Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ball of Fire as a screwball comedy

This was a short essay from a collection of short essays I did for a film class on Ball of Fire which I felt was a really underrated screwball comedy:

Ball of Fire was directed and written by three of the best at their genre. Howard Hawks was a notable director of screwball comedies and the team of Wilder and Brackett wrote a number of comedies including Ernst Lubitsch's funniest film Ninotchka (1939). Wilder would also later become once of cinematic history's greatest comedic and dramatic directors with The Apartment and Some Like it Hot.

In Hollywood Genres, Howard Schatz writes, "The Screwball comedy dominated Depression-era screen comedy and provided that period's most significant and engaging social commentary" (151). Schatz suggests that screwball comedies were not just escapist fare for Depression-era audiences but they remedied their shattered dreams that their poverty and discrepancies in wealth couldn't be overcome. One important element for this remedy to work was that there had to be a love story that crossed class boundaries, usually with the woman as poor but more socially apt and the man as the opposite.

In Ball of Fire, Gary Cooper isn't so much rich as he is distinguished in the world of academia. He is a lexicologist in charge of an encyclopedia project with eight other professors, each in charge of a different field of knowledge. The fact that the other professors are twice his age highlights just how smart he is in his field. Barbara Stanwyck, an excellent comic foil, is a nightclub singer whose boyfriend is a gangster on the run from the police. She comes into contact with Cooper through his work. He is doing a section for his encyclopedia on slang and enlists her to help him and needing to hide from the cops, she accepts. This set-up is very interesting because while Gary Cooper is not rich, he's an expert on the language of the rich in a sense. In turn, Stanwyck's character, Sugarpuss O'Shea, is lower-class only through his standards. In terms of actual material wealth, O'Shea is richer than Cooper because her boyfriend has stolen large amounts of money while he has worked nine years into his uncompleted encyclopedia. Also, Sugarpuss O'Shea has absolutely no academic credentials, but suddenly becomes of use to him as an expert on slang through her lower-class background. Many twists on the traditional form of the screwball comedy are thrown into the story adding enough complexity to the relationship that it becomes unclear who really has the upper-hand. Moreso, the language theme presents wealth as an illusion which validates the main message of screwball comedies as well.

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