just put it in that category of movies I love despite their flaws, where they all have good company with some men I've known...

Vanwall, it boggles my mind that Wilder could write the way he did in a second language, esp. considering my struggles with French!

The Siren said...

Kent, I'm very pleased to find us in accord, as always, and the Goldwyn point is well taken. Homolka really was special, to stand out in that case; they're all great, even Haydn, whose characterization isn't bad, it just personally grates.

Yojimboen, Mizner was god indeed; ever read Miss Anita Loos on him?

Ed Sikov, I am glad you saw this; I refer to your bio just about every time I write up Wilder, and I write him up a lot. I am sorry, though, that you saw the one time I happened to quote you without linking to the Amazon page on the book! That will teach me to get lazy with links...

The Siren said...

Maready, what a lovely compliment, thank you so much! Especially coming from a great blogger.

Happy Miser, that is so funny about Haydn! It is truly a Loony Tunes voice. I was happy to have a chance to get reacquainted with this one and was glad it popped up out of the hat, considering it has so many fans.

Kent Jones said...

Siren, it's funny but I had just been thinking about Richard Haydn. I went to look at CLUNY BROWN again for the first time in I don't know how long, and I was bowled over by the film and by Haydn in it. Part of the reason being that his accent is working class rather than the pinched Oxfordian number he sang in movie after movie. In BALL OF FIRE, he's slotted into place just like everybody else (Stanwyck excepted), but in the Lubitsch he stretches out - funny and touching at the same time. Part of it has to do with Lubitsch's liberating frankness about class, I think.

Vanwall said...

Actually, Haydn's "Miss Tatlock's Millions" is pretty good little screwball in itself.

Arthur S. said...

I saw Vidor's WAR AND PEACE again, two days before New Year's and Oscar Homolka as Marshall Tutov is one of the best performances in a gallery that includes Audrey Hepburn at her best, Henry Fonda, Jose Ferrer and above them all Herbert Lom as the definitive Napoleon.

But the first time I really noticed him is Hitchcock's SABOTAGE.

gmoke said...

A double feature in contemplation of La Stanwyck's gams:
Ball of Fire
and
Lady of Burlesque

Compare and contrast:
Hawks and Wellman
Billy Wilder and Gypsy Rose Lee

Dave said...

"Ball of Fire" may not be the most polished comedy, but compared to its remake -- with the ever-odious Danny Kaye -- it's practically Sturgesesque.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Haydn is amazing in his coonfrontation scenes with Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty. It's "War of The Power-Sissies!"

JustJoan said...

David, I adore your Power-Sissies, but I'm also grateful to you for reminding me of another favorite that paired Webb with Stanwyck: "Titanic." I am always impressed by both of these performances, chiefly because they somehow manage, even in playing severely estranged marrieds, to be believable as a couple. Webb was indeed a fabulous sissy and a mamma's boy to boot, yet he manages, especially here, to translate that effete elegance into dignified marital restraint. I love this flick, far more than any Leonardo-Kate CGI-athon, and am always reduced to tears by Webb's final paternal embrace of the child he has always loved as his son.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Clifton Webb was an extremely powerful screen presence. The fact that he had this fabulous film crareer late in life having been a legendary dnacer on Broadway is really something else.

Clift turns the whole audience into Laura -- waiting expectantly on his every word.

JustJoan said...

"Cluny Brown" is a real favorite of mine. Whenever Jennifer Jones could manage to escape from under the iron control of Mr. Selznick she just blossomed, and together with Charles Boyer at his puckish best they are delightful and sexy.

X. Trapnel said...

Clifton Webb started out as an art student, studying with the great Robert Henri and having his portrait painted (at age 16 or so) by his fellow student George Bellows (viewable at www.paintingall.com/george-bellows-portrait-of-clifton-webb.html). I like to think that it was through Henri that Waldo got the wherwithal to mock Jacoby's "artistic theories" and cite his derivations from better painters.

A well-done movie about the Ashcan painters is one of my cinema fantasies.

JustJoan said...

I'll sign up for that Ashcan movie. I used to work with George Luks' nephew, and was a big fan of Henri. The first time I got off the train at Versailles I looked around and said, "It's a happy Edward Hopper!" Then I learned that he studied with Henri...

