Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ball of Fire

Ball of fire (1941)
Directed by
Howard Hawks
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett
Story by Billy Wilder & Thomas Monroe
Starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Aubrey Mather, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Alan Jenkins

People often used to complain that Billy Wilder was a cynic. But often a cynic is just the shell of a true romantic, and Wilder showed flashes of this in his script (with longtime writing partner Charles Brackett) for Ball of Fire.  And with the great direction of Howard Hawks, the film is one of the top comedies of its era.

The story takes place in the Totten Foundation, where seven scholars (Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Aubrey Mather) are working on a dictionary, along with their expert on language Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper).  Potts discovered after talking with his garbage man (Alan Jenkins) that his article on slang is hopelessly outdated and goes out into New York to find examples. 

He ends up in a nightclub where Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is performing and wants to use her as one of his sources.  She turns him down, but discovers she's in hot water with the cops.  Her boyfriend, gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is wanted for murder and she needs to be stashed away for a few days.  And the Totten Foundation seems the ideal place.  She convinces Potts and the other seven professors to let her stay.  It creates havoc, of course, as the men -- who are all bachelors (except one widower) -- find the presence of an attractive and lively woman is, to say the least, a distraction.  Meanwhile Potts begins to have feelings for her, but Joe Lilac has other ideas.

Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, and the professors The movie is considered a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.* What gives it much of its charm is the reaction of the professors.  Though they are all old, they are not dirty old men, but rather more like children delighted by the the new presence in their midst.  There is a lot of sweetness in their reactions to the new things Sugarpuss brings with her, and a shyness where they are clearly afraid to be anything other then gentlemen.  The professors are played by a group of great character actors of the time.  I've written about S.Z. Sakall, but some of the rest are familiar faces even now.**

You also get character actor turns by the great Charles Lane (hundreds of films, often with only a couple of lines), Allan Jenkins, Dan Duryea (one of the great heavies of the 40s and 50s), and even a bit part for Elisha Cook, Jr. (Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon).

And Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck make a great romantic couple.  Cooper uses a lot of his Mr. Deeds Goes to Town charm, while Stanwyck manages to portray Sugarpuss as a smart and sexy woman whose turn to romance is perfectly natural.  Also of note was Richard Hadyn, whose Professor Oddly is so incredibly charming as he describes his time with his late wife.

As is typical for him, Hawks keeps everything moving quickly, mixing comedy, romance, and villainy. 

*The similarity is specifically mentioned.

**Henry Travers was Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life, while Leonid Kinskey played a shady watch dealer in Casablanca.

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