Friday, November 4, 2011

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Ball of Fire (1941)

Ball of Fire (1941) *** ½  
Directed by: Howard Hawks.
Written by: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder.
Starring:  Gary Cooper (Prof. Bertram Potts), Barbara Stanwyck (Sugarpuss O'Shea), Oskar Homolka (Prof. Gurkakoff), Henry Travers (Prof. Jerome), S.Z. Sakall (Prof. Magenbruch), Tully Marshall (Prof. Robinson), Leonid Kinskey (Prof. Quintana), Richard Haydn (Prof. Oddly), Aubrey Mather (Prof. Peagram), Allen Jenkins (Garbage Man), Dana Andrews (Joe Lilac), Dan Duryea (Duke Pastrami), Ralph Peters (Asthma Anderson), Kathleen Howard (Miss Bragg), Mary Field (Miss Totten).

Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire is not as well known as his other classic screwball comedies – Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940), probably because it isn’t quite as good. Those two films move at lightning quick speed for their entire running time, never slowing down for a minute to let the audience catch their breath. By comparison, Ball of Fire seems almost slow. That isn’t to say that Ball of Fire isn’t an excellent comedy – it is – but that it is not quite as good as Hawks’ best work in the genre. But there is still plenty to recommend the film on.

The movie stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck (who also starred together in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe released the same year, and previously reviewed as part of this series). Cooper is Professor Bertram Potts, one of 8 professors who have spent almost a decade compiling “all of human knowledge” for a set of encyclopedias. They have made it all the way to the letter S, and Potts has just finished his section on slang, when they meet their garbage man, who tosses out a bunch of words and phrases that Potts had not covered. Fearing his section is hopelessly out of date, he heads out onto the town to learn more about slang – eventually meeting the sassy night club singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck). She initially rejects Potts suggestion that she help him out, but when her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) gets into trouble, and the cops start looking for her, she moves right in with the Professors, thinking it’s a good place to hide out. All eight of them are immediately smitten with her, none more so than Potts. And, as you can probably guess, these opposites really do attract – but than Sugarpuss is an awkward situation, since she lied to them, and now Andrews wants her to run off with him and get married.

As I mentioned before, Ball of Fire doesn’t move with the same lightning quickness that films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday did. In fact, the movie has an almost languid pace at times. Yet the screenplay, by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is full of intelligent, witty dialogue. Hawks’ direction is top notch, as is the cinematography by Gregg Tolland. Gary Cooper is perfectly cast as the uptight, somewhat naïve Potts. Like Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, he is an intellectual who becomes smitten with a woman who moves too fast, and is out of his comfort zone. Cooper, who is best known for his more heroic roles (like his Oscar winning turn in Sergeant York the same year, and oddly enough, also directed by Hawks), but I have always preferred Cooper when he plays the everyman – like here and in Meet John Doe. Stanwyck pretty much steals the movie (which is why she got an Oscar nomination for it – although she should have gotten it for The Lady Eve that year), as the brash woman who comes in and stirs up the professors lives.

Ball of Fire isn’t quite as great as Hawks was capable of making, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful film. Sugarpuss O’Shea definitely counts as a prototypical “Hawksian” woman, and the film is full of excellent little touches – and supporting performances from the entire cast (I really did like Dan Dureya as a hood for example). Is it a great film? Not quite, but it puts most modern comedies to shame.

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