X. Trapnel said...

JustJoan,

Thomas Mitchell as George Luks! Check out Henri's portrait, and as personalities they're a perfect match.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I remember remarking, in a moment of enthusiasm, that the entire Goldwyn Studios output was justified by that one scene where Stanwyck teaches Cooper about "yum-yum." Not that I disagree, necessarily, with the Siren's comment about the StanwyckCooper chemistry or lack thereof. The moment works, for me, because of Stanwyck and composer Alfred Newman's teasing theme. She's a scheming and entrappng woman ... of the most benevolent and joy-inducing sort.

If you'll foergive me for making a couple of obvious points ... Kent's remark about the Goldwyn factor should be modified by the fact that this was Hawks' first picture with Goldwyn since the troubled "Come and Get It," where Hawks was fired for fooling around with the script. Hence, a "play nice" approach and a tendency to leave in every single one of Brackett & Wilder's (multi)syllables is understandable in th e case of "Ball of Fire."

It should also be noted that "Sugarpuss O'Shay" (double-entendre noted -- with pleasure), the fictional vocalist for bandleader Gene Krupa, was modeled after genuine Krupa vocalist Anita O'Day. YouTube even has a performance of O'Day herself performing "Drum Boogie" with Krupa.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjIQy_ZIqBw

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

"Would you 'yum' me just once more?"
~ Cooper to Stanwyck

I love that, much as I continue to mourn the loss of the pre-Capra sexualized Cooper. I also like the bit, after the final 'yum,' when the housekeeper looks in and Stanwyck gives a non-verbal click of affirmation.

Vanwall said...

M. X - Charles Durning as Luks, I'd say.

X. Trapnel said...

V.
Charled Durning? Sure if we're confined to the living, though who but Myrna Loy could be the beguiling second Mrs. Henri? I can dream can't I. (I'm currently writing an introduction to a new edition of John Sloan's [Henry Fonda] New York Diaries, a wonderful gift idea).
In checking out IMDB to find out (unsuccessfully) who painted the actual portrait in Laura, I did learn that battleaxe Kathleen Howard (as the cook who obstinately refuses to marry Shelby Carpenter) had her jaw broken from a fake punch thrown by Barbara S. in Ball of Fire. Everything is connected.

The Siren said...

XT, that's incredible! Because I looked at that punch and thought "well, that looked phony." Maybe they threw out the take that broke her jaw? Poor Ms Howard!

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

IMDB says Stanwyck was "mortified" by the incident. Perhaps Ms. Howard advised Dana Andrews to sock Vincent Price in the gut rather than the jaw. Either would have been satisfying, though both would have been nice.

Nora said...

Regarding the portrait of Laura, according to Preminger's biographer, Chris Fujiwara, and AFI, it is a photograph by Frank Polony. The photo was enlarged and brushed with paint to look like a portrait.

Azadia Newman was originally commissioned to paint a portrait, but it was not used when Preminger replaced Mamoulian.

JustJoan said...

Azadia Newman was Mrs. Mamoulian, yes? I remember reading Gene Tierney's autobiography, "Self-Portrait," in which she said Newman had actually painted the portrait, but Preminger didn't think it was particularly haunting. Whatever the truth, the finished product is stunning. And true to this lapidary string of remembrances, let us not forget that the excellent Clifton Webb and Miss Tierney also collaborated in the film of Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge."

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

"Homolka starred in Brecht plays. Lovely I'm sure but Billy Wilder is always more fun" (David E)

David, let me play Liza Minnelli to your Michael York, and say that the Brecht performances you imply were just ... the wrong Brecht!

Kent Jones said...

Mrs. Vale, I don't get your point. I understand the dynamics between Hawks and Goldwyn post-COME AND GET IT, and why Hawks felt obliged to play ball. I still find the Goldwynism on the dispiriting side, the absolute adherence to every single word of the script less than thrilling. One could argue the point, but I think that Wyler and Vidor were the only directors who knew how to get around or under the Goldwyn "touch." If the director's credit had been accidentally dropped from all prints of BALL OF FIRE, who would guess that it had been directed by the man who made HIS GIRL FRIDAY and was destined to make TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT?

