Ball of Fire (1941)

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The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

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Meet John Doe (1941)

A Face In the Crowd

Sadly Meet John Doe appears to be an uncared about film falling into the public domain. I’ve previously wondered if this film could have the power to inspire real-life John Doe clubs, like Fight Club inspiring real-life fight clubs. Meet John Doe is the ancestor to film’s like A Face in the Crowd and Network, chronicling the rise and fall of a media built character. Meet John Doe is not thought of as a conspiracy/paranoia film but is a few actions scenes away from being a conspiracy thriller. After watching you’ll start feeling more like tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist untrusting of government and the establishment.

John Doe is a Christ-like figure; he preaches loving thy neighbour when he is disgraced a newspaper editor proclaims “chalk one up for the Pontius Pilates of the world” and even plans to sacrifice himself on Christmas day. On top of that, Barbara Stanwyck’s speech at the end in which she tells John he doesn’t have to die for the idea of the John Doe movement – that somebody else already did – the first John Doe and he has been keeping the idea alive for 2000 years, all while the Christmas bells ring. Classic Hollywood films sure love their hard-hitting symbolism and metaphors.

Barbara Stanwyck is a phenomenon here with so much life and energy she can make any bit of exposition entertaining. As for Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in of their many film pairings; what is it makes them a great duo? Perhaps it’s just the humorous interactions of two folksy Americans. Cooper’s boyish charm is on full display here, such his baseball pitching in a hotel room to his curious on look at a naked statuette. Meet John Doe is one of the finest performances he ever gave with his outburst at the dinner meeting making the hairs on my neck stand up. Walter Brennan’s The Colonel, on the other hand, doesn’t trust any media, authority or society in general. He’s comically cynical in the extreme and probably be a conspiracy theorist if he had lived in later decades. Throughout the film he refers to others as “helots”; state-owned serfs of the ancient Spartans (“When you become a guy with a bank account, they got you, yes sir, they got you”).

Although the John Doe movement claims the John Does are inheriting the Earth, the movement is funded by a corporation; so did they not see someone like D.B Norton taking advantage of them? Edward Arnold as D.B Norton is one scary, menacing guy who is complete with his own personal army force. He defiantly gives of the Hitler vibes and yes, as I write this in 2016 I also get the Donald Trump vibes. When he sees his servants listening to Doe’s speech on the radio and applauding, he realises the political power he can have if he can get John Doe on his side. Under a scheme to buy his way to power he uses the John Doe movement to further his own agenda, to create a political party of which he leads in order to become President of the United States. His description that he plans to create “a new order of things” and “the American people need an iron hand and discipline” sounds like he has the intent of turning the country into a fascist dictatorship. There’s no doubt that Meet John Doe among other things was an argument against American isolationism in the war.

Another striking moment of Meet John Doe is the monologue given by Bert Hanson, the soda jerker (Regis Toomey) on how little we know about our neighbours and how a failure to get the whole picture leads to misconceptions of other people. It’s true in real life, people you live next to for years and you never contact them: perhaps the guy next door isn’t a bad egg.

Many of Capra’s films showcase the people’s need for a leader (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith or George Bailey) and in turn, they appear to be clueless and misguided with one (think of Pottersvillie in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a showcase of Capra’s darker side. Here the public buying up what the media tells them such as when Norton exposes John Doe for being an apparent fraud in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes as the movie captures so vividly the destruction of a dream. As dark as the movie’s ending is, it still remains optimistic in which the fight goes on (“there you are Norton, the people!”).

Night Nurse (1931)

I’m Nick…the Chauffeur!

It doesn’t take long into the film to see Night Nurse is a very negative portrayal of the health service. Dr. Kildare this is not and even makes 1934’s Men In White come off as a more an idealised vision on the health care system in the 1930’s; Night Nurse is anything but. All within the first ten minutes Barbara Stanwyck is turned down for the job as a nurse but then gets it after catching the fancy from a doctor, one of the interns is a pervert and Joan Blondell recommends tricking patients into thinking you’ve saved their life in order to get money out of them. Blondell’s character, in particular, I really found myself loathing from an actress who normally played such likable characters. She clearly dislikes her profession and even recites the Florence Nightingale pledge while chewing gum. Night Nurse is a movie with a wide range of despicable human beings on display. There is even a scene which appears to show an actual baby in distress and another in which children talk about in graphic terms of the abuse they have received: not very comfortable viewing.

