How can you not love a movie with Barbara Stanwyck playing a nightclub singer named Sugarpuss O’Shea? The name alone always leaves me howling, but then insert her into a modern day retelling of Snow White and you have something incredibly funny.
Of course this isn’t a straight retelling of the fairy tale made famous by the Disney film. In modern day (1941) New York, Prof. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), a straight laced scholar focused on his research, and his six colleagues are leisurely at work on a comprehensive encyclopedia. They have been working for several years and, much to the chagrin of the trustees of their grant, are still several more years away from completing it. Prof. Potts and his colleagues work and live together in a large Manhattan home, only getting away from their books for brisk strolls through Central Park. Their insularity keeps them close to their books, but Prof. Potts realizes that it has made him wholly inadequate to pen his entry on slang, all of his examples having been found in old, out of date books. He decides to find a cross section of New Yorkers close to the living, breathing, ever evolving modern slang and ventures out in the city. He distributes his card to assorted men and women hip to the lingo: a garbage man, news boy, etc. He invites them all to paid group sessions where they will teach him everything they know.
Potts forays into a nightclub where he sees Sugarpuss perform and decides he has to have her sharp tongue in the sessions. She quickly shoos the man away, but he leaves his card for her. Later she finds out that the police are looking for her to testify against her boyfriend, crime boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) in a murder case. She needs a place to hide out so she concocts a scheme to crash with the mild mannered professor. She shows up at his house, makes up a sad story, and soon Potts and the other professors welcome them into their home – much to the displeasure of their housekeeper.
Sugarpuss injects some life into the somber house with music, laughter, flirting, and, as always, a budding romance with Prof. Potts. The old men begin to cut loose and, for the first time in many years, start to have a good time. Things are complicated however when Lilac decides he needs to marry Sugarpuss (so she can’t testify against him) at the same time Prof. Potts has decided to ask her to marry him.
Both Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are marvelous, playing well opposite of each other with a crackling chemistry. Cooper played manly men and tough guys for so long that it’s nice to see him play a nerd. And Stanwyck does hard-boiled sexy like few could (or still can). They are supported well by superb supporting performances, especially from the other professors including such solid supporting actors like Oskar Homolka amd Henry Travers.
And let’s face it. Watching older, conservative folks awkwardly grapple with slang or any other modern ideas is pretty funny. Though I have smugly sat on the “in” side for years, I am increasingly finding words and terms incomprehensible, the sure sign of aging, making continued hipness unattainable (and for those my age or older who try just turn out to be sad people clinging to the days when our waistlines were naturally trim). So I have to accept the fact that kids will come up with new words and phrases in a secret sphere of cultural consciousness that I am not tapped into – nor am I sure I would want to be. Even screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett acknowledged their disconnect from the world of popular slang so — somewhat creepily — they spent afternoons at the drug store across the street from Hollywood High School, eager to catch scraps of slang for their script, much like Prof. Potts. Thankfully I don’t need to embark on a similar project; I’m fine not understanding … though I do wish someone would teach kids that even in emails and Facebook posts, punctuation IS necessary.