Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Worth Watching: Ball of Fire (1941)

Title: Ball of Fire
Director: Howard Hawks
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

This screwball comedy features a linguistics professor, Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper and a nightclub entertainer and gangster's moll, Sugarpuss O'Shea (what a fabulous name), played by Barbara Stanwyck.

Potts, who's working with several other professors to put together an encyclopedia, is gravely innocent; he's part man, part schoolboy. When he goes around town making careful note of new slang to include in the encyclopedia, he winds up in a club where O'Shea explodes onto the stage to the drumbeats of Gene Krupa. That scene, with Stanwyck wearing a costume that looks like a barely contained supernova, is one of the best in the movie; the music is great, because yes, that's really Gene Krupa accompanying her, first on drums, then on matchsticks.

Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Krupa during the Drum Boogie scene in Ball of Fire

Stanwyck's sex appeal depends in large part on the sharpness of her wit and the look in her eyes, not to mention how comfortable she is in her own skin. As a brilliant actress, she also shows us - largely through minute changes in her facial expressions - how she's slowly falling in love with the stodgy Potts, when at first she just thinks of him as a dope. As for Cooper, he's good at pretending to be a man who's convinced himself that he's just fine with celibacy, while looking both quietly terrified and deeply intrigued as O'Shea slinks into his life.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire

Stanwyck and Cooper work so well together and enjoy a strong supporting cast: the other professors, who are all cute old men, and O'Shea's boyfriend for much of the film, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), a gangster trying to avoid getting arrested for murder. Much of the dialogue is funny, as when O'Shea is trying to convince Potts that she isn't feeling well and needs to stay the night ("I'm a pushover for streptococcus"). Some of the screwball comedies I've come across are uneven in quality or less funny than they're made out to be, but this one is enjoyable throughout.

*All images link back to their sources (We Love Stanwyck and Crawford, and Screwball Cinema).