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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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Garden of Evil (1954)

6547587_origOn first viewing, Garden of Evil seemed a talky and world-be-philosophic mess of a western with gorgeous cinematography, a good cast and a fantastic score by Bernard Herrmann. But I still enjoyed it and after discussing it with my sister, we concluded that although the screenplay is still a bit confused, much of what the characters say is really a smokescreen and should be discounted. As Gary Cooper says in the film, “after all a man says, it’s what he does that counts.” The second time we viewed it, we tried to ignore most of the dialogue and focus mostly on what the characters did.

Three men – Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), and Daly (Cameron Mitchell) are stranded in a small Mexican village for three weeks. While they are having a few drinks and wondering what they are going to do with themselves in such a sleepy town for twenty-one days, excitement suddenly comes through the barroom doors when Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) bursts in and offers to pay gold to any man who will accompany her to rescue her husband, who is trapped in their fallen gold mine shaft.

The trouble is that the mine is deep in Apache territory and few people are willing to risk the danger, even for thousands of dollars of gold. But Hooker, Fiske and Daly, along with a local villager, Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza), agree to come with her, presumably for the gold. As the men follow Leah to the mine, they begin to react to her in various ways while she single-mindedly pursues her goal. Daly is panting over Leah , Fiske simply watches her and makes ironic comments about the condition of humankind, while Hooker tries to keep the peace and Vicente leaves marks behind so that he can find his way back to the mine. Things boil over when Daly attempts to rape Leah and then picks a fight with Hooker. Fiske has by this time concluded that Leah is a siren who is deliberately using her sex appeal to tie the men up in knots.

When they finally do arrive at the mine, her husband (Hugh Marlowe) is still alive, but has a broken leg and the days spent in the mine haven’t done his mind any good, either. Instead of being grateful that his wife went to all the trouble she did for him, he lashes out in anger at her. It’s all her fault, he says, that he’s in this mess in the first place. And like Fiske, he considers her a siren who has all the men in thrall to her. All the while, Leah keeps doing her thing, keeps trying to save him, nurse him. She never stops to apologize, never explains herself, never defends herself. She’s like the laconic, taciturn male leads that so often populate westerns. It’s the men who are actually chatty in this one. Even Gary Cooper has more to say than she does.

Garden of Evil, 1954The dialogue is often cited as a weakness in the film. People talk in a stylized, oblique way that rarely seems to further the story. All the men seem to be able to do initially is talk while Leah leads them on. Fiske, in particular, likes to make pronouncements about people and their motivations. Sometimes he’s right, but other times he’s wrong. He’s looking for deep motivations while most people are exactly as they seem, especially Leah Fuller. Their nature just gets magnified by the journey, the pressure, the danger and the gold.

Two men die for love, two die for gold, and two people live (the reader can probably guess which two). Daly is the posturing young coward who lusts for gold and women. Vicente is interesting, because his primary motivation appears to be the gold (he’s already got a woman back home – Rita Moreno), but he also is the steady one Hooker calls on when he wants help, like setting a broken leg. He’s exactly the kind of man you want on a venture like this.

Fiske, on the other hand, never shuts up. He presents himself as a cynical gambler and sits around watching people. People who talk a lot are often not taken seriously and Fiske is not taken seriously, until he shows he does have a noble heart at the end. But not until after he’s deflected his own attraction to Leah by accusing her of being an insincere vamp to her face. Fuller does the same thing.

The irony is that she’s really not as scheming as everyone makes her out to be…except Hooker. He seems to be the only one who understands. The trouble seems to be partially that she’s such a strong-willed, driven woman (and few do strong-willed and driven quite like Susan Hayward) that she outdoes Fiske and Fuller (though not Hooker, who seems pretty comfortable with himself). The way she makes her horse leap over a huge precipice without blinking and waits expectantly for the men to follow, who definitely do blink. She seems to have been the driving force behind Fuller’s search for gold and now he resents her because her drive is so much stronger than his and he feels she used him to get the gold. I think she makes them feel slightly weak. But despite it all, Fiske and Fuller still love her and still manage noble sacrifices. And despite all they say, she keeps on trying to save Fuller (perhaps because of guilt, because she did use him? gratitude for his love? former love for him?)

gardenofevilGary Cooper as Hooker seems to have the least to do of anyone. It’s not even clear if he went on the journey for the gold or if he would have done it anyway. But he’s one of those actors whose presence so quiet, I don’t think we realize how much we would miss him if he was not in the film. He holds everything together: the characters, the story, the movie. He’s the moral compass.

