Ball of Fire (1941)

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The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

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Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However that makes communism and left wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of morally equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounce communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard

Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.

Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Over blown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth and beauty more than ever. Likewise Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for them first time in years.

I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her, when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the pool side and she even starts drying him with a towel. There is a bit of Mrs Robinson to her.

Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes weather or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an other worldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden hold an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).

For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera, while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.

Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.

Sabrina (1954)

Isn’t It Romantic? ‘Fraid Not

Sabrina is a movie which has ‘me’ written all over it. A romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder and starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. I should be writing a review right now proclaiming my love for it, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Despite my best efforts, I can’t get emotionally engaged with this film. That was disappointing enough, although the thing which drove me crazy is that I couldn’t figure out why Sabrina doesn’t engage me despite being my cup of tea; a giant mug of tea with a chocolate digestive on the side.

I know many people comment on the issue of a young girl being involved in a relationship with a man old enough to be her father, but once you’ve seen enough classic Hollywood movies in which this is the case, then you get used to it. Sabrina’s love interest David Larrabee (William Holden) didn’t strike me as an interesting character initially, but on closer examination I think he does have some personality in how superficial he is, but I’m not convinced you would want to kill yourself over this guy. Also is his hair bleached in this film, it looks terrible.

On closer inspection, I believe the major flaw in Sabrina is that the title character is simply not interesting. I never caught onto this previously due to Audrey Hepburn’s natural lovable charm, but when thinking to myself about what are this character’s personality traits, a tumbleweed went by in my mind. Her transition from ugly duckling to glamour goddess is unconvincing; I imagine making Audrey Hepburn appear unattractive is impossible, but her appearance when she returns from Paris compared to her earlier self is largely the same aside from her just wearing more classy attire. Due to this the scene in which David meets Sabrina for the first time after returning from Paris and he doesn’t recognise her is hard to digest. Compare this to the 1995 remake (which yes I think is a much better film), it gives the character of Sabrina an in depth personality, a character transition which is more substantial and stronger chemistry between the leading lady and her two male co stars, but that is for another review.

Bogart’s role is the only character in the triangle who I find has any character development, playing against type as a sympathetic businessman. I find Sabrina isn’t without its moments, such as William Holden getting glass up his…you know. Was this word commonly known in 1954? Did 1950’s movie goers get the joke? Sabrina is more ordinary than Wilder’s other movies, and I feel it could have been directed by anyone. I assume Wilder wanting to directed something lighter for a change, not that there’s anything wrong with that, however this is his only movie from the 1950’s which I don’t like. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

The Major and the Minor (1942)

Su, Su, You’re a Knockout!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Major and the Minor is the film that me fall in love with Ginger Rogers, turning me into the obsessive fan I am now. Miss Rogers is Susan “Susu” Applegate, who transforms her 30 year old body into that of a 12 year old and does so completely convincingly and in my view gives the finest performance of her career. I question how many actresses would have the ability to do such a feat. Being a super fan I would say that she should have won an Oscar for this acting marvel but I doubt the Academy would pay much attention to a weird little irrational comedy like this.

Oh yes, weird, that is our key word here. If the premise of a 30 year old disguise as a 12 year old in order to get half fare on a train ticket doesn’t have you raising an eyebrow then how about throwing her into a military academy with 300 male pre teen cadets. The whole family can enjoy The Major and the Minor, the kids can enjoy the smart alecky humor and the adults can enjoy the sexual innuendo….centered around children. That’s one of the things that makes this movie great, it’s so wrong on many levels (yet feels so right, or something like that) but contains that kind of innocence and naivety that only classic Hollywood can pull off. The British Board of Film Classification gives the film a current rating of “U” with the description, “contains very mild sex references”, although I believe that’s a gross understatement. Imagine if Lolita was a screwball comedy, you would have a result somewhere along the lines of The Major and the Minor.

Ray Milland is an excellent leading man, well a leading man to a character whom he thinks is a child (yes this movie becomes more wrong the further I analyse it). I wonder how must have felt delivering such lines as “You like boys Susu?, 300 of them, all they’re all yours”. The ending of The Major and the Minor itself is disturbing on a number of levels. When Major Kirby discovers Susu is actually an adult and they presumably now fall in love as seen in the final scene, is he going to fantasize that he’s going out with the 12 year old Susu? My other favourite cast member here is Diana Lynn as an intellectual child planning to become a scientist. This kid is so bad ass, I’m actually quote jealous of her. Normally kids in movies tend to get on my nerves, but not when they’re able to outwit the adults, as seen here.