Night Nurse is a perfect example of the kind of pictures Warner Bros produced during the 1930’s; a thought-provoking socially conscious melodrama. Whether or not it’s exaggerated the plot of hospital corruption and the ineffectiveness of both the hospital and the authorities to prevent child abuse, the movie does succeed in packing a punch. What does it say when the intervention of gangsters is required to save the life of a child? Warner Bros was also known for featuring ethnic casts in their movies. At the beginning of the movie a shot focuses on a group of Chinese people sitting around a hospital bed speaking in their native language although here it doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of the plot. There is also an emphasises that the shop which is broken into in order to steal milk for a bath in order to save the lives of malnourished children is from a Kosher delicatessen. Is there a particular reason for this? This was 1931 but history has made of this scene of the delicatessen windows being smashed unintentional creepy.

The best reason to see Night Nurse though is Clark Gable in a role which I point to as proof of his acting ability. Gable is scary enough as a character who wants to murder children and isn’t afraid to punch a woman but this is multiplied by the fact that he’s dressed like a Nazi. Ok not really, it’s a chauffeur’s uniform but when I first saw him wearing this, my instant reaction was “Why is he dressed like an SS officer?” He could have had a knack at playing villains; such unrealised potential. His character’s introduction with the use of a camera zoom and the uttering of “I’m Nick…the chauffeur” gives me chills – melodramatic perfection.

You Belong to Me (1941)

The Guy Adam

I usually avoid writing such comments as “Why does this movie have such a low IMDB rating?!” but I’m going to break my own rule this one time. Why does this movie have such a low IMDB rating?! You Belong to Me is of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, period. Giving me the type of gut-busting, side-splitting laughter I rarely get from even the funniest of comedies. I was in howls of consistent laughter for 90 minutes; unlike The Lady Eve which I feel loses steam in its final third. I only watched You Belong to Me in order to become a Barbara Stanwyck-Henry Fonda completest and was expecting something mediocre based on all the negative IMDB reviews but I have to ask the question mankind has pondered since the beginning of time, “What is wrong with you people!? Do you even understand the basic essence of comedy?!!” Ok, back to planet Earth.

The movie plays out like a newspaper comedy; the setup of a husband neglecting his wife due to his obligations to his job except in this case the profession is a doctor and it’s not the man, it’s the woman. Peter Kirk (Fonda) acts like a spoiled child throughout the film who doesn’t know any better yet he’s always too loveable and innocent to ever come off as annoying. Likewise, many of his shenanigans and dialogue are very Homer Simpsons like (“Patient dies while doctor ski-ies”). He goes to extreme lengths to have Helen Hunt (not the modern day actress but the character played by Stanwyck) as his own with his increasingly humorous paranoia, and while considering Stanwyck’s sexuality I can’t blame the guy. The man really does look like he’s in love with the woman which would come as no surprise as apparently, Fonda would tell his later wife he was still in love with Stanwyck. Peter Kirk has no purpose or ambition and doesn’t contribute a whole lot to society, unlike his polar opposite wife; the more mature of the two to say the least. Even with this comically absurd pairing, I did at times feel somber for the couple.

I don’t always say this with every romantic pairing I see however after watching all three movies they did together I do believe Stanwyck and Fonda could have been a regular film pairing up with there with the likes of Astaire & Rogers, Powell & Loy and Tracey & Hepburn. The chemistry they share is some of the best I’ve seen in old Hollywood stars; a match made in heaven if I’ve ever seen one.

The Lady Eve (1941)

So Close, Yet So Far

The Lady Eve is a conflicting film. The first hour is some of the most perfect romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, however, it falls apart around the one hour mark. However, what is it that makes the first hour so perfect? Firstly it didn’t take too long for me to realise that Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck are one of the most flawless screen pairings ever, the perfect combination of sexy meets innocent. Watching these two I get the impression they must have been head over heels for each other. I’ve read that apparently Henry Fonda would later tell his wife he was still in love with Barbara Stanwyck, dam! But then again, after having your hair caressed by Stanwyck for 3 minutes and 51 seconds, who wouldn’t be?!