The Siren said...

Kent & Mrs HWV, that is a very interesting question. I myself don't see all that much that screwms Hawks in a visual sense, which is why I focused more on Wilder. To me it seems like a very script-focused movie, which thank goodness with Brackett and Wilder isn't a bad thing. But Ed Howard in his writeup points out some things that he sees as very Hawks, like the matchstick drum solo, alternating between a relaxed Stanwyck and the crowd, and the shot of the old men looking down at Stanwyck's arrival. But if Sikov is right and these weeks of observation had a large influence on WIlder, it's also interesting to contemplate exactly what he was learning on set, with a director who ordinarily had a lot of improvisation but who was uncharacteristically adhering to the script. Mind you, Hawks just seems to have really liked the script, but Furthman and the others he collaborated with weren't chopped liver either.

The Siren said...

"Screwms", HA. I am leaving that typo because it seems I am still channeling deaw Kay Fwancis from New Yeaw's Eve...

Kent Jones said...

I read Ed Howard's description. I can think of about ten contemporary directors who also made films with crowded frames. In every case, the crowding happens for different reasons. In Hawks, the frames - let's simplify and use compositions - are crowded because he's jazzed by the dynamics of community (as opposed to Sturges, who's into cacophony). In this movie, the compositions are crowded because it takes place in a house and it's about a bunch of shy men who talk a lot and don't like to go out. These passages from Todd M's Hawks bio are germane: "Hawks...found [deep focus cinematography] suitable 'when you didn't give a damn what the people looked like, as with the old professors. The harsher the lighting, the better they looked...I always thought of them as one person...Anyway, it was kind of a stylized thing, and you had to adapt your style to it.'" When Hawks is at his most exciting, he's deeply involved in "what the people look like," how they move, what gestures they favor. Such is not the case in BALL OF FIRE.

joe said...

I'm late to the comments here, but I wanted to note that I like it when Richard Haydn says "stay in the icebox like a good little salad" in that Marvin the Martian voice.

Also, the Gene Krupa performance is notable for an appearance and a (very brief) solo by the great Roy Eldridge. Rare to see an integrated big band in 1941.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Kent, my point was that Hawks was "making nice" by leaving the script alone and that this might have been a mixed blessing. Good, in that it gave us more Wilder & Brackett; not-so-good, in that the script lost out on the editing that, say, a Furthman script might have received.

Kent Jones said...

Yes Mrs. Vale, I get your gist now.

I'm very fond of this maxim from Alexander Mackendrick: "Scripts aren't written. They're re-written."

VP81955 said...

A.C., I sincerely try not to use old movies to beat up on new, but one thing that repeatedly occurs to me is that women's legs in old movies were a lot sexier. The current fashion for extreme thinness means a lot of modern actresses have legs that remind me of underfed chickens. Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Marlene, Grable, Colbert, and oh yes Stanwyck, now those were gams.

Let's not forget the Lombard legs, which were pretty luscious, and relatively underrated (perhaps they were among the reasons Carole was offered the role).

Regarding "Drum Boogie," I always thought O'Day was dubbing Stanwyck in the film -- Anita joined Krupa's band in '41, giving them a substantial hit in "Let Me Off Uptown" -- but it turns out the band's previous vocalist (whose name escapes me) did the honors.

As Bjorn said...

There's a pretty great number by Anita O'Day with Krupa's band called "Murder He Said," which uses that kind of hipster slang:
He says, "Chick, chick,you torture me
Zoot! Are we livin'?
I'm thinkin' o' leavin' him flat
He says, "Dig, dig, the jumps the old
ticker is givin"
Now, he can talk plainer than that

I think there's a video of Anita doing this song. She's got a Barbara Stanwyck vibe herself.

FDChief said...

Wonderful discussion of a nifty little movie. Nothing to add but this bizarre little bit of trivia.

In the "escape" sequence late in the film the MacGuffin is the portrait of the supposed founder of the Totten Institue that the professors drop on Dan Duryea's head. It's a pretty standard studio prop, the "Victorian portrait" with the exception that the Victorian in question is exaggeratedly cross-eyed.