The Major and the Minor was Billy Wilder’s American directorial debut and already he has made the first in a long line of masterpieces. Exploring his films (including those he has written) I feel has been a journey for me through the annals of classic Hollywood and for helping to shape my sense of humour. The Major and the Minor marks another milestone in that journey.

Fedora (1978)

When the Pictures Became Small

Fedora is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen to say the least. At points I’m almost laughing at the movie’s plot twist yet the more bizarre and highly improbable the movie became the more I found myself getting engaged in the story, waiting in eager anticipation to find out what will happen next with those oh so joyous “I did not see that coming” moments. The film’s highly implausible plot manages to draw the thin line between being completely absurd but never feeling like a parody.

The character of Fedora herself is a reclusive movie star who goes to extreme lengths in order to stay “on top” and retain her eternal youth to the point which even Norma Desmond would consider crazy. Early during the film I suspected Greta Garbo to be the likely source of inspiration for the character of Fedora (whom Wilder always had great admiration for) but as the plot progressed I thought to myself “ok even Garbo was never this nuts”.

One of Fedora’s other intriguing aspects is the film’s critique of New Hollywood and how times have changed since Hollywood’s golden era came to pass. Fedora is the only film I’ve seen which displays a harsh attitude towards New Hollywood with lines referring to Hollywood being taken over by kids with beards who don’t need a script, just a handheld camera with a zoom lens as well as the demise of glamorous movie stars of the past. This is one of several aspects of Fedora which makes it similar to what you could call its spiritual cousin Sunset Boulevard; which itself commented upon what was lost when the silent era came to an end. I could go on making comparisons between the two films from William Holden playing a Hollywood hack in both films to Michael York’s role the in film being similar to the role Cecil B. Millie played in Sunset Boulevard.

I imagined by 1978 Wilder was far past his directing prime, not to mention after the 1950’s he seemed to become content with only directing comedies; thus I’m surprised to consider Fedora as one of his greatest films and a return to the roots of his earlier work as a director. As soon as William Holden’s narration begins you can instantly tell this is classic, old school Billy Wilder.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Flawless Film Making, Baby!

If there is a keyword I would to describe Double Indemnity, its dialogue. Exposition is a very tricky line to cross; when done poorly is can come off as immensely frustrating but when done right it can be music to the ears, leaving me dying to hear more like I’m watching an engrossing documentary. Throughout Double Indemnity with the use of narration, Fred MacMurray will explain what’s clearly appearing in the frame but as nobody does narration quite like Billy Wilder. Instead of making Double Indemnity coming of as a movie which feels the need to dumb down and explain everything to the viewer, this expositional narration comes off a poetry, enhancing any scene in the film. Even with hearing noir dialogue parodied countless times, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie.

I’ve generally never thought much of Fred MacMurray as an actor; he strikes me as serviceable but never an enigmatic screen presence. His role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is the one major exception in his career. This casting against type may be my favourite one hit wonder performance ever; his uttering of the words “Baby” and “Hello Keyes” never gets old. When I first watched Double Indemnity I assumed MacMurray must have been an icon of film noir, turns out he was anything but. Barbara Stanwyck was a sexual siren in a number of her films, I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs where but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There is her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the post code era she appeared in the code breakers Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve and yes, Double Indemnity. In her introduction scene as Phyllis Dietrichson she is dressed in a titillating manner with her legs crossed while wearing a skirt, almost expecting her to pull off a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Culminating this trio of actors at some of their greatest work is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the claims expert. When watching his performance I don’t feel like I’m watching someone playing a claims expert, I feel like I’m watching an actual claims expert. Double Indemnity offers an intriguing insight into the profession of the insurance salesman but like being a lawyer, I’m sure this is one job which Hollywood makes out to be more exciting than it actually is.

Like a number of films in the noir genre, the ending is revealed at the beginning of the movie, leaving me not wanting to know how the film ends but rather how the story and characters got to that point and boy, am I dying to know. For an example of one of the film’s suspenseful scenes, take the moment in which Phyllis arrives at Walter’s apartment to discover Keyes is also there. All within a single frame Phyllis is hiding behind the door with Walter trying to prop it open and Keyes in the background. When Keyes walks towards the door and there is a bump in the music score, it’s moments like these which get the blood rushing, yet they look so deceptively simple.

Why do Phyllis and Walter agree that honking a car horn three times a signal when that would easily draw attention? When a plot hole or nonsensical moment (Or Barbara Stanwyck’s wig) doesn’t bother me in the slightest, it’s a testament to how great a movie is: not affecting the movie’s heart racing, tearing the leather of the sofa’s arm rest levels of suspense from start to finish. Why are so many people dismissive of old movies? Because they are corny and cheesy? Few other movies pose such an aurora of cool as Double Indemnity, baby!