Purple Reign: a tribute

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It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it was that drew me to Prince. Sure, I loved his music, I respected his talent, I was in awe of his stage performances and his singular vision, his ability to stay true to exactly what he believed in, no matter how it aligned with popular opinion. Over the past few days, so much has been written about the artist formerly known as ‘the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’, a collective outpouring of respect and grief that proves ‘superstars’ can only attain greatness when they resonate on a global and a personal level. As an artist, Prince’s innovative musicianship earned him a place in music history and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And although I’m not a musician, I felt a connection to the artist that went far beyond lyrics.

I first became aware of Prince when I was seven or eight years old (I was a little too young to appreciate the 80s while they were actually happening). It wasn’t the music that drew me in. It was Prince himself. I was confused: was this strutting, high-heel wearing, eye-liner loving creature a man or a woman? A mix of the two? Even though I was too young to understand the tension around gay and straight, I recognised that boys did this and girls did that – gender was something you were given and you didn’t challenge the parameters it defined. But this prancing peacock didn’t seem to respect them – or even acknowledge that they existed. I grew up in a normal suburban town on the outskirts of London. Prince was my first introduction to the idea that not everyone played it safe.

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Later, I realised that people dismissed Prince as (at best) ‘eccentric’ and (at worst) ‘a freak’, because those were easy labels to apply to what we don’t understand. A label that helps us forget our own prejudices and narrow-mindedness, that justify convention and etiquette. Yes, Prince was sometimes flamboyant for vanity’s sake, but it was never a surface act. His identity, and questions what identity, behaviour and perception meant, were embedded deep into the lyrics he penned (“Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”, from 1981’s Controversy, and “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand”, from 1984’s I Would Die 4 U, are the two most obvious and widely cited examples, although there are many more). The Love Symbol that he adopted in 1993 fused the shorthand for man and woman and was, according to designer Mitch Monson, slightly off-balance to highlight the imperfectness of humanity.

Yet gender fluidity was just the beginning. The thigh-high boots, the bikini bottoms and the bum-less trousers Prince embraced re-wrote a new definition for masculinity, building on a narrative of ambiguity that the late, great David Bowie and a wave of new Romantics (including Boy George) had started, and proving that there was more than one way to be a man. Yet they also allowed Prince to objectify, fetishize and commodify his body in a way usually reserved for female musicians and actresses. In a culture that demands women be pretty and concerned about their looks, Prince flipped the coin and celebrated his own beauty unashamedly – and proved that you could look and behave however you wanted. His sex-positivity still seems visionary in a culture prone to slut-shaming women.

Of course, like his music, Prince was always in control of how he presented himself (surely the angelic nude pose he adopted for the Lovesexy album cover could only have come from him?). He didn’t sexulise for column inches, rather because wanted everyone – straight, gay, black, white – to want him. And even if you didn’t, the fact that you had made the choice not to was victory enough – his was a sexuality that even if not approved, was impossible to ignore.

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Looking back, in an era defined by increasingly liberal views on gender and sexuality, Prince was to be ahead of his time. But he had to live through his time – and the negative reactions that came with it. In the early 1980s, musician Rick James claimed: “He’s a mentally disturbed young man… He’s out-to-lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest.” And when Prince supported the Rolling Stones in 1981, he was pelted with cabbages. Even Jagger’s evangelists didn’t know how to take this prancing performer that meshed rock and R&B. Yet – through arrogance or sheer determination – Prince didn’t bow to the haters. Instead he responded with Controversy, which included the unsubtle Jack U Off and Do Me Baby, alongside the title track.

In his later years, Prince would tone down his performances and, after he became a Jehoavh’s Witness in 2001, seemed to shrug off some of his former liberalism. In a now infamous New Yorker profile he responded to questions about gay marriage and abortion by tapping his Bible and replying “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’” Perhaps his views did change with age or religion. But the sexual fluidity and genderless freedoms he preached at the height of his influence – and the permissions he granted – remain tightly interwoven into the public perception of ‘Prince’. They gave many young people – including musician Frank Ocean, who penned an emotional tribute to the late star the day after his death – the courage to construct public identities that reflected their true self, rather than the one convention demanded.

