Monday Movie: Ball of Fire, by David Bax
Howard Hawks was a gobsmackingly prolific director who mastered a variety of genres. As such, there is a multitude of movies that come to mind upon hearing his name, from crime dramas like Scarface and The Big Sleep to Westerns like Red River and Rio Bravo to screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Conspicuously absent from that list of top tier Hawks, for some reason, is 1941’s Ball of Fire. Maybe the film was overshadowed by Hawks’ other 1941 success, Sergeant York, the movie that netted him his one and only Oscar nomination. But with heavy hitter stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, a story by Billy Wilder, costumes by Edith Head and cinematography by Gregg Toland–and all of this in addition to the simple fact that the movie is very, very good–Ball of Fire deserves to be mentioned alongside Hawks’ best.
Stanwyck plays Sugarpuss O’Shea, the number one dame of gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). With the cops looking to question Sugarpuss on matters that could land Lilac in jail, she hides out in a house occupied by eight stuffy academics who have devoted their lives to researching and writing a new encyclopedia. Sugarpuss justifies her stay by taking on the role of adviser to Cooper’s linguist, Professor Bertram Potts (how about these names?), on the subject of modern slang.
Like many screwball comedies, Ball of Fire‘s foundation is a terrific screenplay brought to life by terrific actors. Just the slang terms alone–from “drum boogie” to “crabapple Annie” to a dissection of the various colloquial definitions of “corny”–are enough to keep viewers grinning. But Hawks, as always, has more than one muscle to flex. A scene in which the intellectuals help the one widower among ther number to remember his late wife through song is as beautifully melancholy as anything ever committed to film. And then it’s right back to the madcap antics.