Saturday, February 09, 2008

I'm a Pushover for Streptococcus

People say Ball of Fire is one of Hawks' lesser works, but I don't buy that. Lesser-known, maybe, but it's certainly a marvelous comedy: to say it isn't as good as the others only goes to show how brilliant the others are. Interestingly, some people also have a problem with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is another one of my favorites, so frankly, I can only conclude that these people are idiots.

So there.

Now, on to the film. Seven adorably nerdy old professors, and one young, handsome (and still adorably nerdy) grammarian played by Gary Cooper, all live in a big Upper West Side house researching and writing an encyclopedia. When Cooper ventures out into the field to collect new data on the latest slang, he becomes entranced by singer Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). He introduces himself to her and leaves his card, asking her to join him for a round-table discussion the following morning. Sugarpuss blows him off, but later changes her mind -- it turns out she has to hide out from the cops for awhile, because her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is in trouble with the cops, who want to drag her in as a witness. And where better to hide than in a musty old house full of dusty scholars?

The dear old gentlemen quickly become entranced by her, and she ends up falling for Cooper, naturally. I won't spoil the ending -- it's available on Netflix, so just rent it already.

It's hard to convey the general awesomeness of this movie without quoting nearly every line (though hopefully the premise has conveyed to you some idea of it) so I'll just run down some moments in particular which delighted me.

I love the early scenes with Cooper out collecting slang, leaning in to catch people's conversations on the subway and jotting down what they say in his notebook. I love it when he asks the waiter at the nightclub the name of the song Stanwyck sings, and he replies "Boogie" and Cooper says, "What does 'boogie' mean?" and everyone laughs at him. Oh, and I love the roundtable discussion of the word "corny," complete with diagrams! Hell, I love all the old-timey slang in general, which I guess makes me a bit of a loose-tooth. As such, I find the dialogue to be simply divine throughout, especially Stanwyck's lines (hey modern directors, here's an idea: give the girls a funny line every once in a goddam, while). I particularly enjoy the scene where she's convincing Cooper to let her stay overnight in the house, claiming she's too sick to go out in the night and the rain.

Stanwyck: Look at this throat, what do you see?
Cooper: A slight rosiness?
Stanwyck:It's as red as The Daily Worker, and just as sore!

Then she claims she catches cold easily, and that she's "a pushover for streptococcus." At which precise moment I inwardly declared my everlasting love for this movie. Any movie that can work in a reference to a genus of spherical bacteria holds my heart forever.

Cooper gets his lines in too, though. When he asks Sugarpuss to leave, he says, "Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body."

The repartee between Stanwyck and Cooper is effervescent, and both their performances are great, but Stanwyck, of course, steals this movie. She's the center of attention, and rightly so. Some elements of the plot are loosely based on the Snow White story -- the seven professors, the charming, girl who breezes into their lives and makes them love her -- but with a modern twist, of course (this Snow White doesn't clean house, she cha-chas).

There's also a genuine sweetness to this film that makes me love it all the more -- never are the dear old professors objects of derision (jokes are made at their expense, of course, but they're more like a gentle poke, friendly-like). One particularly sweet scene stands out in which they old sing a nostalgic song for Professor Oddly, as he remembers his dead bride during a bachelor party anecdote. Their friendship and camaraderie are so innocent and touching, they've been known to bring a tear to a grown man's eye. In an interview, Hawks defended this scene, saying, "When you're doing a story about old people, you can afford to be sentimental." Professor Oddly, by the way, was played by Richard Hadyn, who voiced the Caterpillar in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, one of the few Disney movies I actually adore.


minshap said...

So nice to find someone who appreciates and expounds upon the qualities of Barbara Stanwyck. I love her in almost everything I've ever seen her in, but I haven't seen Ball of Fire and will now start to search for it... The lines, that's what really gets me! How she smarts off and does it so well! Delicious sarcastic but subtle jabs... okay, just wanted to say: nice to read your blog! And if you ever happen into my blog, be sure to check the black-and-whites list - Barbara's in 3 of them...

P.L. Kerpius said...

I LOVE Barbara Stanwyck! I can't wait to see this movie...