And as for me? The questions Prince awakened in my seven year-old self are still ones I think about today. They shaped the way I think about and look at the world, the way I treat other people and instilled values that are intrinsic to the person I have become. Prince wasn’t always an easy artist to worship but worship him I did. The lessons he taught me- and many others – will transcend death.

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Further reading: Prince and the queer body / How Prince led the way to our gender fluid present / I am your Conscious, I am Love

Bette Davis: classic Hollywood’s forgotten feminist?

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Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve (Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950)

‘I’ve always had the will to win. I felt it baking cookies. They had to be the best cookies anyone ever baked. But there was a price to pay. If a man is dedicated to his work, he’s more of a man. If a woman feels that way, she’s less of a woman.’

When you think about feminist star personas from Hollywood’s golden age, the first actress that usually comes to mind is the great Katharine Hepburn, whose legendary forthrightness and independence shines through every character she ever played. Yet Hepburn is not the silver screen’s only feminist role model – plenty of other women were trailblazers, on and off screen, breaking boundaries and challenging gender roles. It’s often observed that once film became a profession and a business it became a man’s game; that the early women of cinema got left behind. And whilst there is some truth in that observation, it doesn’t mean that the women who challenged convention in the 1930s and 1940s should be overlooked.

One name often omitted from Hollywood’s feminist discourse? Bette Davis. Davis might never have self-identified as a feminist (indeed many of women I like to think of as feminist figure heads talked very little about gender equality or waged political campaigns) but her credentials are impeccable. To begin with, Davis played some of the most memorable female characters ever written. Many of those characters weren’t memorable for their charm. Indeed the more unlikeable they were, the better Davis played them. Consider the heartless Mildred Rogers in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934). In the New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall described how the audience was so frustrated by Rogers conduct that ‘when Carey [Leslie Howard, playing a sensitive artist-turned-medical-student] finally expressed his contempt for Mildred’s behavior applause was heard from all sides’.

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Davis as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (Dir: John Cromwell, 1934)

Davis didn’t just want to be unlikeable or unsympathetic – she was self-confident enough to look bad on camera too. She reportedly argued with Archie Mayo on the set of Bordertown because the director wanted her to wake up in bed wearing a wig and full make-up. She preferred curlers and cold cream for authenticity. For Elizabeth and Essex she shaved her head. As Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? she relished the opportunity to be the dowdy counterpart to the glamorous Joan Crawford (her long-time rival).

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Davis as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Essex (Dir: Michael Curtiz, 1939)

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Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1962)

Both on screen and off, Davis showed little desire to be liked. She wanted to get the job done to the highest standard, with little regard for personal vanity or popularity contests. Edmund Goulding, who directed Davis in 1939’s Dark Victory, warned Joseph L. Mankiewicz before he directed All About Eve (1950): “That woman will destroy you. She will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And she, not you, will direct. Mark my words”.

Although many of Davis’ characters explored the accepted parameters of female behaviour, her influence was not solely limited to the screen. Throughout her tenure at Warner Bros. (which eventually lasted from 1931 to 1948), Davis was engaged in on-going battles with studio bosses. She was regularly suspended for refusing to play mediocre parts or holding out for more money. She threatened to move to England to find the roles she thought she deserved. In 1936, she filed a lawsuit against the studio claiming her contract was a ‘form of slavery’. She lost the suit but, remarkably, wasn’t blackballed. Instead she was rewarded for her tenacity with a lead role in William Wyler’s Jezebel and later, an independent corporation (B.D Incorporated) that meant she received 35% of the net profits from her movie.

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Davis as Julie in Jezebel (Dir: William Wyler, 1938)

Those acts of rebellion probably guaranteed her career. Jezebel – and the character of Julie Marsden – was the perfect showcase for Davis’ talent, but also allowed the actress to shape a screen persona that was provocative, fiercely independent feminine and – perhaps most importantly – totally her own. Marsden is one cinema’s great feminist heroines. She’s outspoken, free-spirited and bored of patriarchal conventions that dictate women’s behaviour (remind you of anyone?). In a memorable moment of defiance, she decides to wear a bright red dress to the Olympus ball – a formal occasion at which women are ‘supposed’ to don virginal white gowns. Both Davis and Marsden can be seen as rebelling against male authority – both the actress and the character were important counterpoints to the perceived ideals of femininity in the 1930s.

