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Tag Archives: Comedy

Bertram Potts from Ball of Fire

“You’re big and cute and pretty…to me you’re a regular yum-yum type.”

An English professor who looks like Gary Cooper? It’s almost too good to be true, but it is true in Howard Hawk’s 1941 Ball of Fire and not even Barbara Stanwyck’s stripper Sugarpuss O’Shea can resist him.

There are many things to admire about Bertram Potts. Besides the fact that he looks like Gary Cooper. He’s a professor of English, and he’s not a stuffy professor of English. When the film opens, he is working on slang for an encyclopedia and he reveals a lively curiosity and interest in new knowledge, especially what he calls “a living language” filled with the slang of ordinary Americans and spoken by characters like Sugarpuss and the garbage man.

In fact, his interest is right in line with real-life authors (like the actual author of the film’s script, Billy Wilder). Raymond Chandler was greatly interested in what he called American English and thought that for a while (namely in the 1930s and ’40s) it was filled with the kind of variety, color, and flexibility often associated with Shakespeare.

It is very appropriate, then, that Bertram Potts should also quote Shakespeare to Sugarpuss. He gives her a ring that is inscribed with the location of the quote from Richard III (she asks who Richard ill is), “See how my ring encircles your finger? That’s how your heart embraces my poor heart. Wear both the ring and my heart, because both are yours.” 

But not only is Bertram Potts erudite, he is also sweet and adorable. He’s completely bowled over by Sugarpuss (“a little sun on my hair and you had to water your neck”), way out of his depth, but it is the sincerity and sweetness of his response that wins her over. Without guile, he assumes her declaration of love is exactly as it appears. He takes her at her word, takes her seriously and treats her as a person of value.

He is also about as nonjudgmental as a person can be. He is, admittedly, angry when he discovers that she used him, but that is not judgmental. But does he mind that she is a stripper? Or the girlfriend of a gangster? He always sees her as a person and never as an example of a certain type of woman…though Mrs. Bragg, the housekeeper for the professors, certainly does. Sugarpuss is simply the woman he loves…and who knows some “mouthwatering” slang.

Bertram Potts (or Pottsie, as Sugarpuss calls him) even gets to be heroic. But not by the traditional beat-the-bad-guy-up method – though he does get to eventually beat the bad guy up – but via intellectual knowledge. He and his fellow professors are able to outwit the villains using their knowledge of history, literature and science.

And he looks like Gary Cooper. The only wonder to me is that Sugarpuss does not fall for him sooner, though she does comment that he doesn’t know how to kiss (“the jerk!”) and looks like a “giraffe.” But he had me at “skidoo” (which he traced from the word skedaddle).

This has been my post for the “Reel Infatuation Blogathon,” hosted by Silverscreenings  and Font and Frock. Be sure to check back for more screen crush posts in the recaps for days 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Jack Nicholson in The Raven (1963)

Bizarrely enough, I had never before seen Jack Nicholson in a movie until he unexpectedly walked through the door in a 1963 comic B horror movie, The Raven, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre. I never associated Jack Nicholson with comedy, but the kicker is that in this comedic story with Price, Karloff and Lorre hamming it up for all they are worth, Nicholson is actually pretty funny.

The film opens with Vincent Price, as Dr. Erasmus Craven, quoting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Dr. Craven is a sensitive soul, a vegetarian and sorcerer who “prefers to practice [his] magic quietly at home” and is still mourning the death of his second wife, Lenore. But into his misanthropic musings comes a real raven, who turns out to be the rather ineffectual Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), transformed into a raven by the magic of Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the evil grandmaster of the Brotherhood of Magicians. When Dr. Craven hears from Dr. Bedlo that he thought he saw Lenore (Hazel Court) alive at the castle of Dr. Scarabus, the two set out to investigate.

However, on this dangerous mission they somehow end up bringing the whole family: Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson), who fall in love while their parents deal with Scarabus. They arrive at the castle and are met by Scarabus, dripping false benevolence as only Boris Karloff can.