By pure coincidence I'd been watching 1940's "Remember the Night", the Stanwyck/MacMurray vehicle just before reveiwing the tape of this one, and lo and behold, who turns up as Fred's "crosseyed old ancestor" when he brings Babs home for the holidays rather than let her try potluck with the other girls in the Big Doll House?

You got it - ol man Totten.

I wonder if Stanwyck remembered that prop portrait from the year before and suggested it to the propman, or it was just concidence, or whether the destruction of the thing over Duryea's head prevented a creepy sort of "Stanwyck Curse" where the crosseyed mook began showing up in Stanwyck films like the cat that came back..?

The Siren said...

FDChief, I have not seen you in comments in a while, and you were missed. Now when you return, it's with the single most deliciously funny bit of trivia I have encountered in a blue moon. I *did* notice that the Ball of Fire portrait is cross-eyed, but I never would have noticed old man Totten cropping up in two movies. And RtN is Paramount, and Ball of Fire is Goldwyn; surely it must have been Stanwyck bringing it with her, since she's the connection. But why on earth would she have kept such a spectacularly ugly souvenir? I must consult Stanwyck expert Dan Callahan on this fabulous mystery.

ivan said...

omg, where can one learn all of the "inside" stuff (or trivia or whatever) from "behind the scenes"


i would really like to know :)

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Re: "Murder, He Says" and "Drum Boogie."

I wouldn't be doing my duty, I guess, if I didn't specify that it was Frank Loesser who wrote the words for "Murder, He Says" (music by Jimmy McHugh). And it was Martha Tilton whose voice was used for "Drum Boogie."

As for faces reappearing ... isn't the brunette beside Gary Cooper as he listens to "Drum Boogie" the same young woman who makes a face when drinking Pike's Pale in "The Lady Eve"?

The Siren said...

Mrs HWV, the one standing and bopping? I love her! Love her dress! Your eye goes right to her. But I don't know about the Pike's Pale. Any votes from the assembly?

Paulette said...

This is one of my favorite HH films. Although I agree that the film could have been better with proper editing to shorten it a bit. I never found Gary Cooper appealing until I saw this gem of a film (same goes for Fonda until I watched The Lady Eve). I think this says a lot about the power of Stanwyck - someone who I adored as a child and find even more wonderful as my years pile on. I love Carole Lombard to but for some reason cannot see her in this role - not saying her gams would not have been lovely - something about her is untouchable - whereas Stanwyck was more nuanced but always available.

Not sure if I'm even making any sense. Bronchitis has me up and now watching Topkapi and mesmerized by the unbelievable gorgeousness of Max Schell while my Tylenol 3 doped up brain dances to the crazy Greek score. Thanks for the terrific blog.

PS ~ BoF will be playing Feb 9th on TCM mid-afternoon. Hopefully I'll relapse and the bronchitis will return just in time.

ms.zebra said...

This is simply a wonderful post. I enjoyed every word, and you've pinpointed many things I've felt about this film. Truly, a blast to watch, but not as up to par as The Lady Eve (I sort of consider these two companion pieces). Still, Stanwyck never disappoints.

AndrewBW said...

I agree with everything you say, but I'd add one more criticism and one more praise to your list. The praise is for the whole supporting cast. I agree that Richard Haydn's voice as Professor Oddly is a bit off, but at least to me not horribly so. And the rest of the cast is terrific, particularly Allen Jenkins as the garbage man, and Tommy Ryan as the newsboy. "Most illuminating!"

The criticism is the climactic fight between Bertram and Joe Lilac. Really, it's one of the worst fights ever put on screen. I understand that Hawks wants to make Potsie look "old fashioned" by having him fight with his fists extended all the way out, but it really just makes him look foolish. More than any of the criticisms you list, this very nearly sinks the movie for me.

Nearly. Because of course there's Barbara Stanwyck sailing through the movie like a breath of fresh air in a musty old house. The dialog isn't just fabulous, her delivery of it is too. "Oh, you know once I watched my big brother shave." And you're right - her dawning love for Potsie is expertly calibrated to sit right on the edge between perfect and silly. I like to think that in this role, and in "Lady of Burlesque," we get to see a flash of Ruby Stevens, the beautiful chorus girl that she once was.

Don't tell me the jive session has beat off without baby!

