Ball of Fire (1941)

sex3

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?

Advertisements

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Meet Longfellow Deeds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’ll admit that it took me a while for Gary Cooper to grow on me as an actor and to see his appeal under his minimalist, low key style of acting; but eventfully I got it. It’s been said Cooper’s face was the map of America; so why in under God did they cast Adam Sandler in a remake of Mr Deeds Goes to Town?

Mandrake Falls is a town full of oddballs, and the naive but not a total dunce Longfellow Deeds comes off as a weirdo to the city dwellers who are fascinated by his behaviour and start mocking him. Mr Deeds Goes to Town certainly highlights the divide between city slickers and small-town folk; this is particularly evident in the scene in which Deeds, himself a poet meets a group of distinguished poets in the restaurant and is appalled by their snobbery and elitism to the point that he beats them up.  Likewise, the film also features Charles Lane as a lawyer, the inspiration for The Simpsons’ blue haired lawyer.

In an example of the darker side of Capra’s films, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is a cynical look at society and the media as a whole (“Why do people seem to get pleasure out of hurting each other, why don’t they try helping each other once in a while?”). Multiple people are out to snag Deed’s fortune while the media is out constantly pursuing him due to his odd but ultimately harmless behaviour; the media manipulating how a person is seen by the public. Mr Deeds is a man who became famous for inheriting a fortune, in other words, he’s famous for being famous and the newspapers appear to have nothing better to do than report on his escapades such as feeding donuts to a horse; relevant to today’s celebrity culture.

With the scene in the park in which Babe plays a set of improvised drums and Deeds sings humoresque. Capra didn’t want to include it as he thought it was too sappy but Jean Arthur insisted it remain. Capra of all people thought it was too sappy?!  But ah Capra sentiment, it never fails to move me.

The sanity hearing at the end of the film is pure movie fantasy; I doubt in real life someone could be classified insane on such so-called evidence. In a demonstration of Cooper’s ability as one of the best actors when it comes to giving a rousing speech or monologue, he talks about the silly quirks we all have. Although the likes of “o” filling or knuckle cracking seems rather trivial, I’m always left with the impression that the movie is making a statement on society’s treatment of those who don’t fully “fit in” or adhere to conformity and asks the question; who is truly “normal”?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. In 2012 it was Mitt Romney, in 2016 it’s Donald Trump. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

You Can’t Take It With You follows the Sycamore/Vandrerhof household; the ultimate eccentric family. In fact eccentric probably isn’t the right word, they’re complete nuts. They live a counter-cultural lifestyle of not working or paying taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as a bureaucrat and start having fun. The Sycamores/Vanderhofs are families we probably can’t be in real life but wish we could.

Even with a large ensemble cast, Lionel Barrymore is the actor at the heart of the film in a role which is the polar opposite of his part of Henry F. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene in which Vanderhof is confronted by a government official played by the always miserable looking Charles Lane feels like a dig at big government. When Grandpa asks the official what the government gives him for his money he is given the response of “The government gives you everything”, emphases on the word everything, followed by Vanderhof’s humorous but thought-provoking rebuttals. The family’s refusal to pay taxes may be ethically questionable but it’s a movie fantasy and could never happen in real life. Don’t you wish you could deal with bureaucracies as easily as Grandpa Vanderhof?

One of Grandpa Vanderhof’s other fascinating moments is his monologue on “ismmania” although I’m quite sure what to make of it (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). The message feels similar to a 1948 animated short “Make Mine Freedom” in how the danger of isms can cripple the people. All we need is our Americanism as Vanderhof proclaims, which itself is an ism but I digress. Regardless his line which following this, “Lincoln said, with malice toward none, with charity to all – Nowadays they say think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you”; that gives me chill every time.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about his love for his deceased wife and how the room still smells of her perfume. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

Non-conformity is the name of the game in You Can’t Take It With You. Grandpa Vanderhof understands the preciousness of life as he pursues his own interests and his own forms of fulfillment. He encourages others to follow their dreams and not submit to the will of others. In one scene Alice speaks of Grandpa’s thoughts on how “most people are run by fear, the fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, their health, scared to save money and to spend it. People who commercialise on fear scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need”. Amen sister! – The only thing to fear is fear itself.

