Sunday, February 14, 2010

TCM celebrates Valentine's Day, too

TCM is showing some romantic movies for the Valentine's Day holiday. One that I don't think I've ever recommended before is Ball of Fire, airing at 6:00 PM ET tonight.

Gary Cooper stars as Professor Potts, one of a group of bachelor professors working on an encyclopedia at the behest of a wealthy benefactor. They're living in the benefactor's old house, where they can be cloistered away from anything that will distract them from their work on the encyclopedia, notably women. The scholars are going through the encyclopedia alphabetically, and have reached the letter S, where they're struggling on an article about slang. How are a bunch of old fuddy-duddy professors going to learn about the hip slang of today? (Hollywood's fuddy-duddies have always had a problem figuring out how to appeal to the youth of today, but that's a different story.)

Their problems are solved when into their life walks moll Barbara Stanwyck. Her boyfriend, the gangster Dana Andrews, is involved with crime, and she could be subpoenaed to testify against him. In order to prevent that, she finds the old house with the professors and, when she discovers just who is living there, she figures it's the perfect place to hide. The fact that the professors can use her because she knows all the crazy new language of today is a plus. Now, the viewer can figure out what's going to happen next, which is that Cooper and Stanwyck are going to fall in love with each other, and that this is going to cause a whole host of problems. First, it disrupts work on the encyclopedia, and could cost the professors their jobs; second, there's that gangster boyfriend, who wouldn't like it if somebody horned in on his girl. Finally, there's also the legal problems that could still land the moll in jail....

Ball of Fire works on so many levels. It's one of the many great romantic comedies based on mismatches between the male and female love interests. The fact that this time, one of the characters has an interest in language means that there's a lot of opportunity for some interesting dialog. Cooper and Stanwyck were both capable actors who could do comedy even if that's what they weren't best known for. Last but by no means least, the actors playing the other professors are a great set of character actors of the early 1940s. There's S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (the connection to the following movie, Casablanca, at 8:00 PM); Henry Travers (the father from Shadow of a Doubt and Jimmy Stewart's guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life); and Oskar Homolka, among others.

Ball of Fire is a sparkling comedy that has been released to DVD.

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