Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gentlemen Prefer Howard Hawks: Ball of Fire (1941)

My continuing reevaluation of Howard Hawks finds me totally bedazzled once again, this time by the director's 1941 comedy Ball of Fire starring the completely mismatched on-screen duo Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. But that's the point: Cooper is a starchy scholar working with seven stuffy colleagues on a new encyclopedia, who realizes that he is completely out of touch with modern slang. In order to make the grammar portions of the encyclopedia relevant, Cooper hits the streets of New York searching for street talk, and who better to provide it than Stanwyck, a gangster's moll who moonlights as a cabaret singer. When Stanwyck's sugar daddy needs her to lay low for a while, she shacks up with Cooper and the seven profs (explicitly designed to resemble the seven dwarfs), and unlikely romance begins brewing.

As I've discussed before, I was never one for director Howard Hawks. Maybe I simply resisted him because everyone claimed he was so "important" while all his most "important" films left me flat. But the more I watch of the "lesser" Hawks of bubbly romantic comedies the more I admire him. As the Snow White allusions emphasize, Ball of Fire is a fairy tale: sweet and innocent and very charming. Show me the man who doesn't smile at Ball of Fire and I will show you a man who is dead, if not literally, then emotionally.

I could analyze the movie, I suppose, but why force myself to pretend that the movie was an intellectual exercise? What analysis could I provide, what praise could I bestow, that would be more enlightening than revealing that the movie is so delightful, so seductive, so entertaining, that it moves the most critical viewer (i.e. me) to put down the pen and paper and just enjoy. Why not instead fess up, and say that for 110 blissful minutes I was simply putty in the hands of a master. Hawks' style jives particularly well with screenwriter (and future director) Billy Wilder, whose perspective is all over the script — the notion that Cooper's encylopedia is being funded by a dead millionaire who left part of his estate to the project simply because he was miffed he was left out of the old version, strikes me a particularly Wilderian observation of life.

Though I've wavered on Hawks, I have been, and ever shall be, a charter member of the Barbara Stanwyck fanclub. She wasn't the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, but for a good long while there she was certainly the sexiest, and maybe in a way her slightly imperfect features (particularly that distinctive nose) made her more alluring — there is a genuineness to Stanwyck, as well as an attainability, that's in stark contrast to Monroe or Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who from a man's perspective may as well be another species, let alone a different gender. Movie stars of all generations are terrified of seeming human — in the movies, they always wake up in bed with perfect hair and makeup — but Stanwyck isn't. She's down-to-earth and relatable, and that's part of her unique charm.

But there I go analyzing again. Enough out of me.

Sweeney's discussed the film before, in a short post back in April.


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