Old 02-22-2009, 05:11 PM
Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball

The Firemen's Ball (1967)

A few years before Milos Forman won his first Oscar for directing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," he directed a small film called "The Firemen's Ball." To classify this as a comedy alone would be to mislead people, because, while it is indeed humorous at parts, it is not necessarily "laugh-out-loud" comedy. This is why it is also classified as a drama, because at its heart, the main characters always remain true in their good intentions.

"The Firemen's Ball" tells the story of......a firemen's ball. Several firemen and their families come together to celebrate their brigade and also to honor their previous chairman with a gift of a miniature golden ax. Their plans for the ball include a beauty contest, a lottery where the guests have purchased tickets for a chance to win prizes, and the presentation of the ax to their former chairman. But what fun would it be if everything went according to plan?

The use of comedy in Forman's film is brilliant. It starts off being used in a very subtle way, but then you realize that it continually builds on itself throughout the film until we can just come to expect that something else is going to go wrong. We see that everyone has come together for this celebration of these people who are involved in a very brave profession. Everyone is eating, drinking, and having a good time, not knowing of the disasters that will happen.

The scene right before the ball is a kind of prelude to these disasters. One fireman has been put in charge of the lottery prizes and notices that one has gone missing. He sees another fireman nearby holding a ladder for the person fixing a banner for the ball by slightly scorching the edges with a small fire. He goes over and asks what happened to the cake that had been sitting on the table and eventually accuses him of taking it. This leads to the ladder falling down, leaving the man hanging from the rafters with the banner still on fire. From here on, we know things aren't going to go well.

The ball begins and a small committee of three men have been given the task to find contestants for the beauty contest. However, all of the women at the ball are not particular good-looking, making their task more challenging than it seems. On top of that, they keep getting pressure from a father who wants his daughter included as a contestant. When they have finally made their choices, we get to see all seven contestants in one room. In one of the films great juxtaposed shots, the head of the committee looks at a catalog that has a picture of several beautiful women in bathing suits, then he looks up to see the contestants. Let's just say they are not exactly in the same league.

When it finally comes time for the beauty contest, none of the contestants actually wants to take part in it. In a scramble to find more contestants, the other guests start urging the young women in the crowd to go up on stage. This only causes a large crowd of women to go rushing to the ladies' room to avoid them. In the end, a much older, less-attractive woman ends up with the crown, but at least that brings their immediate troubles to an end. At least until the next one starts...

As soon the first trouble ends, the next one begins. A fire alarm is heard. A nearby building has burst into flames, completely engulfing an old man's house. Luckily, the firemen's ball is being held very close by, so they should be able to stop it, right? After rescuing a few animals from the house, all the firemen do is shovel the surrounding snow onto the flames, which doesn't really do much to hinder the blaze. The old man is astonished as he watches his house burn. He is powerless to do anything about it and quietly utters the Lord's Prayer.

Everyone from the ball had rushed out of the building to see the blaze. The waiter's main concern is that people have not paid their bills and steps in the crowd's way to futilely ask who had eaten and drank what. You would think that the waiter would give up after he is nearly trampled by the mob and thrown into the snow, but as the crowd is watching the blaze, he gets a rather smart idea. He and a couple of other waiters role over a cart containing beer, liquor and other refreshments. Here we have another great juxtaposed shot of people watching a terrible tragedy unfold before them while lining up to buy beer. The house burns down and is a complete loss. The old man's possessions are all gone.

So that's it, right? Nothing else could possibly go wrong? But there's still the lottery. Out of the kindness of their hearts, the guests decide to donate their lottery tickets to the old man who has just lost everything in the fire. However, one of the firemen has noticed that several more objects have been stolen from the lottery table during the scramble to see the fire. The firemen give the culprit a chance to put the items back in anonymity by turning out the lights. The lights go out, then back on. Now almost everything is missing from the table. They give the culprit one more chance. The lights go out again, then on just as someone is bringing over one of the stolen items. It just so happens that it's the same man who was in charge of the prizes. A great sense of irony thrown into an already chaotic situation.

Then Forman does something very unusual with the last ten minutes or so of the film. The firemen convene in a room and discuss who could have taken the rest of the items, coming up with no actual possibilities. They suddenly stop and listen. There is no noise coming from the ballroom. They go outside and find nobody there except a couple of people sleeping, probably drunk, and their former chairman. They drop the investigation and suddenly proceed with the presentation of the gift. The chairman is honored to receive it, opens the box and....you can probably guess what happens here.

Though the humor is very subtle in many places, it still made me laugh out loud in several spots as it built up more and more throughout the film. It is brilliantly written and directed, but I would expect nothing less from the man who would go on to direct "Amadeus." The amazing thing about this film is that it is not really meant to be funny, but it just turns out that way. The firemen certainly don't find these situations funny. All they wanted to do was enjoy a night with their families and pay their respect to their former chairman, but things just kept going wrong. It is possible that with that shot of the gift box, their troubles are finally over cause nothing else could possibly happen after all their events have been ruined, but with these guys' luck, we can't count anything out. 3.5/4 stars.
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