“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there is that slim slice of sublime that makes sifting through the crud endurable. In this space, we’ve written about slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, blood-curdling horror, spectacular science fiction, and more besides. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.
It is doubtful that any genre survives the march of time unchanged – the development of technology in film rendered silent films, and later black-and-white films, curiosities. That is not to say that there is nothing to love in these films – quite the contrary, as any reader of The Ten Percent knows. But it can be safely stated that a modern-day silent film like 2011’s amazing The Artist is unusual in its approach. (Okay, okay – The Artist isn’t entirely silent. My point still stands.)
Another notable change in film from its beginnings has been the treatment of language. An entire, totally false as in where-the-heck-is-that-actually-from accent developed for film and had a decade-long heyday before disappearing like the crew of the Mary Celeste.
Nowhere on the film landscape does language glitter more brightly than in the genre of screwball comedy. Modern attempts to recreate the rapid-fire wisecracking patter of this particular boy-meets-girl type of comedy (I’m looking at you, 2008’s Leatherheads) invariably fall flat, perhaps due to actor limitations, perhaps due to audience expectations, maybe both, maybe neither.
Whatever the cause, screwball comedies are a fast-paced delight and you just can’t go wrong with a one that teams both Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. So run, ya flat-footed galoot, and watch Ball of Fire, the 1941 Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In this improbable tale, Snow White is now a nightclub stripper and the hard-working dwarves have been transformed into a passel of professors attempting to write an encyclopedia.*
The difficulty is that Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) realizes that his article on “slang” doesn’t reflect a living language. A simple garbage man speaks a language these highly-educated and supremely-sheltered men can’t follow as shown in this clip.
So Prof. Potts takes the radical step of going out into the world to explore life. This takes him into the orbit of the amazingly-named Catherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, a small-time gangster’s moll and burlesque . . . umm, well, entertainer. (This being 1941, Sugarpuss wears glittery outfits that cover plenty, but she still sizzles.) Needing a place to hide, she takes up residence in the professors’ orderly nest and proceeds to upend their tidy lives with her fluent slang and lively manner. Hijinks, of course, ensue – including a leggy broad teaching the professors the conga.
Ball of Fire has so much flat-out fun with vernacular English that it doesn’t really matter that most modern viewers could benefit from subtitles to translate the dialogue in a few spots. The always dependable Gary Cooper’s Professor Potts is having the same trouble. As the obvious affection between Sugarpuss and Potts grows, many of the laughs stem from the fact that their common language of English is dividing them as surely as their class differences.
So much of this film comes down to chemistry. (A subject Sugarpuss knows quite a bit about, although not in so much the classroom-with-a-chart sort of way.) In Ball of Fire, you’ve got some of the best character actors working in Hollywood at the time all in one room. Intellectuals have often been grist for the Hollywood mill, but here the professors are shown to be sweet-natured and generous. Naïve, for sure, but resourceful when necessary. And Stanwyck lights up the screen with her presence, aided by a blinding number of sequins in the nightclub scene. (It’s nigh-shocking to consider that Stanwyck wasn’t the first choice for this role – or even the second. Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, and Lucille Ball were all considered before Stanwyck’s name came up.) Stanwyck delivers here, make no mistake about it. She unpeels the hard shell that Sugarpuss has adopted to get by in a harsh world to reveal a tender, sweet girl who wants to believe in love and honor, but is mightily afraid to take that risk. All this, plus Gene Krupa on drums. What’s not to love? Ball of Fire surely belongs in the Ten Percent.
NOTE: The Snow White parallel is directly pointed out in the film when Prof. Potts is taking notes of the slang used by the newsboy. Look across the street at the theater marquee.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (spring 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.