Monday, April 29, 2024

Love Is a Ball and A Big Hand for the Little Lady

Love Is a Ball (1963).  I thought I had seen every 1960s romantic comedy until the blandly-titled Love Is a Ball popped up on the cable channel Screenpix. It stars Charles Boyer as Etienne Pimm, a matchmaker who is part Pygmalion and part con artist. He specializes in pairing titled, but financially poor, European aristocrats with wealthy potential spouses. The catch is that the latter have no idea that they're the "target" of a matchmaking scheme. Pimm's latest client is Duke Gaspard Ducluzeau (Ricardo Montalbán), who not only lacks wealth...he also lacks sophistication. To address Gaspard's deficiencies, Pim hires three men to teach Gaspard how to speak properly, how to drive fast cars and play polo, and how to eat fine food. Problems arise, though, when heiress Millie Mehaffey (Hope Lange) becomes attracted to one of Gaspard's teachers, former race car driver John Davis (Glenn Ford). The first half of Love Is a Ball moves along at a merry pace--and who knew that Ricardo Montalbán could be so funny? Inevitably, the focus shifts to the romance between Millie and John, who are the film's least interesting characters (and seem like a poor match to boot). Shot mostly on-location on the French Riveria, Love Is a Ball is a mildly pleasant romcom that overstays its welcome and mostly wastes the fine performances of Boyer, Montalbán, and Telly Savalas. Director and co-writer David Swift fared better at Disney where he made Pollyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961). In Paul Mayersberg's book Hollywood, the Haunted House, Swift stated that Glenn Ford "approaches his craft like a twelve-year-old temperamental child." Needless to say, they never worked together again.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966).  Well, this is one of those movies that you can discuss with a "spoiler alert" warning. Or, one can tread very carefully when describing the plot. I will opt for the latter in discussing this deceiving Western about an annual high-stakes poker game involving the five richest men in Laredo. Even though the whole town knows about the big event, no one else is allowed to participate, watch it, or even stay informed about the current standings. That changes when a farming family passes through town and is forced to spend the night after a wagon wheel breaks. Meredith, the family patriarch, is a recovering gambling addict with a hefty bankroll--to be used on a purchasing a farm. However, he succeeds in getting a seat at the poker table and proceeds to bet his family's nest egg on what he claims is to a sure-fire winning hand. There is a lot of gamesmanship going on in Big Hand for the Little Lady and your enjoyment of the movie will hinge on your acceptance of the ending. I was pleasantly surprised on my first viewing many years ago, but the plot struggled to hold my interest in subsequent viewings. The cast almost overpowers the premise with solid work from Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Kevin McCarthy, and a slew of familiar faces. (I recognized the young actor that plays Meredith's son from Samuel Fuller's fascinating The Naked Kiss.) Director Fielder Cook and screenwriter Sidney Carroll based on A Big Hand for the Little Lady on "Big Deal in Laredo," a 1962 episode of the one-hour TV series anthology The DuPont Show of the Week. It starred Walter Matthau and Teresa Wright in the Fonda and Woodward roles. I haven't seen it, but wonder if the shorter running time might have strengthened the premise.

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