#226) Ball of Fire (1941)
OR “Trying Hard to Book Like Gary Cooper”
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Based on the story “From A to Z” by Wilder and Thomas Monroe.
Class of 2016
The Plot: Nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) has to hide out while her mobster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is under investigation. She ends up in a Manhattan residence with Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) who, along with his seven colleagues (Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Hayden, Aubrey Mather) is editing an encyclopedia and could use Sugarpuss’ expertise on modern slang. Potts and O’Shea start to fall for each other, but Lilac isn’t too far away to spoil the fun. It’s “Snow White” with a boogie rhythm.
Why It Matters: The NFR says the film “captures a pre-World War II lightheartedness” and praises Hawks, Wilder and Brackett. They also call Gene Krupa’s cameo a highlight. Nothing about Stanwyck or Cooper, but how about that Gene Krupa?
But Does It Really?: This is definitely a “minor classic”. Cooper and Stanwyck have better movies from 1941 alone (“Sergeant York”, “The Lady Eve”, and non-entry “Meet John Doe”), and Wilder has his whole career following this movie. “Ball of Fire” can be fun at times, but it’s never quite the comedy bull’s-eye it should be. Nevertheless, the film has historical significance for igniting Wilder’s transition to directing, and it has a reputation as the last great screwball comedy, so it was going to make this list eventually.
Shout Outs: The film is of course a modern update of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. There’s also a quick allusion to “Sergeant York”, and Sugarpuss’s concern that Potts has “a slight case of Andy Hardy”.
Everybody Gets One: Screenwriter Thomas Monroe doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name, but he was the man who helped Billy Wilder translate and Americanize his story “From A to Z” from its original German.
Wow, That’s Dated: It’s about encyclopedia writers trying to decipher boogie-woogie slang; this thing is 1941 down to its marrow.
Title Track: Legendary character actor Charles Lane says the title about 90 minutes in, as part of a newspaper headline regarding Sugarpuss.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Ball of Fire” got four Oscar nominations, but got lost in the shuffle of a lineup that included “Citizen Kane”, “How Green Was My Valley”, and “Sergeant York” (the latter of which garnered nominations for Hawks and Cooper). Stanwyck lost Best Actress to Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”, and Wilder & Monroe lost Original Story to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”.
- Wow, look at those credits! Hawks, Wilder, producer Sam Goldwyn, cinematographer Gregg Toland, composer Alfred Newman, costumer Edith Head; all of the heavy hitters came out for this one.
- Richard Haydn was 36 when he played the elderly Professor Oddley. Whether you know him as the Caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland” or Max Detweiler in “The Sound of Music”, you can clock that voice in a second.
- Sooooo much ‘40s slang. What is everyone saying?
- I don’t know how I feel about Barbara Stanwyck in this film. Of course she’s incapable of giving a bad performance, but I would argue she’s miscast as Sugarpuss. Stanwyck is many things as an actress – tough yet vulnerable, a confident combination of sultry and wisecracking – but is she more hip than Gary Cooper? Original choices Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers would have been better options.
- For those of you keeping score, that’s two movies written by Billy Wilder that feature a singer named Sugar.
- There are several “pan-and-scan” shots throughout. Toland recognized the difficulty of getting eight or more people in the same shot.
- Speaking of, Gregg Toland photographed “Ball of Fire” immediately following his work on “Citizen Kane”.
- Sudden slam on “The Daily Worker”.
- This film is not without its faults, but Cooper and Stanwyck do have excellent chemistry together. Cooper in particular is quite good playing a reserved intellectual in love.
- Sugarpuss’ nickname for Potts is “Potsie” after, of course, Potts’ favorite “Happy Days” character.
- Before starting this blog, Dana Andrews wasn’t really on my radar. I have now seen four of his movies and I gotta say he’s severely underrated. He can be the relatable lead in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and the heavy in this, both effectively.
- This film takes a while to get started, but like so many of the great film comedies, the first half is set-up, and the second half’s payoff more than makes up for lost time.
- While never on anyone’s list of greatest movie quotes, the best line in the movie is Sugarpuss’ mini-monologue about Potts: “I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk.”
- The script is filled with the kind of smart one-liners we associate with Billy Wilder (as well as Charles Brackett), but Hawks likes his lines coming fast and furious, so a lot of the dialogue gets thrown away, a Wilder no-no. Is it any wonder he wanted to direct?
- Look out, Clarence has a gun! He will earn his wings if he has to take everyone with him!
- This film’s main takeaway was Billy Wilder deciding he needed to direct his own scripts to ensure minimal studio interference. Hawks allowed Wilder to study his directing style on the set, and Wilder took the wheel for his next screenplay, “The Major and the Minor”. Wilder remembered Barbara Stanwyck’s ability to handle ‘40s slang when he wrote “Double Indemnity”.
- Samuel Goldwyn remade “Ball of Fire” with 1948’s “A Song is Born”. The leads were Goldwyn favorites Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, but both films have the same producer, director, cinematographer, and Miss Totten.