Friday, January 8, 2016

BALL OF FIRE, Modern Ascendance Of A Screwball Comedy Classic

It's interesting how some films can emerge from obscurity and muddy critical opinions to become recognized classics. Reading this fine essay on BALL OF FIRE by Jeremy Carr, reminds me that a few short years ago it was not considered one of Howard Hawks' most enduring classics and it was not very well known by modern audiences. Critical fashion changes and good word of mouth among audiences can help even a 70 year old film rise to restored prominence.

Over the past three of four years BALL OF FIRE has probably been shown as often as its 1941 Barbara Stanwyck-starring contemporary THE LADY EVE (AFS has screened both). While THE LADY EVE is probably the better film, mainly due to a superior romantic interest, BALL OF FIRE is inarguably a crowd-pleasing film. The Wilder/Brackett screenplay is a bit hackneyed, maybe a lot hackneyed; the supporting players are up and down; Hawks is sometimes careless in his direction; Gary Cooper's chemistry with Stanwyck is not exactly smoldering (see Stanwyck/Fonda for comparison); and it goes on 10 minutes too long; but Stanwyck, playing a character of comic-strip level complexity, brings so much raw energy, charisma, sex appeal and, before it's all over, genuine emotion, that audiences are won over every time.

Has any performer had a better year than Stanwyck's 1941. THE LADY EVE, BALL OF FIRE and Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE in the same year. If Stanwyck was the best actress to work in Hollywood films, and I say she was, this was her finest hour. Her Sugarpuss O'Shea, a nightclub dancer being hidden by her gang-boss boyfriend from a grand jury investigation in which she could provide damning testimony, would be a rank cliche in the hands of most other performers, maybe all. But Stanwyck has it all, the dance steps, the seduction wiles, the rapport with the audience. It's a virtuoso turn by a maestro who is her own instrument, and a perfectly tuned one at that.

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