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Davis as Julie in Jezebel (Dir: William Wyler, 1938)

But in typical Davis style, the crusade didn’t stop there. Not content with being the highest-paid woman in America, Davis was also elected as the ninth president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She held the post for two short months, then resigned, complaining that the role was little more than a figurehead and actually came with very little influence.

So why – in the light of these achievements – is Davis not the poster girl for feminism in classic Hollywood? That moniker is most often reserved for the great Katharine Hepburn – although Hepburn was far from the only woman to challenge convention and re-shape notions around femininity in her professional and personal life, the accolade belongs to her. Perhaps of all the ‘feminist’ Hollywood icons (as well as Hepburn and Davis, I’d also add Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West to the list), Hepburn remains the most visible because her politics were deeply embedded into her psyche. In short, she was a feminist first, an actress second. Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr College, where her mother, her aunt Edith and several of her mother’s friends had also studied. The college’s president, M. Carey Thomas, had instilled feminist ideals into Hepburn’s mother; it’s likely that the young Katharine grew up in a household where female equality was the norm, not a choice.

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Davis was raised by her mother after her father Harlow Morrell Davis, a Harvard Law School graduate, filed for divorce. In Charlotte Chandler’s biography The Girl who Walked Home Alone, Davis describes her mother Ruthie as her ‘best friend’, someone who held down multiple jobs whilst studying photography to put Davis and her younger sister through school. Acting came in her teens, when she read for Eva Le Gallienne, whose Civic Repertory Theater was then one of the most popular touring companies – although her ‘break’ didn’t come until 1929, at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, in Virgil Geddes’s The Earth Between. A contract with Universal Pictures followed, although it wasn’t until Davis met the English actor George Arliss (who remained her mentor until her death) that she was noticed by Warner Bros.

If ever there was a scenario that culminated in success, a mother prepared to make any sacrifice and an estranged father who would barely acknowledge her existence, was almost made to produce an actress. As Davis recounted to Chandler: “I never really wanted to fit in. I wanted to fit out. Little did I understand that I didn’t have to try. My desire to be special and to be different already showed that I was”. Rule-breaking was embedded into her psyche and that – combined with her determination to impress her absent father – meant she challenged the status quo not to make a point, but to construct the career and find the roles that she believed she ha the talent to play. Unlike Hepburn, she was an actress that just happened to be a feminist (even if she never labelled herself with the term).

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Davis as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (Dir: William Wyler, 1940)

But her aggressive pursuit of success and her natural honesty were qualities society often (and still does) punished women for. Despite the supposed progression of women’s rights since the 1930s and 40s, women who are aware of their power and are willing to wield it are still contentious and warily regarded. Davis can’t be the feminist icon because we’re still not completely comfortable with women who take exactly what they need and forge their own path. Hepburn’s ‘safer’ legacy is bound up with a fight to be allowed to wear trousers, of being blunt and outspoken but never rude. In contrast, Davis revelled in her notoriety – “I was a legendary terror… I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn’t always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and ofttimes disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life.”

Instead of a feminist pioneer, Davis is most often remembered as a prolific and talented actress who was willing to trade-in her beauty for a challenging role. She was all those things – but she was also so much more. In fact, the last words probably belongs to her:

This post is part of the Bette Davis blogathon celebrating the actresses’ 108th birthday. Hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – check out all the entries here.

Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan: a symbiotic relationship

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Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando go together like fine wine and ripe cheese. Like platinum and diamonds. Like Kim K and a selfie stick… You get the idea. These are combinations that bring out the very best in both parties, that enhance talents whilst allowing faults to be glossed over. The best kinds of collaborations are a relationship of equals, where everyone plays a part that’s perfectly in tune and perfectly pitched. That’s based on giving and sharing. Often known as an ‘actor’s director’, thanks to his ability to coax performances of great psychological realism out of his leads, it was with Brando that Kazan created characters and scenes that continue to influence and inspire.

