Underrated Movie #121: Ball of Fire

Title: Ball of Fire
Year: 1941
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, from a story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe
Stars: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Homolka, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Henry Travers, S. Z. Sakall, Gene Krupa

The Story: Hoochie-coochie dancer Sugarpuss O’Shea is on the run from the D.A., so she hides out with eight professors who are writing an encyclopedia, one of whom uses the opportunity to learn the latest slang—and a few other modern ideas.

How it Came to be Underrated: I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned, this should ranked alongside Hawks’s greatest screwballs, Bringing Up Baby and His Gal Friday, but it’s nowhere near as well known.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Like Henry Fonda, Cooper was so good at heavy drama that it was easy to overlook the fact that he was equally great at screwball comedy. Cary Grant is justifiably remembered as the king of screwball, but that must be partly because he was less convincing in straight dramas than Cooper and Fonda were, so he got to spend more time honing his comedic chops.
  2. If your movie is based on a ludicrous pretense, then you have to find a way to make it seem sensible. The idea that she would think of hiding out with the professors, if glossed over, would seem ridiculous, and the whole movie would have fallen apart. But one little scene of her listening to them list all of the various ratholes where they want to stash her, and suddenly this ludicrous option seems perfectly reasonable. And since the exchange is funny, the audience doesn’t even notice that the plot is being hammered into shape.
  3. Forget Rita Hayworth. Forget Marilyn Monroe. For my money, nobody could steam up the screen like Barbara Stanwyck. She may not be the most beautiful, but she did the sexiest acting. Let her rattle off just a few lines of seductive dialogue and nobody could boil a thermometer like she could. And she could do dramatic-sexy or humorous-sexy. Ball of fire indeed.
  4. After being one of the top screenwriters of the ‘30s, Wilder had directed his first film in 1940 and there was no looking back, so this was his last script that he let go without directing it himself. Two years later, he would write even sultrier dialogue for Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
  5. My favorite line? She’s claims that they can’t throw her out in the rain since she’s got a cold. If they don’t believe her they can “Check out my throat— It’s as red as the ‘Daily Worker’ and twice as sore!”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Stanwyck and Cooper were equally good and equally underrated the same year in Meet John Doe. Six years after Ball of Fire, Hawks remade his own movie as a Danny Kaye vehicle called A Song is Born. It’s not as good as this, but it’s a lot of fun and well worth watching.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly.

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Underrated Movie #58: Monkey Business

Title: Monkey Business
Year: 1952
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and I.A.L. Diamond, story by Harry Segal
Stars: Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe

The Story: A scatterbrained chemist invents a rejuvenating formula that makes him and his wife act like fun-seeking kids.

How it Came to be Underrated: I have no idea why this movie is not as well known as the other collaborations between Hawks and Grant. Look at that cast! Look at those writers! You would think that the only reason it could not be well known is if it were terrible, but it’s hilarious!

Why It’s Great:

  1. Scientific potions, chimp mix-ups, a buxom blonde secretary… This is the movie that you picture in your mind when you think “zany old comedy”, but you didn’t actually think that it existed. It almost feels like it must be an SCTV pastiche of a late night movie.
  2. Obviously it’s no accident that this is the third Rogers movie I’ve featured (and still no Astaire in sight) I’m a big fan. It’s great to see any older comedienne get to play a real romantic lead: funny, sexy and wise, all at the same time.
  3. It’s nice to see an older Grant not paired with a much younger girl for once. In fact this movie celebrates the value of growing old together and ridicules the prospect of older men chasing after Monroe. From this point on, however, Grant would be unironically paired with younger and younger ingénues, from Audrey Hepburn to Sophia Loren.
  4. Both Grant and Rogers get a chance to act like crazy teenagers, but the notion of teenager-hood was somewhat new in 1952 and there were still a few glitches in the formula: this was almost certainly the last year in which wild-eyed young men cheesed off adults by getting super-short haircuts.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hawks and Grant’s best collaboration was His Girl Friday. Another underrated Hawks comedy was Ball of Fire.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD, but the packaging and menus feel the need to pretend that the whole thing is a Marilyn Monroe vehicle.

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