Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Movie Review: Ball Of Fire (1941)

A screwball comedy, Ball Of Fire sparkles with wit and innovation thanks to Barbara Stanwyck's unbridled sensuality, and a witty clash-of-the-classes script.

Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is leading a group of seven other stuffy academics sequestered in a dusty mansion to write a new encyclopedia. When Potts realizes that the team is hopelessly not equipped to properly write an entry about "slang" language, he recruits a group of common people to help out. Sassy cabaret singer Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Stanwyck) at first wants nothing to do with Potts, but quickly crashes the mansion when her mob boss boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) orders that she be stashed away from the police, since her testimony can incriminate him.

Sugarpuss electrifies the mansion and the team of professors, and Potts finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. With the police investigation into Lilac dragging on, the mobster's lawyer decides that he should marry Sugarpuss since a wife can't testify against her husband. But Sugarpuss herself is starting to grow fond of Potts, and she won't find it easy to give up life at the mansion to rejoin Lilac's exploits.

Ball Of Fire is fast, furious, funny, packed with farce, and yet surprisingly tender. Directed by Howard Hawks in the same vein as his previous screwball classic Bringing Up Baby, Ball Of Fire adds new depth to the familiar formula. Much of the credit goes to the clever script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who surround the central opposites attract love story with layers of multiple characters, a zany energy, and refreshingly original embellishments.

At the middle of it all is Barbara Stanwyck in an Academy Award nominated performance. She creates an alluring bundle of energy as Sugarpuss O'Shea, a street smart performer who can talk herself out of any situation and manipulate any man into cross-eyed, weak-kneed submission. Sugarpuss is introduced with back-to-back interpretations of the musical number Drum Boogie, once in spectacular full orchestral mode and then on a single intimate instrument: a small match box. The brazen innovation of that scene sets the stage for the film, Hawks allowing Stanwyck to lead from the front whether she is plotting her wacky hideout survival or her unlikely love life.

With Cooper the stiff but slowly overheating love interest, the main supporting sub-plot of Ball Of Fire is at least partially a wacky reimagining of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, as Sugarpuss invades the workplace of an elderly crew beavering away on their project, and turns it upside down. The supporting professors, diametrically opposite to their unexpected guest in every way, are played for perfect laughs by the likes of Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers and Richard Haydn. They create a madcap environment of earnest academia disintegrating into a pool of juvenile lust as Sugarpuss knocks the stuffing out of their staid workplace.

Even more animated in support are Lilac's two hoodlums Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma Anderson (Ralph Peters). They are the rather dense go-betweens connecting Sugarpuss in hiding with Lilac, and Hawks gives them plenty of time to add colour and criminal charisma as the comedy hurtles towards a chaotic conclusion.

Lighting up the sky with a streak of playful fun, Ball Of Fire is a bright blast.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail (1940)

An intriguing story of the bubbling conflicts before the Civil War, Santa Fe Trail takes the usual historical liberties but is an otherwise thought provoking examination of hatred and zealotry deployed for a just cause.

It's 1854, and at the West Point Military Academy James "Jeb" Stewart (Errol Flynn), George Custer (Ronald Reagan) and Carl Rader (Van Heflin) are about to graduate together. But Rader harbours strong sympathies for violent slavery abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey), sparking a brawl among the members of the graduating class. Rader is dishonourably discharged. Stewart and Custer are posted to the dangerous territory around Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they both fall in love with Kit Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of a railroad tycoon.

Rader joins Brown's growing movement of fanatics in Kansas, helping slaves escape but brutally killing and pillaging any community that stands in their way. Stewart and Custer are tasked with ending Brown's reign of terror, and they eventually uncover his hideout at Shubel Morgan's ranch in Palmyra. But Brown regroups in Virginia and plans a daring raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, forcing another confrontation with the army forces.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, Santa Fe Trail is a mix of military action, politics, bonhomie, romance and history. The film takes a few liberties with the historical characters of the era to create a who's-who of American military adventurism standing shoulder to shoulder. In reality Custer and Stewart were not in the same class, but here it does not matter. This is a reality-based story about the swirling clouds before the unseen storm, with a focus on the strong military bonds that were to be soon fractured. Stewart, Custer and their colleagues are gung-ho and united in giving chase to the radicalized Brown; and they cannot begin to conceive of a near future when they will be splintered and forced to fight each other.

John Brown presents a most interesting conundrum as the central antagonist. A virulent anti-slavery warrior, his methods were hateful and destructive, as he fought against despicable and dehumanizing racism. Brown was on a private war path before there was a war and therefore had to be stopped, but the Civil War that inevitably followed was an expanded version of the conflict he started. The film portrays Brown as a wide-eyed maniac, but Raymond Massey's domineering performance also portrays a man deeply convinced that he is right, with plenty of followers willing to take up arms for his cause.

Also interesting is the film's unapologetic presentation, through Stewart's words, of the South's position that left alone, the region was moving to phase out slavery on its own. And in the hellish chaos caused by Brown, a black family expresses a rejection of Brown's version of violence-drenched freedom and a longing for the comfort of what they know - slavery. These are not easy contrarian opinions to grapple with, and Santa Fe Trail allows the plot to progress through the vagaries of a pre-war era not yet defined by winners and losers, where right and wrong clash in the fog of opinionated pragmatism.

Through it all Errol Flynn delivers a surprisingly restrained performance. His version of Jeb Stewart is charismatic, heroic and daring when he needs to be, but just as often Flynn allows Stewart to be thoughtful, reserved and respectful. With his 1940s haircut Ronald Reagan is difficult to take seriously as Custer, while de Havilland gets yet another role as little more than decoration to Flynn's daring-do. This being the seventh Flynn - de Havilland screen pairing, the love triangle between Custer, Stewart and Kit is conceded by Reagan before the opening credits.

In addition to Van Heflin as the conflicted West Point outcast torn between a cause and his economic well-being, the supporting cast includes Alan Hale and William Lundigan as Tex Bell and Bob Holliday, two rough adventurers tagging along with the army mainly to provide comic relief.

Santa Fe Trail is an interesting pathway where the dark clouds of today conceal the looming black thunderheads of tomorrow, and all that seems certain and straight proves to be unexpectedly complex.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Movies Of Elizabeth Banks

All movies starring Elizabeth Banks and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Spider-Man (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Definitely, Maybe (2008)

Zack And Miri Make A Porno (2008)

The Uninvited (2009)

The Hunger Games (2012)

What To Expect When You're Expecting (2012)

Movie 43 (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Love And Mercy (2014)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

The Movies Of Steve Carell

All movies starring Steve Carell and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Bruce Almighty (2003)

Bewitched (2005)

The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Knocked Up (2007, cameo)

Evan Almighty (2007)

Dan In Real Life (2007)

Get Smart (2008)

Date Night (2010)

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012)

Hope Springs (2012)

Foxcatcher (2014)

The Big Short (2015)

Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

Beautiful Boy (2018)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...