One of life's greatest treasures is to be surprised. I chose BALL OF FIRE (1941) because I was looking for a Gary Cooper film to watch but some unexpected surprises sprang from this choice. Cooper is an American screen icon from the 1930's thru the 1950's. Kevin Costner always reminds me of a modern day Gary Cooper. I have only seen Cooper in a couple of films in my life time --Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE (1941) and Fred Zinnemann's HIGH NOON (1952) and that was back in college. So I chose BALL OF FIRE because it had Gary Cooper as well as Barbara Stanwyck, a good strong leading lady. But as I watched it, three other surprises popped up to make it extra special. 1) I had no idea it was directed by one of my favorites Howard Hawks (THE BIG SLEEP, RIO BRAVO). 2) Its original screenplay is by another of my favorite directors Billy Wilder (SUNSET BOULEVARD, SOME LIKE IT HOT) and his partner Charles Brackett (from a story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe). 3) It has an incredible array of supporting actors, some of them memorable and familiar to film buffs from other classic movies.
BALL OF FIRE is a perfect vehicle for director Howard Hawks who had previously directed some of the best screwball comedies in Hollywood like BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). And with a script co-written by Billy Wilder (who would soon be directing his own scripts), the creative firepower of Hawks and Wilder behind BALL OF FIRE is impressive. Ironically, the lead character of Professor Bertram Potts in BALL OF FIRE seems tailor made for Cary Grant. Grant played the leads in both Hawks' BRINGING UP BABY and HIS GIRL FRIDAY. But Potts is an introverted, erudite man, perfect for Gary Cooper who's acting style is a bit more reserved than Grant's.
I dare anyone to convince me BALL OF FIRE would be made today. Listen to this synopsis. A group of eight esteemed professors (who also happen to be bachelors) led by the younger Professor of English Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) have been working nine years on a new encyclopedia funded by the Daniel S. Totten Foundation run by the late Daniel Totten's daughter Miss Totten (Mary Field). The seven other professors include Professor Gurkakoff (Oskar Holmoka), Prof. Jerome (Henry Travers), Prof. Magenbruch (S.K. Sakall), Prof. Robinson (Tully Marshall), Prof. Quintana (Leonid Kinskey), Prof. Oddly (Richard Haydn), and Prof. Peagram (Aubrey Mather). When a Garbage Man (Allen Jenkins) walks into their New York brownstone using all kinds of current slang that none of the professors recognize, Potts realizes his encyclopedia section on slang is outdated. Potts ventures out into New York to learn the latest slang visiting a newspaper stand, a train car, a baseball game, and a pool hall taking notes.
When Potts stumbles upon nightclub singer Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) singing catchy, slang-filled songs (like Drum Boogie), he visits her dressing room after the show to invite her to join his slang research project. Sugarpuss declines. Unbeknown to Potts, Sugarpuss is also gangster Joe Lilac's (Dana Andrews) moll. Lilac is under suspicion for the murder of a rival. Worried that Sugarpuss might tell the cops something about his relationship with the dead man when questioned, Lilac sends his two lieutenants Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma Anderson (Ralph Peters) to grab Sugarpuss and hide her. With no place to go, Sugarpuss remembers Potts' invitation and business card. She decides to hide out in the brownstone with Potts, seven middle-aged professors, and one unhappy den mother Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard).
The professors are thrilled to have a young, leggy nightclub singer sleeping over. Their academic world gets turned upside down as Sugarpuss teaches them to dance the conga. Potts conducts his round table on slang with Sugarpuss, the Garbage Man, and the others. Sugarpuss finds herself falling for Potts and Potts for Sugarpuss. Lilac's still nervous that Sugarpuss might testify against him so he sends her a gigantic wedding ring. Both men want to marry her. Hiding out in New Jersey, Lilac calls the house. A conflicted Sugarpuss has Potts talk to Lilac. Potts thinks Lilac is Sugarpuss's father. Potts asks Sugarpuss to marry him, giving her a very small engagement ring. Lilac tricks Potts, asking him to bring Sugarpuss to New Jersey for the wedding. Potts, Sugarpuss, and the seven professors head to New Jersey for the big day. They get in a car accident and end up at a hotel where Lilac and his men show up. Lilac spills the beans that Sugarpuss is his girl. He punches Potts to prove his point.
Typical of a screwball comedy, BALL OF FIRE ends with a frenetic flourish. Sugarpuss realizes she is in love with Potts. But the newspapers have gotten a hold of Sugarpuss's story, bringing scandal to Potts and the encyclopedia project. Miss Totten prepares to shut the project down. But Pastrami and Asthma show up at the house with guns, threatening to kill Potts and the others if Sugarpuss doesn't marry Lilac. But the brainy professors use their brains, borrowing the theory of the Sword of Damocles to overtake the hoods. As Lilac prepares to wed Sugarpuss in New Jersey, Potts and the professors show up for a final funny confrontation.
If the eight professors in BALL OF FIRE reminds you of the seven dwarves from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (1937) it's not a coincidence (Joe Lilac even cracks that Sugapuss is "hiding out with the 7 Dwarves"). If you don't count Potts who's younger than the other seven, the seven professors are a human version of Disney's animated characters. Hawks and Wilder/Brackett ingeniously give each professor a particular specialty. They're not Sleepy or Grumpy or Happy. But Prof. Oddly is an expert in botany and Prof. Robinson with law and Prof. Jerome with geography and so on. Hawks casts very specific character actors for each professor to make them unique. Oskar Holmoka as Prof. Gurkakoff with his unibrow and thick Eastern European accent. S.K. Sakall and his rotund body and bifocals. Henry Travers and his cherubic cheeks. Richard Haydn as Prof. Oddly and his nasally inflection. One could say Sugarpuss is Snow White. She comes into their brownstone like Snow White falling asleep in the seven dwarves cottage and mesmerizing the middle-aged, female deprived scholars.
