Friday, February 20, 2015

Barbara Demonstrates Yum-Yum

When Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) discovers that his seven years of relatively isolated research have led to a complete lack of understanding of current American slang, he ventures out of the confines of his enclave.  In his quest, he meets Sugarpuss (Katherine) O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), an entertainer who is currently on the lam from the cops - seems her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is suspected of murder and wants her out of the way, since she could link him to the victim.  Sugarpuss arrives on Bertram's doorstep, and within an hour has his research colleagues eating out of her hand, as well as a room in their headquarters.  Meanwhile, Joe is planning a wedding - since a wife can't testify against her husband.  And Bertram is falling in love with his sexy house guest. 

Ball of Fire (1941) is another one of those madcap films that show Barbara Stanwyck's gift for comedy, as well as her chemistry with co-star Gary Cooper.  They had worked together earlier that year in Meet John Doe, and Cooper suggested her for the part of Sugarpuss when other actresses turned it down - among those approached were Virginia Gilmore (Sam Goldwyn's first choice, as she was under contract to him at the time), Ginger Rogers (who thought the role beneath her), Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Betty Fields, and Lucille Ball.  Goldwyn and director Howard Hawks were thrilled at having Stanwyck in the role, and their confidence paid off.  (This TCM article gives a little more information on the casting woes of the production).  
Stanwyck carefully balances the greedy showgirl against the young woman who falls in love - against her will - with a man who "looks like a giraffe", "gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk," and "doesn't know how to kiss".  Without the fine hand of Stanwyck, the film could have easily imploded, as it did with the remake (A Song is Born).  Stanwyck gives us a Sugarpuss who glows with love and with sexuality, and who is finally bested by an innocent man who loves her with all of his heart.  She is intelligent, though uneducated, but she is someone who hungers for love AND for knowledge.  And though clearly Joe has gotten her a job in a classy joint, Stanwyck shows us Sugarpuss' roots - watch her walk on the stage as she performs - Sugarpuss started as a stripper.  

As always, Stanwyck is impeccably dressed by her favorite costumer Edith Head.  She has some lovely street clothing, as well as a splendid costume for her act, that is both breathtaking and cheesy at the same time.  And watch how it sparkles in the dull environs of the professors' apartment house - Head makes Sugarpuss the real bright spot in the lives of these sequestered intellectuals.

Equally perfect is Gary Cooper as Bertram.  It would be easy to make Potts merely a jerk, rather than an innocent, but Cooper carefully walks that line.  Certainly Potts is naive, but he is eager to learn and to experience new things.  His enthusiasm for the slang he is discovering is palpable. He is a man dedicated to his scholarship - though much younger than his scholarly colleagues, he hasn't had the opportunity to interact with the opposite sex, but when he does, his inhibitions take a back seat to his passion.
It's interesting to see Dana Andrews in a supporting role.  His Joe Lilac is an egomaniac, surrounded by Yes Men, who is quite sure he can tame Sugarpuss with a large diamond and a marriage certificate.  Given that Andrews has very little screen time, he makes the most of what little time he is provided.  You don't forget Joe - Andrews makes him just sinister enough to keep the comic background, but still have a character that is a threat to our lovers.

This is a film that is blessed with an amazing supporting cast.  We have the always excellent Allen Jenkins as the neighborhood garbage man, who wants to enter a "quizzola" (he's got all the boxtops he needs.  What he needs are the answers).  Dan Duryea as Duke Pastrami, Lilac's lead henchman is delightfully oily, with his rather disturbing laugh is put to good use.  Watch for the scene when he licks his thumb to clean his gunsight - thus tipping his hat to co-star Gary Cooper (who did the same maneuver in Sergeant York).  "I saw this in a movie," Duryea quips. (Interestingly, a few days after seeing Ball of Fire, I was watching Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), and my husband noticed that Fess Parker (as Crockett) does the same maneuver while fighting Santa Ana at the Alamo. Coincidence? I think not.)

And let us not forget the "seven dwarfs" (Yes, the film is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Professor Potts colleagues in research.  Among the superb actors gracing the cast are Oscar Homolka as Professor Gurkakoff (Mathematics), Henry Travers as Professor Jerome (Geography), S. Z. Sakall  as Professor Magenbruch (Physiology), Leonid Kinskey as Professor Quintana, and Richard Haydn as the appropriately named Professor Oddly (Botany).  Sugarpuss calls them a bunch of "squirrelly cherubs", a most apt description.  But rather than just have them there for laughs, they are intrinsic to the plot - it is their combined brain power that will save the day for our couple.

One other note of interest, actress Mary Fields, who plays Miss Totten, is the only actor to appear in the remake, A Song is Born. She plays the exact same character in the remake, though there was a seven year gap between the films.  

Ball of Fire was well received at the time of its release, as is evidenced by this New York Times review.  In 2007, it was selected as a TCM Essentials pick (as well as a 2012 Essentials, Jr. selection).  AND it is number 92 on the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time list.   If you've never seen it, treat yourself to a viewing - and if you have seen it, curl up on a cold evening and watch it again!  We leave you with the scene in which Sugarpuss demonstrates "Yum-yum".  We'll be back soon with more Barbara!

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