But for being a movie about people “scraped from the bottom of the barrel,” as Fiske calls the group, there is a remarkable amount of nobility. My grandmother commented that despite being people who have clearly been dealt a poor hand in life, there is still a lot of nobility of character. Leah is willing to sacrifice everything for her husband and Hooker, Fiske and Fuller are equally willing to sacrifice their lives for hers.

It’s a film in conflict with itself. Filmed on location in Mexico, it is a beautiful film with craggy and perilous cliffs, sunsets and plains. It’s breathtaking and the music by Herrmann complements it perfectly. Just taking into account the score and cinematography, one would expect the story to be a grand epic. Perhaps it could be interpreted as more grand than greedy (though the dialogue fights against this somewhat). Scrappy people doing their best in the face of fear, temptation, desire, greed and death.

Less noble is the film’s use of the Apache as a plot device (almost a force of nature). They show up whooping (wearing Mohawks) and play the most dangerous game with the characters by hunting them and killing them in locations of their own choosing. But for all that, the film remains an interesting one. Not one of the best westerns, but it is extremely fascinating and a visual and aural pleasure.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in Movies

 

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Distant Drums (1951)

220px-Distant_Drums_movie_posterDistant Drums is essentially a remake by Raoul Walsh of Raoul Walsh’s Objective Burma, a WWII drama with Errol Flynn. Objective Burma is the better film, but Distant Drums definitely has some things going for it, as well as some things not going for it.

The film is set during the Second Seminole War in the 1840s – not that the film especially gives one a historical sense of the time. It is narrated by the mildly disposable Lieutenant Tufts (Richard Webb), who has been assigned by General Zachary Taylor to bring a boat to Lake Okeechobee to ferry Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) and his men across the lake so they can attack an old Spanish fort held by mercenaries who are selling guns to the Seminoles. But once they blow up the fort – and rescue a few hostages – their escape via the lake is cut off by the Seminoles, led by Chief Ocala (Raymond Kentro), who seems to have a personal vendetta against Wyatt. Without access to the lake, they have no choice but to head into the swampy Everglades, with Ocala hot on the trail.

On the way, there is some beautiful Technicolor scenery from Florida (it was filmed on location in the Everglades) as well as a faintly dull romance between the rescued Judy (Mari Aldon) and Wyatt. What makes the film exciting are the action sequences. Action films are not usually my thing, but I’ve always found Raoul Walsh to be a consistent exception.

Watching Distant Drums gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. It was not only because it was a remake of Objective Burma, but so many other little things reminded me of later blockbusters. The transition wipes: Star Wars. The men running in the high grass: The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The heroes in canoes while their enemies run on shore in pursuit with drums beating: Lord of the Rings. And as the title suggests, there is a lot of use of drums, often in place of a score, and the effects is rather creepy (once again, as in Lord of the Rings). There is also a completely awesome knife fight battle in the water that didn’t remind me of anything (except those single combat battles of the heroes replete in “The Iliad”, though none that I know of ever took place under water).

distantdrumslc3Gary Cooper is perfectly fine as Wyatt, but there’s not much to the character. He was married to a Creek princess, who was murdered by soldiers, and he has a son he adores. Now he is just doing his job and is something of a superhero tracker/soldier (according to Cooper’s stunt double, he did nearly all his own stunts). Mari Aldon as Judy is a “cracker” who is pretending to be a lady and has a servant (slave? – this is the 1840s) who brushes her hair and bathes her feet in the swamps. Her servant (slave?) is named Amelia (Angelita McCall) and she doesn’t get a single line of dialogue. It was puzzling because Amelia seemed rather resentful of Judy and Judy seems to barely acknowledge her existence. It was such an odd relationship, I couldn’t figure out why Amelia was in the story and very much wished we’d learned more about her. I like to to think that at the end Amelia has enough of Judy and simply leaves her to her own devices (we do see her walking away with the soldiers). Judy can brush her own hair in the swamp!

Arthur Hunnicutt plays Monk, a trapper and good friend of Wyatt. Nobody else particularly stands out, though. Character development is not the film’s strength. The film is also noted for the debut of the Wilhelm Scream, which I confess to not having heard of before. Screams were recorded for when a man was dragged under the swamp by an alligator (and for a few other catastrophes and deaths) and was later used repeatedly in other films as stock sound affects (even in Star Wars and Indiana Jones – more deja vu).

I can’t think of anything else to say. It’s an entertaining adventure with a sense of tension that keeps you engaged throughout with some sensational Technicolor cinematography. It’s often called a western, though it certainly isn’t a typical one, but that is partly what makes it fun. I also enjoyed the score by Max Steiner.

The restored dvd and blu-ray look much better than this trailer.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2016 in Movies

 

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