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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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Me and Miss Jones

The Devil and Miss Jones may be the best Frank Capra film he didn’t make and one of the last depression era comedies making it one of the last of its kind – a screwball comedy dealing with the conflict between social classes. The film presents a fascinating and shocking look at the treatment of workers in a department store during the final days of the depression, themes which would become obsolete with the US entry to the war.

The owner of the department store is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn). With this character, the movie shows the rich aren’t all bad people at heart. They’re just cut off from common people and their reality, unaware of the common man’s struggle and surround by advisors who think they know what’s best. Heck, J.P. doesn’t even remember what stores he owns! He brings himself down to his employee’s level by going undercover as a store worker in order to identify those who are trying to form a union. J.P. has the advantage that no one in the public knows what he looks like as his picture hasn’t appeared in a newspaper for 20 years, also no internet in 1941 would also be an advantage.

I don’t how if the treatment of the workers is realistic or exaggerated; just how relevant is this movie today? In one scene a store supervisor criticises a new worker (unaware it’s the store’s owner going undercover) in a bullying nature for their poor intelligence level test score. In another scene the department store addresses their workers at the end of the day as they stand in unison like a military dictatorship, threatening to fire anyone and preventing them from working in any department store in the city if they speak out against the company or associate with anyone who does. Next to many of the workers have a secret union meeting on top of a building, like a band of rebels coming together to take down an oppressive regime. The leader of the cause played by Robert Cummings states the company is letting employees go after 15 years when their salary is higher than a new employee and that they expect a quarter lifetime of loyalty to the one employer. At one point Jean Arthur even speaks during one emotionally rousing speech about how working “25 years for only two employers” as unacceptable –  I know those days have certainly passed us. The art deco department store itself is a beauty and offers a nostalgic look at the days before automation, when people had to be employed to do every task without the aid of computers.

Robert Cumming’s character is an activist rallying against the establishment; the type of person who would protect his country against its government. The type of character you don’t see often in classic films and likely would have been labelled a communist during the McCarthy era. In one pivotal scene at a police station he takes on abusive, power hungry cops and escaping charges by reciting the Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence at lightning fast speed to remind the officers of their rights; a real badass. A scene like this just goes to show you how people are unaware of their rights.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are a superb and unconventional pairing. Yet you get two great romance plots for the price of one – old love and young love; Charles Coburn & Spring Byington and Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. Like Frank Capra’s works, The Devil and Miss Jones is full of incredibly intimate, powerfully sentimental moments as two characters talk to each other as the rest of the world ceases to exist, such as the beach scene with Arthur and Cummings or the moment on the train with Coburn and Byington are all incredibly moving. Yet the intimate moment which strikes me the most is Arthur and Coburn’s discussion on love. Jean Arthur’s monologue on love feels so true; stating that two people can look at each other and see something way deep inside that no one else can see and distances her love from that seen in movies of love songs. She doesn’t think herself or her boyfriend are the greatest people in the world, yet doesn’t know if she’d care to live or die if she would never see him again. When this moment begins the sound effects of people talking in the background becomes increasingly faint and then loud again as other people enter the scene – it’s perfect. In terms of just pure comedy, just look the scene in which Jean Arthur dives across the table; an explosion screwball comedy in its purest form.