The roots of their relationship were founded not in cinema but on stage. Kazan first encountered Brando in a Broadway production of Truckline Café, an ill-fated play that closed after a measly 13 performances in February 1946. Written by Maxwell Anderson, it was directed by Harold Clurman and – crucially – produced by Elia Kazan. Brando had a small role as an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; the part included a confession scene during which he admitted that he had killed his wife and carried her body out to see. According to co-star Karl Malden, the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando’s exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. This was acting like many in the audience had never seen before. Brando’s raw energy and visceral rage was first awkward and confrontational, then compelling and enthralling.

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Although the play was a dismal failure, it inspired Kazan (and producer/director Cheryl Crawford and actor Robert Lewis) to form the Actors Studio. Not just a reaction to the failure of Truckline Café, the aim of the Actors Studio was to continue the work of the Group Theatre, which had closed in 1941. That company, itself formed by Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, had studied and explored the art of acting – Kazan felt that the progress that the Group Theatre had made was in danger of being lost; his non-profit would function as a private workshop, where actors could work on their craft and be offered on-going training. Of the actors involved in Truckline Café, only Brando and Malden were invited to join. Brando had previously taken lessons with Stella Adler, who encouraged students to use their imagination to enrich their roles, to study nature, art and history because the more they knew, the more choices they would have.

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Brando’s break came when he was chosen over John Garfield to appear in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Running on Broadway and directed by Kazan, Brando was an instant hit as Stanley Kowalski, a violent and aggressive Polish-American who rapes his wife’s sister, the aristocratic Blanche du Bois. The play was an enormous success, thanks mostly to Brando’s intense and powerful performance, which, Kazan feared, was in danger of turning the play into ‘the Marlon Brando show’. Streetcar would run for almost two years, cementing in audience’s minds ‘Brando’, a man filled with uncontrollable, violent rage – a man very different to the peace-loving actor. Once the play was over, it was almost inevitable that Brando would look to Hollywood for his next role – although he would always shun the studio system, and had a disregard for contracts and his own profession.

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After a turn as Ken in Fred Zinnenmann’s The Men, Brando was reunited with Kazan – and the rest of the Broadway cast – for the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (the only exception was Vivien Leigh, who had played the role of Blanche in the London production). Although Brando is excellent on-screen (more about that in a moment) it should be noted that this is an ensemble production: Leigh excels as the promiscuous yet emotionally unstable Blanche and Kim Hunter brings depth and maturity to her role as Stella, Kowalski’s wife. But the reason why this film always becomes so much about Brando is because his performance marked a before and after juncture, the kind that comes around very rarely. As Rick Lyman observed, ‘simply put, in film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different worlds’. Brando’s performance – sexually charged, animalistic, greedy, rage-filled and tender all at once – was instinctive, and held nothing back. It went against the restraint that was usually found in film performances (from Roger Ebert: compare Brando’s performance with Bogart’s captain in African Queen, released in the same year. He’s rude and crude, but Bogart’s natural elegance shows through). Able to fully embody the role to the extent that it’s impossible to separate Brando from Kowalski: this was a type of super-realism, a riff on reality that went beyond convincing. Brando gave himself up to Kowalski – perhaps a little to well. Earning the less than flattering moniker of ‘Neanderthal Man’, for years he would struggle to escape from the slouching shadow of his own creation.

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Kazan’s skill was in letting Brando give that performance. For not asking him to rein it in, to colour between the lines. Other directors might have been over-awed by the power within Brando, but not Kazan. He fought the censorship cuts that Warner Bros. insisted on, in an attempt to make the film more ‘audience friendly’. Maybe Kazan knew that it was Brando that would carry the film – in his autobiography he was honest about his lack of directorial range, and there’s certainly weight behind those who claim Kazan was over-reliant on dramatic staging and performances, a hangover from his theatrical roots. Yet he made some excellent decisions too: choosing to shoot in black and white, for example, which allowed the film to be suffused with a down-and-out tragedy and seediness.