FDChief said...

Siren: I didn't think to check the studio behind "Remember the Night", but your information DOES make a good case for the prop being something that Stanwyck took with her and possibly snuck into MGM as...some sort of inside joke?

And thanks for the shout-out. I've been lurking, just didn't have anything to contribute to all the good discussions. Glad ol' Totten helped liven this one up.

The Siren said...

Paulette, I am so with you on Maximilian Schell. A dreamboat, which makes his role in Judgment at Nuremberg a really surreal experience. Hope you feel better soon. An excuse to watch TCM is one of the few benefits of being laid up.

MsZebra, thank you so much!

Andrew, even Haydn's voice didn't prevent me from loving the Genevieve scene. That fight sequence really is a touch too ludicrous, although funny fights were of course something of a Hawks specialty. Overall though I think it's all right in the farcical world of the film. It isn't that much harder for to take than the notion of burning a portrait cord with a microscope. So agree on the supporting cast overall though; Tommy Ryan is one of those gritty little street urchin actors from the era that I always love. I am fond of Boys Town for that reason, it's a feast of the type.

Karen said...

Oh, the actress to Coop's right when he's listening to Stanwyck sing "Drum Boogie" is the LADY WRESTLER!

And has no one noted Elisha Cook jr as a waiter in the Drum Boogie scene? "She jives by night!"

Dang, I'm sorry to be so late to this rockin' party, but I'm just back from two weeks out of the country. Why does all the best stuff on this blog seem to happen when I'm on vacation??

I'm afraid I've never picked any of your nits on this one, O Siren, a film which is a particular favorite of mine.

I agree, though, that there's a strong possibility that a lot of that slang was the product of Wilder's brilliant mind. My mother used to tell me about "Ameche" being used as slang for telephone because of Don's performance as Alexander Graham Bell, but I've never heard it anywhere but in this film and I suspect that's where my mom got it from. At any rate, if it was in wide circulation, I'll bet it came from this film first.

Another great line from Sugarpuss, by the way, about the incipient streptoccus in her throat: "It's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore!"

My one quibble, which differs slightly from that of our hostess, is in the depiction of the academics. I've often lent my DVD to faculty, as a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood's perception of academia. It's not mocking, I'll grant, but more a kind of affectionate scorn for a crowd of bachelor naifs.

Miss Kelly said...

Professor Oddly's voice reminded me very much of Peter Seller's Inspector Clousseau, and a few other of Pete Seller's characters. I found the film to be quite charming film overall. This film was one of Alec Guinness' choices on TCM's Essentials. I've thoroughly enjoyed all of the moveis which Baldwin has picked so far.

The Rush Blog said...

While I might agree with you in regard to the movie's pacing and Richard Hadyn, I hit a wall when you made this comment:

Cooper doesn’t have much chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck.


I'm sorry, but I just don't agree. Especially after viewing the scene in which Cooper's character declared his love for Stanwyck.

plague said...

What's code-avoiding/-baiting/-avoiding about 'shove in your clutch'? It's equivalent in context to 'turn around' or 'put yourself in reverse' only plausibly hard-boiled in a world of stick-shift cars.

Anyhow, I thinks BoF is just OK apart from Stanwyck, who obviously burns up the screen. Cooper can't do physical comedy, Hawks is in his lazy, 'just stick a camera in front of it' mode (see also The Big Sleep) wasting Toland, there's way too much stagey contrivance (Garbage guy who's never heard of encyclopedia, Ms Totten who is painfully cartoonish, comedy gangsters (unlike, say, Some Like It Hot's), room numbers sliding around) to be even minimally believable, and, perhaps most fundamentally, as Siren mentions, the basic pace of the film is well down from the best screwballs, to its cost.

Agree that Homolka was the best of the non-Potts Profs (he reminded me a little of late '50s Ernie Kovacs which is I suppose a good thing).

Agree that, even without any priming knowledge, Stanwyck's blacked-up face was disconcertingly obvious. If that's Hawks overruling Toland then, well, it figures.

In sum, while Stanwyck makes BoF essential viewing for everyone eventually, I'd say watch almost every other notable 30s and 40s comedy ahead of it. (I understand that this is a minority view!)