The Lady Eve is a prime example of a “How did they get away with that?!” movie. I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs were but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There’s her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, we have Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and of course, The Lady Eve. Call me old-fashioned but movies were sexier when the actors kept their clothes on. Vilma Banky did more with one raised eyebrow than an entire (Warning! Problem in Sector 7G).

So where does it all go wrong, well about 50 minutes into The Lady Eve, the movie pulls my least favourite movie cliché of all time, “the liar revealed”. You know, when a character is exposed as a fraud causing a relationship to end, even though you know they’re going to get back together again by the end of the movie. Having this cliché is bad enough, however, I thought it was only a contrived modern invention but here it is in 1941. At least they don’t drag it out like any rubbish modern-day romantic comedy would.

I’ve found Preston Sturges’ films to be indiscipline, his films all have their moments of greatness but at times they delve into over the top absurdity, even by screwball comedy standards. During the later part of The Lady Eve it’s hard to buy into Stanwyck disguising herself as another woman who doesn’t look massively different from her previous self in order to win back Henry Fonda. Oh, and he buys into the charade, the dope! Part of me wished the entire movie could have just been the two of them on the boat and it would have been a perfect film, however the final third still has some hilarious moments, such as Eugene Pallette frantically banging the table demanding his breakfast, or Fonda getting his suit destroyed three times at a party, a perfectly timed slapstick gag if I’ve ever seen one.

On a second viewing of The Lady Eve, I still have the same reaction to the first hour but I did find myself more forgiving of the last third. With my love of screwball comedies and the pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda, perhaps with additional future viewings, I may become completely forgiving of the last half hour. The first hour is just that perfect.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Flawless Film Making, Baby!

If there is a keyword I would describe Double Indemnity, its dialogue. Exposition is a very tricky line to cross; when done poorly it can come off as immensely frustrating but when done right it can be music to the ears, leaving me dying to hear more like I’m watching an engrossing documentary. Throughout Double Indemnity with the use of narration, Fred MacMurray will explain what’s clearly appearing in the frame but as nobody does narration quite like Billy Wilder. Instead of making Double Indemnity coming off as a movie which feels the need to dumb down and explain everything to the viewer, this expositional narration comes off a poetry, enhancing any scene in the film. Even with hearing noir dialogue parodied countless times, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie.

I’ve generally never thought much of Fred MacMurray as an actor; he strikes me as serviceable but never an enigmatic screen presence. His role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is the one major exception in his career. This casting against type may be my favourite one-hit wonder performance ever; his uttering of the words “Baby” and “Hello Keyes” never gets old. When I first watched Double Indemnity I assumed MacMurray must have been an icon of film noir, turns out he was anything but. Barbara Stanwyck was a sexual siren in a number of her films, I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs where but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There is her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, she appeared in the code breakers Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve and yes, Double Indemnity. In her introduction scene as Phyllis Dietrichson, she is dressed in a titillating manner with her legs crossed while wearing a skirt, almost expecting her to pull off a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Culminating this trio of actors at some of their greatest work is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the claims expert. When watching his performance I don’t feel like I’m watching someone playing a claims expert, I feel like I’m watching an actual claims expert. Double Indemnity offers an intriguing insight into the profession of the insurance salesman but like being a lawyer, I’m sure this is one job which Hollywood makes out to be more exciting than it actually is.

Like a number of films in the noir genre, the ending is revealed at the beginning of the movie, leaving me not wanting to know how the film ends but rather how the story and characters got to that point and boy, am I dying to know. For an example of one of the film’s suspenseful scenes, take the moment in which Phyllis arrives at Walter’s apartment to discover Keyes is also there. All within a single frame Phyllis is hiding behind the door with Walter trying to prop it open and Keyes in the background. When Keyes walks towards the door and there is a bump in the music score, it’s moments like these which get the blood rushing, yet they look so deceptively simple.

Why do Phyllis and Walter agree that honking a car horn three times a signal when that would easily draw attention? When a plot hole or nonsensical moment (Or Barbara Stanwyck’s wig) doesn’t bother me in the slightest, it’s a testament to how great a movie is: not affecting the movie’s heart racing, tearing the leather of the sofa’s armrest levels of suspense from start to finish. Why are so many people dismissive of old movies? Because they are corny and cheesy? Few other movies pose such an aurora of cool as Double Indemnity, baby!