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Friday, September 5, 2014

BALL OF FIRE (1941)

Just off his sole Oscar® nom. (for helming the singularly unrepresentative SERGEANT YORK/’41), Howard Hawks segued straight into (of all things) a Billy Wilder comedy (co-scripted w/ Charles Brackett). A very likable film, no matter the authorship, it’s a slangy, wised-up riff on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS with Barbara Stanwyck’s ‘chanteusey’ hiding from the law courtesy of 7 sweetie-pie professors living together on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (5 West 83rd St.) Plus an 8th, a real Prince Charming of a Professor, tall, hesitant, handsome, unintentionally elegant, naturally sexy . . . why it’s Gary Cooper. The gimmick is that they need Babs to help out with their encyclopedia entry on modern slang; and she secretly needs them to keep her on ice until her mob boyfriend (Dana Andrews) can arrange their marriage so she won’t have to testify against him. Reduced to essentials, we’ve got Jazz musician in trouble hiding out with the opposite sex till things cool down. That’s the basic storyline of Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT/’59; right down to a mention of that film’s motivating trigger, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Hawks is only partially successful at tamping down a major case of the cutes from the professors, but Stanwyck & Cooper smoothly work up a real emotional response with the aid of a stack of books to create a level kissing field. And note how cinematographer Gregg Toland, back on the Sam Goldwyn lot after shooting CITIZEN KANE/’41, pulls off lighting strategies that individualize the professors inside various single compositions.

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