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Black and white was Kazan’s choice for On the Waterfront too, the third and last film he would make with Brando (even though he offered him roles in Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, and The Arrangement, Brando never worked with Kazan again). Watching Waterfront back-to-back with Streetcar (try it, it’s fun) Brando’s progress is obvious. Although it’s almost impossible to choose a favourite and Streetcar is the iconic Brando role, there’s something emotionally wrenching in his performance as Terry Malloy. It’s mostly to do the toughness and tenderness that he’s able to play almost in the same expression, the fact that he can feel conflicting things at once is wholly identifiable and the biggest component of Brando’s ‘realness’.

A crime drama with elements of film noir, On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy, a dockworker tied up with the local mob. After he witnesses a murder, his views about the mob and their practices change. Gradually, after a growing friendship with the sister of the dead man, he embraces ‘good’ – although that’s put to the test when his brother is murdered. The film was shot over 36 days on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, and many of the actors were locals. The biting New Jersey cold must’ve worked to Kazan’s advantage – all the actors have a pinched, hollow look that would be impossible to fake, an it prevent indulgent over-acting and unnecessary takes.

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On the Waterfront’s most famous scene, the‘ I coulda been a contender’ scene, takes place in the back seat of a taxi. A venetian blind covers the back window, blocking out the world and forcing the audience to focus on the characters. It’s a pivotal moment: Terry reminds Charley that it’s his fault his life is the way it is – had his brother not fixed an important fight, his fighting career could have gone somewhere. An atypical gangster scene, it’s infused with the ties of family responsibility, disappointment and regret. When Charley produces a gun, Terry doesn’t react with anger rather a mixture of confusion, resignation, gentleness and sadness – not the confrontation stance you expect. Everything about the movie is compressed into that intimate, melancholy scene, but also everything about Brando too. About the actor’s performance, Kazan would later comment: ‘if there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is’. But much like Streetcar, this is an ensemble performance. That scene would be nothing without the input of Rod Steiger, whose responses to Brando are textbook perfect, wonderfully understated and heavy with regret. This is a three-way collaboration: Brando, Steiger and Kazan, although in interviews, Kazan took very little credit for the actors’ performances.

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Although undoubtedly the most famous, it’s possibly not the movie’s best moment. I much prefer Brando’s scenes with Eva Maria Saint, which are filled with small human gestures. In one, the two take a walk in a small local park and she drops one of her gloves. The gentleman (the tenderness) inside Terry means that he picks it up, but instead of handing it straight back to her, he puts it on. A small, intimate and commonplace action, but one that’s a Brando trademark. He performs it with ease and simplicity, totally unconsciously. As in his role as Kowalski, Brando understood that it was the small details that bring a character to life. There’s no word on if it was written into the script, if Kazan suggested it or if Brando was improvising, but the latter seems to fit Brando the actor too well for it not to be true. Dockworkers aren’t renowned for their sensitivity, but Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, but Kazan’s direction and Brando’s performance elevated him into something else. Indeed, watching with a contemporary eye, Terry’s decision to embrace what’s right isn’t what draws you in – it’s Brando.

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Kazan’s role was less about managing Brando, but managing other actors’ reactions to him. Starring in her first film, Eva Marie Saint was naturally wary of the actor and aware of this, Kazan was keen to put her at ease. Aware of how uncomfortable she felt with Brando’s virility in a ‘love scene’, Kazan (according to Budd Schulberg) ‘came up and whispered a single word in her ear: “Jeffrey.” With her husband in mind she was able to respond in the love scene. This was a Kazan technique I would see again and again—no wordy directions, just that one right word that would trigger the desired emotions in the performer.’

The fact that Kazan and Brando only made three films together isn’t quite the travesty it seems. Indeed the limits of their collaboration are what make it so special. There wasn’t time for the relationship to sour, for either to outgrow the other and Brando always carried the characters he developed with Kazan with him. In truth, his later performances never approached the same level of finesse – whether that’s due to Kazan or Brando’s disillusionment with acting, it’s hard to say – but together the two changed movie acting forever. Being the actor that challenges convention is hard, but don’t underestimate the will that’s needed to let someone take flight. Brando and Kazan, like all the best relationships, needed each other.

