Both of tonight's movies were on my list of 10 unseen classics to watch this year; with just two titles left to reach my goal, I think I'll accomplish seeing them all by year's end! I discovered one of the last films on my list will be shown on the big screen in Hollywood in a few days' time, which works out beautifully! The previously watched titles on my list are linked at the end of this post.
The first film seen tonight was Howard Hawks' BALL OF FIRE, which I found quite delightful. The film's many positive attributes include rapid-fire, smart dialogue by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, a pair of stars in peak career form, and an amazing supporting cast of great movie "faces."
Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is a linguistics expert collaborating with seven other professors to write an encyclopedia. The professors live a sheltered life living and working together in an old mansion.
When Professor Potts decides he needs to learn about modern slang, he ends up in a nightclub, where he meets Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). Sugarpuss, who's singing with Gene Krupa and his Orchestra, needs a place to hide out when the cops want to pick her up to testify against her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). What better place for Sugarpuss to cool her heels than spending a couple of days living with Professor Potts and "the seven dwarves"?
Joe plans to marry Sugarpuss pronto so he can invoke marital privilege and prevent Sugarpuss from having to testify. The only problem is, Professor Potts falls (literally!) for Sugarpuss, and she gradually comes to find the professor's sincere attentions appealing as well, which doesn't go over well with Joe.
The film is fast-paced fun, with some wonderful dialogue and bits of business spread among a large cast. Cooper and Stanwyck -- teamed earlier that year in Capra's MEET JOHN DOE (1941) -- are both at the top of their game in this one. Stanwyck was at her most glamorous in 1941, a year which also saw her starring in THE LADY EVE (1941). Cooper was also in the midst of a career-high year which saw him winning the Oscar for Best Actor for SERGEANT YORK (1941). They both demonstrate in BALL OF FIRE why they were two of the biggest stars of the '40s.
As for the rest of the cast, it's a wonderful group. The professors are played by Henry Travers, Oscar Homolka, S.Z. Sakall, Richard Haydn, Leonid Kinskey, Tully Marshall, and Aubrey Mather. Dan Duryea and Ralph Peters play Joe Lilac's henchmen. The local garbage man is Allen Jenkins, and Charles Lane and Mary Field represent the foundation paying for the encyclopedia. Kathleen Howard is the housekeeper. Elisha Cook Jr. pops up in a nightclub scene, the same year he played the "gunsel" in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). For a classic film fan, it feels a bit like "old home week" as these various faces cross the screen.
One of the things I did find distracting about the film was the disparity in ages of the "old" bachelor professors. Some of the actors were truly older men; for instance, Tully Marshall was born in 1864 and Henry Travers in 1874. But Leonid Kinskey and Richard Haydn were actually in their late 30s, younger than Gary Cooper, and were covered in makeup. The difference between real and fake "age" is noticeable.
Otherwise, this film is grand fun, fast-paced, funny, and also touching. It's recommended for a most enjoyable time.
The movie runs 111 minutes. The black and white cinematography was by Gregg Toland, with Stanwyck's costumes by Edith Head.
BALL OF FIRE is available on DVD, though it appears to be out of print at this time. I watched a very nice VHS tape first released in 1995.
This movie is available as part of Netflix's Watch Instantly streaming service.
Other classics it was my goal to see in 2011: SHANE (1953), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), and THE LADY EVE (1941).