While Billy Wilder is best known as a film director, he always considered himself a writer first and director second. He worked best with a partner, and though he had many over the years, there were two, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who were his most important associates. Though he was born in Europe, Wilder quickly picked up and mastered the American vernacular. While Wilder always had a co-writer, there is no way to misinterpret a Wilder screenplay. His footprints are clearly all over them.
Howard Hawks, like Ernst Lubitsch, was a big influence on Wilder who wanted to direct his own scripts. As much as he liked Lubitsch and Hawks, Wilder hated what director Mitchell Leisen did with his scripts in films like Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn. He wanted to protect his work, therefore he wanted to direct.
Gary Cooper was set for his role from the very beginning. It all came about when Sam Goldwyn wanted Wilder and Brackett to write a script for Cooper who he had under contract. He was having a tough time finding a suitable project for the actor. Old Sam made a deal with Paramount, who had the two writers under contract. The deal involved Cooper going to Paramount for one film. This turned out to be For Whom the Bells Toll. In return, 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. It was called From A to Z. He updated the story with the help of a junior writer named Thomas Monroe. During the negotiations, Wilder also got Goldwyn to agree he would be allowed to stay on the set during the filming and watch Howard Hawks direct. Wilder though, did not think much of the resulting film commenting that the story, a variation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was silly. That said, one has to admit Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss made for a very sexy, if somewhat tainted, Snow White.
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 of American slang. His research takes him throughout the city; Times Square, Yankee Stadium and eventually 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 dismissed, he asks her to help him. She is reluctant to do it until she finds out the police want to question her on the whereabouts’ 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 un-stuff their rigid collars including an education on how to do the conga. However, it is the sensuous seduction Sugarpuss knowingly displays toward the studious and 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. And not just on 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 New 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 including Wilder and Bracket’s witty script and fine performances from the top on down. Additionally there is Gene Krupa and his orchestra along with some nice deep focus photography courtesy of Greg Toland.
Barbara Stanwyck is sexy and uninhibited as Sugarpuss. She’s 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 Stanwyck did here.
The supporting cast is filled with a wonderful array of fine talents. From the still up and coming Dana Andrews, as the hoodlum Joe Lilac, to 1930’s Warner regular Allen Jenkins as the garbage collector to Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers and S.A. “Cuddles” Sakall as three of the bumbling professors. There is also Dan Duryea as one of Joe Lilac’s henchmen, and 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. Wilder and Brackett received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. The script would be Wilder’s last screenplay to be directed by someone else. The following year he went on to direct his first feature, The Major and the Minor.
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).
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.
I original wrote about Ball of a Fire back in 2010. This review incorporates a few portions of the original which I have since deleted from this blog.
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