Sources: The King Who Would Be Man / Method Man – John Lahr / Method Man – Claudia Roth Pierpont / Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando

This post is part of CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS: the star-director blogathon hosted by the wonderful CineMaven. There are an incredible breadth of actor’s and directors included in the roster, check them all out here.

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Ball of Fire: Barbara Stanwck as Sugarpuss O’Shea

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A slightly slower-paced screwball than Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire is, nevertheless, a thoroughly enjoyable wisecracking movie. Many of the elements that make a classic Howard Hawks film might be somewhat diluted, but the dialogue and comic timing of the lead actors is perfectly pitched. Playing a professor and a nightclub singer respectively, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck deliver sassy one-liners with aplomb, even if their on-screen chemistry doesn’t quite pass muster.

Those sharp one-liners came courtesy of Billy Wilder – working in collaboration with Charles Brackett, Ball of Fire marked Wilder’s last foray into screenplay-only films. After completing this movie he moved into a writer-director role (and provided us with classics including Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard). Wilder took the Ball of Fire gig with the condition that he’d get unlimited access to visit the set to observe Hawks at work – although reports suggest he was unimpressed with the final version.

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The story, a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, revolves around a group of professors who are working on an encyclopaedia. They live and work together in a somewhat claustrophobic house, with little interaction with the outside world – until Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) goes on a field experiment whilst researching American slang. During his jaunt into the real world he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) and is captivated by her performance of ‘Congo Boogie’. He invites Sugarpuss to participate in a round-table discussion the following day, and is surprised when she turns up on his doorstep later that night after she initially refused to participate. She’s decided that the professors are the perfect cover for a woman who’s avoiding the police, and brazenly invites herself in. The adventure that follows is predictable but also charming, and a wonderful fusion of intellect and physical impulses.

Ball of Fire is one of the few Hawks films that lends a level of heroism to intellectual characters. Most of the director’s other films deal with ‘active’ professions (think pilots, race-car drivers and cowboys) rather than men of science and learning. Here we have not just one but eight of them (indeed the gravitas that Hawks needed to give the characters for them to be convincing probably contributed to the film’s slow pacing), each one incapable of understanding women, much less being able to negotiate *whispers* sex. The widowed Professor Oddly, shy and timid, describes how his treatment of his own wife: “I kissed her hand each night, astonished at my own boldness”. This childish and simplistic view of relationships is really absurd but as Robin Wood notes in Howard Hawks, when viewed as a collective their actions take on a certain dignity.

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Alongside Wilder’s script, the film’s highlight is Stanwyck. Interestingly, both Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role, and Hawks considered other actresses (including Betty Field and Lucille Ball) before deciding on Stanwyck. In truth, she was the perfect choice for the role, able to convey a combination of sass and tenderness. Even when she treats Potts badly, the audience is always on her side. It helps, of course, that Stanwyck looks the part too – her wonderful costumes were designed by long-term collaborator and friend Edith Head, who knew exactly how to fix the actress’ figure ‘flaws’ (the main problem was a long waist). Head first dressed Stanwyck for Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937) – when Stanwyck told Head that she couldn’t wear fancy clothes, the designer replied, “Of course you can wear them.” From then until the ’50s, Head dressed Stanwyck almost exclusively, following her from studio to studio. She also designed many outfits for the star’s public appearances. Although Ball of Fire only required five costume changes, each look adds depth and meaning to Sugarpuss, keeping the audience guessing about ‘who’ she really is. Which one is your favourite?

