Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

balloffire2lcWhile 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.
ball-of-fire-jma1The 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.

ballfire-stanwyck-foot1Secluded 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.

Annex%20-%20Cooper,%20Gary%20(Ball%20of%20Fire)_02The 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.

This article is part of the BIlly Wilder Blogthaon. For more terrific articles on Billy Wilder check out the link below.


30 comments on “Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

  1. […] By Twenty Four Frames – Ball of Fire […]


  2. le0pard13 says:

    Love this film! Great look at this classic, John 🙂


  3. I bow to no one in my admiration and affection for Barbara Stanwyck, but admit that Virginia Mayo handles the “Sugarpuss” role quite well in “A Song is Born”. She might surprise you. That second feature has a couple of treats – Mary Field again plays Miss Totten, and the music is sublime. The rest of the story, however doesn’t have the same zing as the earlier version. Perhaps it’s because they omitted my favourite line – “It’s as red as Thee Daily Worker and twice as sore.” I didn’t realize it was a favourite until it wasn’t there.


    • John Greco says:

      Patricia, I will definitely check out A SONG IS BORN when t pops up on TCM or somewhere. A little bit of Mayo goes a long way so I am not surprised if she did the “Sugarpuss” role well.


  4. KimWilson says:

    This is one of my favorite films for both Stanwyck and Cooper. Like you, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Sugarpuss other than Stanwyck (I love Jean Arthur, but she didn’t have the sex appeal needed for this role).


    • John Greco says:

      Kim, I agree about Arthur. She was a very talented actress, superb at comedy and attractive but she does seem to lack the sex appeal required for this role.


  5. Aurora says:

    A great read, John and fantastic entry to the Wilder blogathon! I absolutely love the backstory and resulting movie, length and all! I’ve never seen A SONG IS BORN and based on your write-up and comments it sounds like a must as well.

    As far as Stanwyck I agree with your assessment – Despite the other great actresses considered for Sugarpuss I don’t think they would have measured up to what she brought to the performance.

    Thanks so much for submitting this!



  6. Judy says:

    John, I really love this film – I saw it on the big screen during the Hawks Festival at the BFI in London a little while back, but hadn’t realised it was a Wilder script! Both Stanwyck and Cooper are fantastic and you’ve made me want to watch it again soon. I haven’t seen ‘A Song Is Born’ as yet, but it is hard to believe that any remake could be this sublime.


    • John Greco says:

      Judy, that was a real treat seeing this on the big screen. Unfortunately, I only rarely get the chance to catch a classic film on the big screen due to where I live. Once in a while something pops up like when CASABLANCA was presented by TCM about a year or two ago. Thanks!


  7. Shannon says:

    I love this film! I’ve grown up watching it, but never knew it was a Billy Wilder film. It’s truly great and Barbara is fantastic as “Sugie”. I’ve recently become a bigger fan of Dana Andrews and have a whole new admiration for his performance here, though it is rather small.


  8. girlsdofilm says:

    I loved reading this post about one of my favourite films. Stanwyck and Cooper are such a fantastic pairing, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role of Sugarpuss.


  9. ClassicBecky says:

    Don’t you just love the name Sugarpuss O’Shea? This movie is a lot of fun to watch, albeit strange in concept. But who cares when you have Stanwyck, Cooper and that wonderful bunch of character actors as the professors. Oh, you are quite right about “A “Song Is Born.” Really stinko! Loved your article, John!


  10. I absolutely love Ball of Fire! It’s one of my favourite Barbara Stanwyck films. I didn’t know that she was fifth choice. Thanks for sharing!


  11. joe says:

    I’m a push-over for streptococcus and Barbara Stanwyck in this and other films. However, I would love to see Lucille Ball tackle this. She’s no Stanwyck; but I think the performance would have been fun!


  12. I watched this last year for the first time. I had dvred it and just kept putting off watching it. I loved every second of it and was surprised that one of the professors was none other than Max from The Sound of Music, Richard Carlson, using a weird voice to say his lines with, a voice I’ve heard mimicked in countless cartoons or tv commercials; like the voice counting the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop.


    • John Greco says:

      Jenni, sorry for the. Delayed reply. Glad you liked it. It’s a fun film with some truly witty lines and a wonderful cast.


  13. Rick says:

    I love Billy Wilder, but must disagree with his assessment! BALL OF FIRE is delightful and I’m also a fan of the lesser remake A SONG IS BORN (which is equally well cast). While I agree that the plot loses steam before the climax, the cast is perfect and that’s what makes the movie work…even more than Wilder’s witty script.


    • John Greco says:

      Have not seen A Song is Born but other than that I agree Rick with everything you say. Cast is great and the script is fun.


  14. Sam Juliano says:

    An American masterpiece given the traditional kitchen sink treatment by John Greco with a generous dash of the kind of language that only a true aficionado can impart. I’m a fan for sure! 🙂


  15. […] and Stanwyck is a surefire winner.  This is another film I wrote about a while back so jump over here to read […]


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