Entering Scarabus’ Domain

The idea of Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre’s son is pretty funny in itself. As Scarabus says after mistaking Rexford for Craven’s son and being set right, “The resemblance is quite uncanny.” Even Craven asks Bedlo if Rexford favors his mother. Bedlo’s gloomy reply is that “she favors him.”

While the Price, Karloff and Lorre ham it up for all their worth (delightfully), Jack Nicholson steps into the story with perfect earnestness and sincerity, speaking in a kind of deadpan, flat tone. He was originally sent by his mother to find his father and is always trying to take care of him, remonstrate with him, prevent him from drinking too much wine or challenge Scarabus to yet another duel. It’s all the more amusing for his seeming unaware of all the jokes going on around him.

The special effects are hopelessly cheesy, but the cast pretty much knows it and seem to all be having a grand time. Scarabus wants Craven’s secret for magic by hand gestures and the two of them have a magic face-off, rather in the mold of Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship of the Rings, only the participants seem to be having more fun in The Raven.

Evidently, Jack Nicholson made his start in B films and appeared in a number of movies directed by Roger Corman. He had all good memories of working with the cast of The Raven, though he didn’t care for the actual raven, who had an inconvenient habit of relieving himself on people. The script is entirely un-serious. Matheson felt that was the only way to adapt a poem to screen. It seems like there are far worse B movies to make at the beginning of a career…and far worse actors to work with.

This post was written as part of the “Here’s Jack Blogathon,” hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out more posts about Jack Nicholson for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Happiness Ahead (1934)

Dick Powell must have accomplished one of the more remarkable mid-career transformations of any actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I still experience a sense of cognitive dissonance whenever I try to think of the boyish, endearing, and dulcet tenor as the wry cynic of hard-boiled noir. He’s convincing in both manifestations, but it’s hard to think of him as the same person.

Happiness Ahead is squarely in the boyish tenor mode of his early years at Warner Bros. The film was released in 1934, around the time the Production Code was more strongly enforced, so there is little to set this film apart as a pre-code film, but it is simple, unpretentious fun.

Joan Bradford (Josephine Hutchinson) is the rich daughter of a wall street tycoon who is bored with her stuffy life and the financial pragmatism of her mother. Her father (John Halliday), however, is sympathetic to her feelings, especially since he worked his way up from newsboy. Her mother wants her to marry an equally rich man, but Joan rebels and goes out on the town to mingle with the masses.

At a Chinese nightclub, she meets Bob Lane (Dick Powell), office manager at a window washing firm and they are instantly attracted to each other. Bob and his party of friends think she’s poor and out of work (the women of the group even offer to help her find a job), so Joan decides to set up an apartment and pretend to be a working class girl like them, fearing knowledge of her wealth would change how they interact with her.

In a way, she’s trying to have the best of both worlds. The camaraderie and unaffected  pleasures of the working classes (roller skating rather than opera and polo) with the wealth to be able to afford to do and live however she chooses (she even rents a piano in her apartment so she can have her new friends over for a party). However, she doesn’t know exactly how to live as a working class girl. She forgets to turn off the lights in her apartment when she leaves (something no person counting their pennies would do) and is nonchalant when one friend breaks the window in her apartment kitchen. In various ways, the film contrasts the way the rich and the poor live, though it seems to want to have it both ways, too. The film ends up like a reverse Cinderella tale for Dick Powell’s Bob.

He works in the office, as well as a window washer (trying to inspire the men, who are being threatened by a rival window washing company – a side-plot that hovers on the periphery of the film). He has a scheme to go into business for himself and he has his sales pitch down pat. And once the misunderstandings that naturally arise when Joan’s deception is discovered are cleared up, you know that his association with her father will bring him unexpected wealth.

The film is a musical, with all the songs sung by Dick Powell (with one duet with Frank McHugh). None of the songs are especially memorable or became standards, but they are pleasant and were composed by Allie Wrubel (who is best remembered for composing the music for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).

The film also has Warner Brothers’ usual array of character actors: Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Jane Darwell. I was a little surprised to see Jane Darwell’s name at the bottom of the cast list, but I don’t think she really achieved wide recognition until she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve seen her play a motherly sort so often, it was interesting to see her play the sour and irascible landlady in Happiness Ahead.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Movies

 

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