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Look one: show-off sequin stripes 
Stanwyck’s opening outfit is as showy as her stage routine. The glittering, sequin dress included a striped bustier with chiffon sleeves and a cut-out waist and a fringed skirt – both details designed to emphasise Stanwyck’s assets (legs and waist). A typical nightclub singer she’s as dazzling as the sequin she wears – everyone’s eyes are on her, except for Bertram Potts, who’s absorbed in his notebook, desperate to catch every example of slang he can. They are quite simply from different worlds – a comparison that’s drawn through their contrasting costumes but also through his awkward behaviour. This isn’t Potts’ natural habitat – and he isn’t much more comfortable backstage, where his close proximity to Sugarpuss ties his tongue in knots. Sugarpuss’ outdoor wear (a large fur coat and a chiffon headscarf) is suitably glamorous, but the professors aren’t prepared for the barely-there garment that’s underneath, or for her to peel off her stocking. She’s using every trick in her not insignificant arsenal, and they’ve fallen hook, line and sinker.

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Look two : butter wouldn’t melt
A simple, demure and ladylike outfit that’s the polar opposite to the opening number. There’s a schoolgirl charm to the elegant blouse (complete with a monogrammed sleeve) and softly pleated skirt with a wide striped waistband but, ever the ingenue, Sugarpuss manages to inject some sass and scandal. She brazenly asks the professors to help her with the outfit’s zipper, causing much consternation amongst the collective. Her vivacious flirting (surely a quality only Stanwyck could bring to the role) by turns charms and flummoxes them, and housekeeper Miss Bragg is mightily vexed.

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Look three: casual daywear, O’Shea style 
This outfit is very similar to the previous ensemble: a fluid-fitting blouse paired with a pleated skirt, cinched at the waist. This time the stripes appear on the blouse and the  belt has metallic loops and a looped chain. Whether Head was dressing Stanwyck up or down, she always knew how to make the most of her figure. It probably helped that Head and Stanwyck were good friends. The designer successfully turned the ‘plain Jane’ actress into a sex symbol for The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), Head employed a few costume tricks to improve Stanwyck’s naturally trim figure (namely widening the waistbands at the front and narrowing them at the back) and the public saw the actress in a whole new light. The Lady Eve bought the designer the acclaim that had eluded her since she took over from Paramount’s legendary head designer Travis Banton in 1938. In Edith Head’s Hollywood, Stanwyck recalls that: ‘From then on I had Edith Head’s name written into every contract, no matter what studio I was working for’.

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Look three: what, this old thing?
Flouncy marabou feather sleeves, a full length skirt with a trailing chiffon train: they don’t make nightgowns like this any more (or if they do, no-one I know is wearing them). This outfit is a return to form for Sugarpuss, but it’s not showy for showiness sake – Edith Head was more talented than that. This gown is about emphasising contrast, about bringing ambiguities to a character and making us question our assumptions. There’s the obvious contrast between Sugarpuss’ flamboyant gown and the stuffy professor’s house, between her extravagant attire and Pottsie’s sensible (and well worn) threads. Yet other distinctions – the innocent simplicity of her pulled back hair versus the vamp nightgown; the tenderness with which she places the humble but thoughtful ring Pottsie uses to propose on her finger versus the greedy delight with which she had previously received Joe Lilac’s token – suggest that Sugarpuss might not be the gal we’ve pegged her as. That the glamorous facade might conceal a sensitive core, that her good conscience will tussle with her material desires… But then she’s punches Miss Bragg and locks her in the cupboard and harmony is restored. Pottsie deserves so much better! Sugarpuss’ long, shapely legs have adled his brain.

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Look four:
Fitting her fluctuating emotions, Sugarpuss’ final look can dressed up or down. In the car on the way to New Jersey, the day dress is accessorised with a dramatic veiled hat, a fur stole and embellished cuffs (probably bangles) but, as she comes to accept her feelings for ‘Pottsie’, she loses the fripperies until the dress is simply adorned (at least by Sugarpusses’ standards). This is actually to be her wedding dress – despite the urgency of the ceremony surely Sugarpuss would’ve insisted on something more glam. Whether she wants to admit it or not, she’s already given her heart to someone else (hint: he’s name isn’t Lilac).

This post is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck blogathon, hosted by the wonderful In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood to honour the 26th anniversary of the actresses’ death. Check out all the other posts here, and let’s celebrate the career of one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses!