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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Ball of Fire (1941)



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On the tail end of screwball comedy's golden era came this witty gem about nine professors who seclude themselves away from the world at large so they can write an encyclopedia. Years into the project, a man off the street stops in to converse with them; hearing his colorful verbiage, the English professor (Gary Cooper) suddenly realizes his article on slang is horribly out of date. So he sets out into the world to research the subject anew. In the process, he bumps into Barbara Stanwyck, which would throw anybody for a loop.

This film is a blast, for several reasons, including the colorful supporting characters and warmth of personality. But foremost is the fun it has with language. Every line of dialogue was written with the utmost care, suiting the character who speaks it and radiant in its own right. Equally as delightful as Barbara Stanwyck's unending indulgence in slang is Cooper's rigid (oblivious) abstinence of it. (An elderly woman's ankles, for example, are hilariously described as "singularly uninspiring underpinnings.")

The external plot, concerning gangsters, is a bit of a cliche, and some plot points rely too much on wild chance -- but these are somewhat minor quibbles, because that's not what the film is about. The film is about its characters, which, save the gangsters, are involving and charismatic. Because the film features so much forties slang, however, it is fairly dated. Though the strength of the characters overcomes this, those unfamiliar with past times may be put off by the rapid fire dialogue. Their loss.

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