A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, May 25, 2018

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

Henry Travers, Aubrey Mather, Oskar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey, Gary Cooper, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Barbara Stanwyck, and Richard Haydn in Ball of Fire
Prof. Bertram Potts: Gary Cooper
Sugarpuss O'Shea: Barbara Stanwyck
Prof. Oddly: Richard Haydn
Prof. Gurkakoff: Oskar Homolka
Prof. Jerome: Henry Travers
Prof. Magenbruch: S.Z. Sakall
Prof. Robinson: Tully Marshall
Prof. Quintana: Leonid Kinskey
Prof. Peagram: Aubrey Mather
Joe Lilac: Dana Andrews
Garbage Man: Allen Jenkins
Duke Pastrami: Dan Duryea
Asthma Anderson: Ralph Peters
Miss Bragg: Kathleen Howard
Miss Totten: Mary Field
Larsen: Charles Lane
Waiter: Elisha Cook Jr.

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art direction: Perry Ferguson
Film editing: Daniel Mandell
Music: Alfred Newman

If this intersection of the talents of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks doesn't feel much like a typical film from either, lacking some of Wilder's acerbity and Hawks's ebullience, it's perhaps because it was made under the watchful eye of producer Samuel Goldwyn. In fact, it's surprising to find Hawks working for Goldwyn at all after the brouhaha over Come and Get It (1936) that led to Hawks's being fired and replaced with William Wyler. But Goldwyn wanted the writing team of Wilder and Charles Brackett to work for him, and Wilder wanted to work with Hawks. Like everyone else in Hollywood, Wilder wanted to direct, and he wound up shadowing Hawks on the set of Ball of Fire, learning from the best. Wilder later called the picture "silly," and so it is -- not that there's anything wrong with that: Some of the greatest pictures both Wilder and Hawks made were silly, viz. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) and Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938). Ball of Fire never quite reaches the heights of either of those movies, partly because it's encumbered by plot and cast. The "seven dwarfs"  of Ball of Fire are all marvelous character actors, but there are too many of them so the film sometimes feels overbusy. The gangster plot feels cooked-up, which it is. The musical numbers featuring Gene Krupa and his orchestra bring the movie to a standstill -- a pleasant one, but it saps some of the momentum of the comedy. Still, Barbara Stanwyck is dazzling as Sugarpuss O'Shea, performing a comic twofer in 1941 with her appearance in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve, in which she enthralls Henry Fonda's character as efficiently as she does Gary Cooper's in Ball of Fire. There are those who think Cooper is miscast, but I think he's brilliant -- he knows the role is nonsense but he gives it his all.

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