Ball of Fire
This isn't my first, second, or third time at the Howard Hawks screwball rodeo. As such, I had a general idea of what to expect. Fast talking, absurd plot machinations, and a sizzling romance characterize the Hawksian comedies and are just as on display here as they are in His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and Twentieth Century. So why did I like this one a little less than those? Good question. I think it has to do a little with the lull that occurs midway through the film. For me, romance movies are almost always best when the fire is getting started, when there's that spark of the new, and this one was no different. This time it's Gary Cooper's curious but out of touch professor who falls in love with the quick-witted, jive-talking Barbara Stanwyck who's mixed up with some bad guys and must hide out at the mansion housing Cooper and a host of 7 other profs working on an encyclopedia that doubles as a vanity project for the guy who invented the electric toaster. Sounds about right for a screwball comedy, and it is quite funny early on as we're introduce to the cohort of profs and their quirky stuffiness. Cooper is the youngest of them by far and his grammarian role has him realizing that all of his work on slang is twenty years out of date. So when he goes out into the world he finds Stanwyck's Sugarpuss O'Shea (an all-time great character name) who is a lounge singer and great deployer of all sorts of 40s era slang.
The first half hour or so is a riot. I admit I'm biased as a budding academic myself, but it's delightful to see such stuffy old men given the business a bit as they react obliviously to the world around them. When Sugarpuss O'Shea enters their cloistered realm in her sequined and skimpy dress, it throws them for the biggest loop of their lives and Hawks gets the most out of it, extending her introduction to them as long as he can. It's a good impulse, because what follows as her mafia boss lover finds out about her whole situation and starts to get jealous of Cooper and co. gets a little slow for me. We lose much of the satire of academia and the chemistry between Stanwyck and Cooper can't carry so much plot. Luckily, though, things pick up as the movie reaches its conclusion.
The climax of this movie--which starts with Cooper and the other profs held at gunpoint in their workroom by some mafia cronies and ends with a marriage (as these things all do)--brings back all of the stuff I liked about the first part. There's arcane trivia used as a code that the illiterate gunmen can't understand, there's Gary Cooper learning how to box from reading a book in the back of a garbage truck, and the heat rises again between Stanwyck and Cooper. Even Freud gets redeemed a little! It's unfortunate that the middle was disappointing for me because if the movie carried its momentum throughout it might have topped His Girl Friday as my favorite Hawks screwball comedy. Middle of the pack is still good, though, especially when the whole pack is pretty great.
As a suggestion to Sandy, I think you might get a lot out of Le Silence de la Mer if you haven't seen it yet. It's a great movie about occupied France and maybe a love story so subtle it's subterranean.