BALL OF FIRE is in many ways a film about words. Author Damon Runyon would appreciate how good Wilder and Brackett's script is on so many levels weaving slang and grammar throughout the story. Slang plays an integral part to the plot. Major and minor characters talk colorfully throwing out slang like gams (legs), moolah (money), puss (face), bull (police), Loserville (just like it sounds), corn (old fashioned), and yum yum (kiss) to name just a few. The names of characters are word play. Joe Lilac. Duke Pastrami. Asthma Anderson. Benny the Creep. Sugarpuss O'Shea. Professor Oddly. Some match their names; some names are ironic. Gangster Lilac is no flower. But Sugarpuss does have a sweet face.
And, for a film about writing an encyclopedia by eight professors with expertise in geography, history, language, astronomy, etc. BALL OF FIRE writers Wilder and Brackett reference Newton's Law of Gravity, Shakespeare's Richard III, poet William Blake's poem The Tyger ("Tyger Tyger, burning bright"), the Sword of Damocles (a Greek moral about a sword suspended by a single horse hair over a king's throne epitomizing the peril of those in power), Sigmund Freud (and the subconscious) and the thinly veiled comparison of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Potter/Sugarpuss and the 7 Professors. It's a masterful screenplay that mixes the academic with the street wise. Wilder liked having fun with gangster characters and would incorporate gangsters and the St. Valentine's Massacre into his comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).
Gary Cooper was already having quite a year in 1941 appearing in Hawks SERGEANT YORK and Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE (where coincidentally his co-star was also Barbara Stanwyck) before finishing up the year with BALL OF FIRE. Hawks liked to cast handsome leading men like Cary Grant or Cooper as introverted, socially awkward scholars. Professor Potts seems right up Cary Grant's alley but he had already played a similar character in BRINGING UP BABY. Cooper handles the role with aplomb and the right bit of Midwestern innocence.
I only knew Barbara Stanwyck from her femme fatale role in Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and later as the matriarch on TV's THE BIG VALLEY (1965 to 1969). But Stanwyck was already an accomplished comic actress having appeared in Preston Sturges' THE LADY EVE (also 1941) and the before mentioned MEET JOHN DOE. Stanwyck is flat out sexy in BALL OF FIRE as Sugarpuss O'Shea, flashing more leg throughout the film than all the Radio City Rockettes combined. Stanwyck's Sugarpuss is also another example of the Hawksian woman (named after director Howard Hawks). Hawks's female characters are almost like one of the boys only with breasts and shapely legs. Sugarpuss can sing and dance but she talks and drinks and even knocks out Miss Bragg like one of the guys. Stanwyck is right up there with other Hawksian women like Lauren Bacall (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT) and Angie Dickinson (RIO BRAVO). Stanwyck's Sugarpuss O'Shea is as one character describes her "a ball of fire."
BALL OF FIRE is filled with an array of great supporting actors that compliment the film and story. Many are recognizable faces that film fans will recall from other memorable films. The professor roles are a Who's Who of character actors. There's Henry Travers, most famous as Clarence the Angel from Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, as Prof. Jerome. Oskar Homolka, as Prof. Gurkakoff, played the bomb maker in Alfred Hitchcock's SABOTAGE (1936). S.K. Sakall as Prof. Magenbruch will always be remembered as the kind hearted Carl in Michael Curtiz's CASABLANCA (1942). And Richard Haydn, who excels as the nasal toned Prof. Oddly, played Captain von Trapp's friend Max Detweiler in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).
I came across actor Dana Andrews at the end of his career as the ill-fated small airplane pilot in AIRPORT 1975 (1974). Andrews usually played good guys like the detective in Otto Preminger's LAURA (1944) but in BALL OF FIRE he plays gangster Joe Lilac. It's a nice comic turn by Andrews. And who can forget the obnoxious laugh and whiny voice of Dan Duryea who plays Duke Pastrami. Duryea appeared in everything -- westerns, dramas, film noirs, but he shows he can play comedy as well. Even some of the lesser known supporting actors play their roles to perfection: Allen Jenkins as the Garbage Man, Kathleen Howard as Miss Bragg, and Charles Lane as the lawyer Mr. Larsen. Even the versatile Elisha Cook, Jr. makes a brief appearance as a Waiter at the club where Sugarpuss performs. Cook appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows. Besides working with director Howard Hawks on BALL OF FIRE, Cook worked with many of the great directors including John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski.
The talent involved with BALL OF FIRE doesn't end with the director, writer, or actors. The great Director of Photography Gregg Toland lensed BALL OF FIRE, one of the few comedies he ever did. Toland was a master with black and white photography having shot John Ford's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and Orson Welles' masterpiece CITIZEN KANE (1941). Toland tragically died much too young at the age of 44. And Edith Head's costumes especially for Barbara Stanwyck are glitzy and sexy for 1941, making sure to highlight Stanwyck's gams, er I mean legs.
So why is a film like BALL OF FIRE with the A list talent of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck not mentioned as a classic in the same breath as a BRINGING UP BABY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, or SOME LIKE IT HOT? It might be that 1941 was a terrific year for films. CITIZEN KANE, THE MALTESE FALCON, and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY were all released in 1941 and those are just the dramas. 1941 was also an exceptional year for comedies including MEET JOHN DOE, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, and HERE COMES MR. JORDAN. And it probably hurt that BALL OF FIRE was released toward the end of the year in December of 1941. I had never heard of BALL OF FIRE until I stumbled across it on Turner's Classic Movies but I am so glad I did. Surprise yourself and watch it if you come across some this screwball comedy some afternoon.