Václav Vorlícek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is as madcap as it gets. I watched this and Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire in close proximity to one-another. They combine for a pretty interesting look at screwball comedy across decades and oceans.
I haven’t really seen much like Who Wants to Kill Jessie? before. I mean, I’ve seen films that are cartoonish, that are battle-of-the-sexes, etc, but I think it’s rare to find one that is also shot in gorgeous anamorphic. The film also has an instance of backwards talking, which calls to mind Twin Peaks, and, of course, features a great beer sequence.
The basic plot of Jessie is silly. Dr. Rozie (Dana Medrická) creates a method to eliminate bad dreams. Unfortunately, her technique also brings the dreams into reality. Meanwhile, her husband Jindrich (Jirí Sovák) is dreaming of a comic book character Jessie (Olga Schoberová) whose anti-gravitational gloves draw the interest of a villainous superman (Juraj Visny) and cowboy (Karel Effa), though the latter only looks stereotypically evil and the former seems more intent on eating than anything else.
The film isn’t one to mind plot holes (like: why does Jessie ever take the anti-gravitational gloves off, or remove them from her person if they’re so important), but it doesn’t matter. It’s fun, and at times really hilarious, particularly a sequence featuring both main character’s assistants and some classic screwball mixed up identity.
I’d bet that Vorlícek shot in 2.35 because of the word bubbles that factor frequently into the film:
The aspect ratio really lends itself to them. But as mentioned, the film is also really pretty. Jan Nemecek shot it. He also lensed Black Peter, but I’m surprised that his credits aren’t so prolific. The images are well-composed with beautiful, often natural light:
Here’s another sequence that I quite like, and one that is also straight-up screwball. After Dr. Rozie and her assistants attempt to (pretty brutally) kill superman, he’s accidentally sent upstairs in a lift. Of course above him there’s an active funeral.
The second shot above is one of two punch lines: superman looking very small in the background of the frame behind all of the flowers. The large crowd is the button on the joke.
Ball of Fire
A really, really tiny SPOILER is at the end of this post. But you should really be able to guess the spoiler.
I really love Howard Hawks, but I have to say it: Ball of Fire is outdated. I’d guess that Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Hawks might have anticipated that. I mean it’s based on something so transient: slang.
But that notwithstanding, the film feels like a strong (though not as strong) follow-up to His Girl Friday and it anticipates Monkey Business 11 years later. The latter really demonstrates to me how much of a superior actor Cary Grant was to Gary Cooper. Cooper’s Dr. Bertram Potts is funny and stuffy at once, but Cooper just doesn’t have the comedic timing or charisma that Grant had.
The seven dwarves-esque side characters in Ball of Fire are funny and appropriately adorable, though I think there’s a little too much mileage gotten out of “cute old men.”
You can really see how Wilder would’ve learned from Hawks though. A year later Wilder would make his Hollywood debut, and he’s only 3 years removed from starting his great run with Double Indemnity in 1944. The two have really similar styles in a lot of ways, though Wilder’s films feel forever more cynical.
There are plenty of great sequences in Ball of Fire. One of my favorites is Sugarpuss’ (we could do a blog post just on that name. Played by Barbara Stanwyck) introduction at a night club where she does an a capella encore, supported only by “drums” on a match book. It’s a great performance, and Hawks gets about as arty as Hawks gets with the reflection shot below:
The slang plot is actually still funny in some ways, mostly when we get a look at how desperately Potts wants to chart, categorize, and learn:
Both films effectively end with the nerdy man getting the sexy woman, while another nerdy woman is either forgotten (Ball of Fire), is shown to be as/more interested in excitement than romance (Ball of Fire), or is cast as obtrusive (Jessie). It’s the old “Hollywood” ending where no one seems at all concerned with the problems that will inevitably arise, and where women are easily changed for the right man (it seems to me that Potts will go back to working on encyclopedias and that Jindrich will continue inventing, but neither Sugarpuss nor Jessie will regain much semblance of their old lives).