You Can’t Take It With You promotes what we would now refer to as a libertarian mindset, live and let live as long as you’re not hurting anyone. As Tony Kirby (James Stewart) tells his father Antony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) towards the end of the film, “I think this business is great. It’s good for you because you like it. I don’t, and I never will”. In many ways the Sycamore/Vandrerhof family is the embodiment of the American Dream. They own their property, each member pursues their individual dreams and they are above all happy. They live their life without inference from the government or other such bodies: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the other messages derived from You Can’t Take It With You is the same as that to come from the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the townspeople come to George Bailey’s aid, giving him money so he won’t have to do jail time followed by the final message from the angel Clarence; “No man is a failure who has friends”. A very similar incident occurs in YCTIWY in which friends and neighbors of the Sycamores pay for their fine in night court so they won’t be locked up. Likewise, the family’s arrest for being mistakenly identified as communists feels like a foreshadowing to McCarthyism. Then again they should have thought that a fireworks show based on the Russian Revolution as well as advertising it perhaps isn’t the greatest idea; it stinks!

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life. Capra-corn and proud of it!

Twentieth Century (1934)

Overacting at Its Finest

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century. Simply put. Every once in a while I may stumble upon a screen performance which leaves an indelible impression, brings me new levels of respect towards a performer and to even write a review. That’s the effect John Barrymore’s tour de force had on me in Twentieth Century. Barrymore is an absolute beast as the egomaniac Oscar Jaffe delivering one of my favourite film performances ever.

Barrymore had earned the reputation of being a ham actor although that’s perhaps the nasty way of putting it. Theatrical style acting may seem outdated and laughable to many nowadays but it is a style unto itself. When Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should play the role of Oscar Hawks replied: “It’s the story of the biggest ham on Earth and you’re the biggest ham I know”. The film even foreshadowed Barrymore’s own future as he himself became a washed up actor in the final years of his life like how the character of Oscar Jaffe becomes a shadow of his former self. Really has there ever been a more impassioned performance which is hammed up to 11 than this. Barrymore doesn’t just chew the scenery in every scene he is in, he devours it like a ravenous dog; he’s the definitive representation of the angry stage director stereotype. Just look at his breakdown scene when his Tribley leaves him for Hollywood, one of the greatest displays of histrionic acting poweress. Oscar Jaffe really is a fascinating character. It isn’t just enough for him to tell an employee of his theater that they have been fired, he has to tell them in the most melodramatic fashion “I close the iron door on you!”, or what about his constant comparisons to his present occurrences to scenes from famous plays or historical events. Half of what this man says is more melodramatic than Charlton Heston and William Shatner combined. Barrymore was known as The Great Profile and rightfully so; talk about an enigmatic screen presence.

The sheer energy between Barrymore and Carole Lombard is incredible in this ultimate battle of the egos; both of these two performers cross that line in comedy of playing hateful, selfish, disciple characters you can’t help but love. Carole Lombard herself has an endearing, childlike quality to her, getting overly emotional when Jaffe insults her acting ability; appropriate though since much of the film is two adults acting like children. The first portion of the film is comprised of a stage rehearsal, showcasing an impressive display of actors playing actors giving bad performances with Jaffe insulting them at every turn (“The old south does not yodel”)  but it’s the film’s second half in which things really get crazy, taking place onboard the Twentieth Century Limited. When I first watched the film I found the subplot with the religious fanatic to feel out of place at first but trust me when I say the payoff is worth it. Twentieth Century is very screamy and very shoutey but there are many little subtle touches such as the establishing shot at the start of the film of a poster advertising the Jaffe theater (showcasing the man’s insane ego); possibly the funniest establishing shot I’ve ever seen. Also, keep an ear out for several references to Svengali, adapted to film in 1931 also starring John Barrymore. I also must give a shout out to Mary Jo Mathews, the actress who plays Valerie Whitehouse. She only has several lines in the entire film yet I’m intrigued by her; she appears to have star quality to her.

Along with It Happened One Night released the same year, Twentieth Century movie marks the birth the screwball comedy. I can never get enough of these films, they’re incredibly addictive and they always leave me with the feeling of wanting more. I don’t like to be labeled as one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” people actually who am I kidding, of course, I do.