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?

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Mob Doesn’t Think. It Has No Mind of Its Own. The great Spencer Tracy said in Fury!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I think to myself what are the most pessimistic films, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the first to come to mind. This is the type of film you never forget. Whenever I hear a story in the news related to mob mentality, I always think ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’! In the same way how any news story of political corruption or ineffectiveness makes me think Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The eerie music throughout the film sets the tone that something bad is going to happen.

This is the type of film that needs public exposure. It showcases how people can be pack animals who will rally behind something whether or not it’s true; demanding quick, speedy justice regardless of the consequences, with an ending which is a pessimistic punch to the gut, making you feel bad about humanity. The characters having no patience for the legal system and bend the law to fit their own agendas by allowing a deputy sheriff to deputise others. The result: three men are lynched on flimsily evidence that later turn out to be innocent. And if that wasn’t bad enough; the man they were accused of murdering is actually still alive. Remember just how easily false information can spread – do you hear that internet?

All the cast members of The Ox-Bow Incident have their moment in the sun, although it’s Dana Andrews is the one of who steals the show for me – just what you expect for a man threatened with lynching for a crime he is not proven to have committed. The hung bodies themselves don’t appear on screen as this would have been too graphic for the time. Only their shadows appear which is no less a powerful image.

Henry Fonda’s character is like the man in the painting in the saloon who is about to reach out for a woman – “In reach but can’t do anything about it”. Henry Fonda was not a producer on The Ox-Bow Incident but it’s likely had more of a role than just an actor. At the age of 14, Fonda’s father took him to witness the lynching of a young black man accused of rape – an event which had a profound impact on him, so it’s clear the material of The Ox-Bow Incident was of prime interest to him. Even in the film’s trailer he appears as himself talking about the book and film, and states “it’s not ethical for an actor to talk about a picture he’s in”. Yikes, times have changed!

Lynching was still prevalent in 1943 and the movie takes a jab at southerners with much of the posse being southern stereotypes. One of them even says at one point “Down in Texas where I come from we just get a man and string him up”, and even the unofficial leader of the posse Major Tetley wears a Confederate uniform.

The movie also packs a punch with its critique on machismo. The character of Major Tetley tries to make himself out to be more than he is while trying pathetically to be manly and tough. He tries to make a man out his effeminate and possibly gay adopted son (Tetley refers to him at one point as a “female boy”) by forcing him to be part of the lynching mob; needless to say things end in a tragic state. The son barely utters a word throughout the film until the end in which he gives a monologue to his father on what a depraved animal he is – such a release of anger. Likewise, Jane Darwell plays an annoying loud-mouthed old hag (ugh, that laugh) who is essentially one of the guys and believe you me: you just want to tape her mouth shut.

At only 75 minutes the film doesn’t screw around and gets straight to the point. The only disruption in the film’s pacing is a subplot regarding Henry Fonda’s character and his ex-girlfriend. I haven’t got any answers to how this is relevant to the rest of the plot. Westerns are not my favourite genre so to enjoy one they have to be incredibly well done or stand out of the crowd. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the western setting is merely a backdrop. The film has a low budget complete with obviously fake backdrops but it’s unlike anything else being made in Hollywood at the time. The film I found it held the most resemblance towards was Paths of Glory but preceding it by 14 years. The world wasn’t ready for The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 – but is it still ready?