Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Barbara Stanwyck No. 2: BALL OF FIRE Tonight on TCM

Yesterday we talked about Barbara Stanwyck month on TCM through the lens of The Lady Eve, her 1941 romantic comedy with director and screenwriter Preston Sturges. The movie TCM will be screening right after The Lady Eve is another gem, and Stanwyck is just as spirited and sparkly.

So what's No. 2?

It's Ball of Fire, a screwball take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs directed by Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's most versatile directors, with a fizzy, funny screenplay by Charles Brackett and the legendary Billy Wilder.

In this one, Stanwyck is Sugarpuss O'Shea, which has to one of the best names ever in film history, a nightclub entertainer romantically linked to a gangster. Gary Cooper is her screen partner, but he's not the gangster He's Bertram Potts, a professor of linguistics currently working on an encyclopedia with a group of elderly academic types, each with his own specialty. They're cooped up together in a house, slaving away, desperately trying to finish their project at long last.

But Bertram takes a stroll over to the nightclub where Sugarpuss is entertaining, hears her delicious slang, and invites her to help him out by giving him the inside scoop on her jazzy lingo. She declines, until she needs a place to hide out. It seems the coppers are on her tail to drop a dime on her main squeeze, Joe Lilac, who is on ice after maybe bumping off a rival.

Once ensconced at the house where all the professors live, Sugarpuss takes over, sharing all her best slang with Pottsie (she's given Bertram that nickname) and her slinkiest conga moves with his colleagues. Things are great until Joe Lilac resurfaces, huge engagement ring in hand. But by that time, Sugarpuss is starting to have feelings for shy, awkward professor Pottsie.

Things go south from there. Or maybe west, since they all end up in New Jersey. Gangsters! Adorable old men in a conga line! Barbara Stanwyck in gold lamé with a bare midriff! Gary Cooper in a bowtie! Gene Krupa drumming "Drum Boogie" with matchsticks! It just doesn't get any better than that.

This time, the supporting players include Richard Haydn, Oscar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey, Tully Marshall, Aubrey Mathers, S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall and Henry Travers as the encyclopedia scribes, Dana Andrews as Joe Lilac the thuggish boyfriend, and Dan Duryea and Ralph Peters as Duke Pastrami and Asthma Anderson, Joe's henchmen.

C'mon. Who can resist a movie with people named Sugarpuss, Asthma and Pastrami?

Don't resist. Give in to Ball of Fire. It's at 12:15 am (Central time) tonight on TCM, right after The Lady Eve. You'll be drum-boogieing all night long.


  1. I'm coming to realize, largely under Julie's tutelage, that S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall was in pretty much every movie in that era of moviemaking. Richard Haydn is of course a familiar figure from this, his other radio shtick (one of my earliest children's records had him and his "fish" voice), his appearance on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the episode with the radio oldtimers, and of course "The Sound of Music."

    The three greatest names ever are Sugarpuss O'Shea, Benedict Cumberbatch (who may be the greatest because he's real), and Vermithrax Pejorative (the dragon in "Dragonslayer").

  2. The current Barbara Stanwyck choice on TCM has her dancing with Buddy Ebsen and marrying hillbilly Joel McCrea while toothless Walter Brennan picks the ol' banjo. Oh, dear. Walter is younger than I've ever seen him, but he still looks a hundred because of the teeth. Or lack thereof.

  3. Trudy Cockenlocker is startling, all right, but a little too on-the-nose for me. I can live without it.

    I can also live without young Mr. Brennan, though Joel McCrea is always a pleasure. I'm Barbara on trial for shoplifting right this moment. This is yet another side of young Mr. MacMurray that I hadn't seen.

  4. 1) Joel McCrea was not a pleasure in that horrible hillbilly movie. Why anyone thought it needed to be made, I'll never know.

    2) Walter Brennan played Joel's father even though he was only 11 years older than McCrea. There he was, at the ripe old age of 42, playing a toothless geezer with a receding hairline.

    3) Again, I don't know what anyone was thinking.

  5. "Banjo On My Knee." Good grief, Nunnally Johnson wrote it and John Cromwell directed it. And also present are Helen Westley (Mrs. Hawkes in the B&W Show Boat movie), Walter Catlett (old vaudevillian who starred in "Lady, Be Good!" with Fred & Adele), and Tony Martin. Seems like there was a lot of music and dancing in it, from the descriptions I find. The IMDb review concludes with the gem "The movie will warm the viewer's heart because its simplicity and the great direction Mr. Cromwell got from this cast."

    By Hollywood standards, 11 years' difference is almost mundane. We've had parent-child matchups that were closer or even inverse: Herlie/Olivier, Landis/Grant, Close/Gibson, Stapleton/VanDyke, Lansbury/Harvey.

    Stanwyck and McCrea were paired oftener than I ever realized: 6 movies! None immortal to my eye.