This month my favorite TV network, TCM, is having their annual “31 Days of Oscar” leading up to the actual awards ceremony (to which I am fairly indifferent). During that span every film TCM shows has at least been nominated for an Oscar, and most have won at least one.
TCM is a treasure trove of cinematic brilliance, with the bulk of their offerings focusing on the heyday of the studio system in the 30’s and 40’s.
One of the standards in those movies was to toss in a song. Which is why in the middle of a dark and brilliant Noir film, like The Big Sleep, we see Lauren Bacall singing at a speakeasy operated by gangster Eddie Mars (he is to this film, sort of what Jackie Treehorn was to Lebowski).
So, this morning I was working with TCM on in the background when Howard Hawks’ (who also made The Big Sleep, and my favorite Screwball Comedy, Bringing Up Baby) Ball of Fire came on.
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the film is a great Screwball Comedy that deconstructs Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, placing the setting in Manhattan in the early 40’s, with Stanwyck playing the moll Sugarpuss O’Shea to Gary Cooper’s English professor Bertram Potts (Cooper is one of eight sheltered eggheads working on an encyclopedia).
A few other things:
- Every great character actor and cartoon voice from that time are among the professors, so if you watch, you will suddenly hear Fractured Fairy Tales etc. in the back of your head.
- This is the last script that Wilder and Brackett wrote before Wilder went on to his fantastic career as a director (Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and Double Indemnity are just a few).
- One thing that stuns me about Wilder is that English was his second language, yet his writing in our language is so sharp. And, if you watch Ball of Fire you will get an idea of just that. This movie is as funny and witty as anything ever put on the big screen.
- One other thing I love about Wilder is the apocryphal tale of when he premiered Sunset Boulevard for a cluster of Hollywood moguls, after the film Samuel Goldwyn got up and chastised Wilder for making such a dark portrayal of the industry that made him rich and famous. What was Wilder’s response to the most powerful man in his industry, in front of their peers? “Fuck you.”
Back to the movie, as part of the set-up, Cooper/Potts takes to the streets fearing his grasp of slang is already outdated, and happens upon O’Shea at a night club (he also goes to a ball game and gets some good slang there).
O’Shea is the singer at the club, and though her singing and the song are marginal, Gene Krupa and his big band are just deadly. So is the piano player and the guy who does the sax solo. Funny too, cos playing guitar was just a minor rhythm instrument, as you can see in most films of this ilk.
Anyway, Canned Heat et al all owe their boogie chops to this great scene.
And, just for fun, after the big number, Krupa and Stanwyck reprise the song with Krupa playing matchsticks instead of drumsticks.