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Tag Archives: Screwball 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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Nothing Sacred (1937)

downloadAlthough I didn’t watch it for this reason, Nothing Sacred turned out to be a perfect and hilarious companion film to Dark Victory. It is a satire of celebrity, media sensationalism and the strong urge of people to experience compassion via entertainment.

Wally Cook (Fredric March) is the best journalist at the Morning Star, though he is currently in the bad books of editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for a hoax involving a bootblack (Troy Brown) disguised as a sultan (the bootblack is found out when his wife, played by Hattie McDaniel, shows up with their children). But Wally is a very persuasive man and convinces Stone to relieve him of writing obituaries and let him follow up a story of a young woman dying of radium poising. His idea is to bring her back to New York, where she will naturally become the toast of the city (because she’s dying), which will sell lots of Morning Star papers.

The young lady, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), lives in Warsaw, Vermont, the unfriendliest town around. People say “yep” and “nope” and won’t give information without first being payed, while their children are downright mean (one child bites Wally on the leg for no particular reason). Hazel wants out and it’s hard to blame her. She thought she was going to get a free trip to New York (because she’s dying), but when Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) tells her that he made a mistake and she’s not really dying, she doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad (“It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”). So when Wally Cook arrives and wants to take her to New York, she jumps at the chance and brings Dr. Downer along with her to help her play at being terminally ill.

Hazel Flagg becomes a sensation. She’s in all the newspapers (which are then shown to wrap fish), goes to events where moments of silence are observed in her honor. She’s pointed out at nightclubs, receives the key to the city and encounters tearful people everywhere she goes, all drowning in admiration and sadness for her. She starts to feel guilty about making everyone so sad. But worst of all is that Wally starts to fall in love with her (in between arranging a funeral were a quarter of a million people will attend and a state holiday declared) and Hazel is afraid that when the hoax is discovered she’ll ruin his career.

they have both socked each other in the jaw

they have both socked each other in the jaw

Of course her hoax is discovered, but nothing goes as one would expect. People are simply too invested in the narrative of the girl heroically and inspirationally going to meet her death.

William Wellman directs this film (with an irreverent script by Ben Hecht) at breakneck speed. Sometimes, comedies can get tangled up in the end with sentiment, but not Nothing Sacred, which lives up to its title. But the romance still manages to be sweet, as Wally asks Hazel to marry him, even though he believes she’s going to die, and talks about how a few perfect moments are better than a lifetime. It’s funny – because she’s not going to die at all – but it’s also sweet. It’s also funny because she’s just tried unsuccessfully to fake a suicide (which he believes is real) because she can’t see any way out of the mess she’s gotten herself into. Dripping wet, they pledge their love in a packing crate and are then interrupted by a fireman. And then Wally forgets to offer his coat to his fiance, leaving the fireman to do the gallant thing.

Fredric March is not an actor I’ve thought about much one way or the other (though I’ve enjoyed many of his movies), but I was impressed with him here. As Wally, he shifts believably from journalist huckster to sincere lover without overplaying either, though in the end he remains a little bit of both. He’s a grounded comedian, but still gets his laughs.

Carole Lombard is another actor I have been warming to. I first saw her in My Man Godfrey, which convinced me for the longest time that I did not like Carole Lombard. She was hyper and generally too much for me. But Hands Across the Table changed my mind and I’ve come to agree that she is a very fine comedian. It’s hard to put my finger on just what makes her so funny. Oftentimes, it’s simply her facial expressions, though she can certainly do slapstick with the best of them.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments (one favorite is the attempted-suicide scene – with practically the entire city looking for her). And though it was made two years before Dark Victory, moments still play like a satire, such as when Hazel says she wants to go off alone to die – “like an elephant.” And I got a big chuckle out of the four radium poisoning specialists who come to analyze Hazel. Sig Ruman leads the way as Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer, from Vienna. The other doctors are from Prague, Moscow and Berlin and I couldn’t help but wonder how they got these doctors together. This is 1937, so presumably one is a communist and the other a Nazi.

nothing-sacred-fredric-march-carole-lombard-1937

these stills are in black and white, but the film is in Technicolor, a relatively early example of this

Near the end, when Oliver Stone has discovered that Hazel is not really dying and is sputtering with anger, Wally says that the people of New York ought to be thanking the Morning Star for what they did, even if Hazel is a fake. It gave people what they wanted – an opportunity to feel maudlin and sorry for someone. That got my attention, because I had been reading an article a little while ago in the Wall Street Journal called “Leonardo DiCaprio, Meet St. Augustine,” by Daniel Ross Goodman. The author was discussing why people enjoy watching movies where people suffer (and why actors tend to win Oscars for portraying people who suffer). According to St. Augustine, it’s not sadism; it’s an innate desire to experience compassion and remind ourselves that there is goodness in us. As Goodman writes, “When we see suffering depicted in a movie, our empathetic itch is scratched, giving us the sensation that we have exercised true empathy.”

Nothing Sacred mocks this thoroughly…at least the hollow side of this phenomenon, where people can congratulate themselves secretly for feeling good without ever doing anything genuinely compassionate. Though I wouldn’t say that is the message of the movie. It’s not a message picture, but a very funny satire that shrewdly hits on some truths about human nature.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Lady Eve: The Joke’s On Her

I’ve been thinking about the adage that the best screwball comedies have leads who are roughly equal, able to give-and-take and be worthy opponents: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. But my favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, seems to defy that adage as Barbara Stanwyck appears to run all over the hapless Henry Fonda. So why do I love it so much?

I think it’s because everything is not as it seems. Director/writer Preston Sturges has deceived us, because his subtle joke is that the joke’s not on Henry Fonda at all; it’s on her and she’s the only one who’s in on it.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a tough, hard-boiled, unsentimental card sharp who takes advantage of poor suckers and then, like a sap, falls in love herself. She lays down her defenses and is rejected and humiliated. It’s the ultimate humiliation and she loses her self-respect. Because although it looks like she’s always in total control, manipulating Fonda at will, he’s the one who really is in control (though he doesn’t have the faintest idea that he is). She can captivate him, but because she’s so in love, he’s the one who can reject her or accept her.

That’s why she’s so bent on revenge; to regain her own personal self-respect. But she can’t help it; she still loves him. I think it’s that depth of emotion that I like so much about The Lady Eve (besides how hilarious it is). Her sincerity in love makes it clear that if her character doesn’t get her man, we’d be watching a tragedy instead of a comedy. Beneath the cynicism, the battle of the sexes, the ironic jabs at marriage and love and the rich, is a deeply romantic film because of how crazy the two leads are about each other. The Lady Eve has one of the most satisfying endings of any screwball comedy I’ve seen.

So basically, all the pratfalls, the humiliation that Fonda must go through is to make his humiliation equal to hers.

Random Note – in a fit of Sturges enthusiasm I named my cat Lady Eve, but sometimes I think I should have called her Buster. Lady Eve (the cat) has the most perfect stone-face as she watches life go by. She also needs to work on her sultry look.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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