When people think of Howard Hawks comedies, the titles that generally pop up are “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday”, two quick-paced classics, no less distinguished though is this 1941 comedy that reunites Gary Cooper with Hawks (Sgt. York) and with Barbara Stanwyck (Meet John Doe).
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, “Ball of Fire” is a witty comedy that retains plenty of laughs despite its almost seventy year years in age, a battle of intellect (Professors) versus brute force (gangsters).
The story itself revolves around a group of stuffy professors who are on a multiyear assignment to complete an encyclopedia. The youngest professor, Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is compiling a list American slang. His research takes him throughout the city, Times Square, Yankee Stadium and to a nightclub where he comes upon entertainer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), who is performing to Gene Krupa’s “Congo Boogie.” Sugarpuss’ distinctive and colorful vocabulary is just what the professor ordered. Convinced she is an important resource not to be lost he asks her to help him, which she is reluctant to do until she finds out the police want to question her on the where bout’s of her boyfriend, underworld thug Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Sugarpuss decides it might be best to “help” the stuffy professors, and hide out at their residence until she can get out of New York and meet up with her gangster boyfriend in New Jersey.
Secluded in the house, the professors, become fond of Sugarpuss as she teaches them to unstuff their rigid collars including an education on how to do the conga. However, it is the sensuous seduction Sugarpuss knowingly displays toward the studious. naïve but good-looking Bertram that sets the fires burning. Once in the professors quarters, she removes her coat revealing her skimpy costume and when she gives Bertram her cold wet bare foot to warm up displaying her equally naked and shapely leg, the girl knows full well the effect she is having not just of Bertram but the entire professorial staff. Bertram is soon hooked and before you know it, he is impetuously proposing marriage.
Before the nuptials can be finalized, Joe Lilac’s thugs show up and haul the entire group toward Jersey, using the professors as a cover to smuggle the on the lam Sugarpuss over the New York/New Jersey border. By this time, of course Sugarpuss has fallen in love with Bertram. There is a climatic confrontation between the professors and the hoods, and just like Hawks underdog heroes in “Rio Bravo”, the professors against all odds overcome their better-equipped adversaries with brains over brawn.
True, the premise is silly, seven professors secluded for years living under one roof. At close to two hours the film is a bit long, some trimming would have picked up the pace, yet there is more to recommend than dismiss, a witty script, fine performances from the top on down. There is also Gene Krupa and his orchestra and some nice deep focus photography courtesy of Greg Toland.
Stanwyck is sexy and uninhibited as Sugarpuss, perfect for the role conveying a combination of a typical sassy New York character only to reveal a soft tender side underneath the hard exterior. Deservedly she received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Surprisingly, Stanwyck was not producer Sam Goldwyn’s first choice for the role, nor was she second or even the third. Goldwyn first offered the role to Ginger Rogers who turned it down and then to Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard. Even Lucille Ball was considered before offering it to Stanwyck who gladly and wisely accepted. While I relish the idea of Arthur or Lombard reading the dialogue of Wilder and Brackett, I cannot image anyone doing a better job in the role than Babs did here.
Cooper was set for his role from the beginning. It all came about when Sam Goldwyn wanted Wilder and Brackett to write a script for Coop who he had under contract and was having a tough time finding a suitable project for him. Old Sam made a deal with Paramount, who the writers were under contract to, that involved Coop going to Paramount for one film, which would turn out to be “For Whom the Bells Toll” while Goldwyn got Wilder and Brackett, and the use of Bob Hope for another film (They Got Me Covered). The script Wilder came up with was from a story he wrote back in his early days in per-war Germany called “From A to Z.” It was updated with the help of a junior writer named Thomas Monroe. Wilder also got Goldwyn to agree that he would be allowed to stay on the set during the filming and watch Howard Hawks direct. Wilder wanted to direct his own scripts and admired Hawks work, and like Lubitsch, would become a big influence on Wilder’s directing style. Wilder has commented that he did not like the film thinking the story, a variation of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was silly, though one has to admit Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss made for a very sexy if somewhat tainted Snow White. Wilder and Brackett did receive an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. The script would be Wilder’s last screenplay that would be directed by someone else. The following year, he went on to direct his first feature, “The Major and the Minor.”
The supporting cast is filled with fine talents from Dana Andrews as the hoodlum Joe Lilac, to 1930′s Warner regular Allan Jenkins as the garbage collector to Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers and S.A. “Cuddles” Sakall as three of the bumbling professors. Finally there is Dan Duryea as one of Joe Lilac’s henchmen. Look also for Elisha Cook Jr. in a small role as a waiter in the early nightclub scene.
“Ball of Fire” opened to good reviews and excellent business. Released in December of 1941 to qualify for that year’s award nominations, it went into general release in January of 1942 when the film opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
There is a 1948 remake of this film called “A Song is Born”, also directed by Hawks with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in the Cooper/Stanwyck roles. I have not seen it but I am going to go out on a small limb here and assume that it is not up to the same quality of the original.
Sources: Conversations with Wilder (Crowe)
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood (McCarthy)