Thursday, May 24, 2007

BALL OF FIRE (Samuel Goldwyn 1941) MGM Home Video

Memorably penned by writer, Billy Wilder, and nominated for 4 Oscars, Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941) is often interpreted as a swing band revamp of Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs. The film – actually a scathing screwball comedy of errors - stars every man Gary Cooper doing his sort of clueless Mr. Deeds-like congenial fop that was Coop’s stock and trade during this part of his Hollywood tenure. Here, Cooper is university professor, Bertram Potts who is in the ninth year of a twelve year encyclopedia writing project.

Potts specialty is language and grammar. Imagine his dismay then, when he discovers that his section on American slang is hopelessly out of date. To rectify the situation, Potts decides to immerse himself in the vernacular of every day jive, landing in one of New York’s hot spot nightclubs where the star attraction is the sultry Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck).

Sparks fly as Potts, in an attempt to get to know his craft more carefully, clumsily becomes entangled in a gangster subplot after he learns that Sugarpuss is engaged to crime kingpin, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Warned by Joe’s associate, Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea) to lay low until the heat is off; Sugarpuss instead decides to hide out at the university where she is gradually befriended by the ensemble faculty. The plot thickens as Potts begins to fall for his covert guest and her for him – resulting in a marriage proposal and memorable gun-shooting showdown between the academics and the mob.

Wilder’s writing is slick and stylish – a warm and fuzzy cornucopia of witty sparking dialogue and sight gags that have remained fresh since their time. Apart from her performance in The Lady Eve (1941) Stanwyck has never been quite so devilishly winsome or adroitly playful. She’s an ideal romantic foil to the clean cut, simple Potts whose initial interest in her is purely scholastic. In the end, Ball of Fire is just that – the low down on a hot story that continues to burn up the celluloid with laughs, laughs and laughs.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to chuckle over in MGM’s rather lackluster DVD incarnation. MGM has long since inherited the Samuel Goldwyn library of classic films from HBO Home Video. Yet only a handful have made the transition to DVD via the MGM label – a travesty that has robbed viewers of virtually all of Danny Kaye’s classic performances for Goldwyn, including Hans Christian Andersen (1952).

The B&W image on this outing is quite soft. Though the gray scale can be nicely represented, often contrast levels appear to have been bumped, with a considerable loss of fine details in the brighter register. Contrast is generally weak. However, the most disappointing aspect of the transfer is its digital anomalies, including shimmering of fine details and edge enhancement. The audio has been rechanneled to stereo. The original mono is also included. There are NO extras.

Honestly, since DVD is no longer in its infancy (and with other studios making quantum leaps and strides to do their best where their classic film libraries are concerned) MGM Home Entertainment has fallen hopeless behind the times in their commitment to quality product. What is required from this studio, other than another corporate acquisition (they are currently part of the Fox Home Video distribution apparatus), is a solid dedication to improving their output on the whole. This DVD is therefore recommended for its content – not its transfer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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