(Requested by Bill Wren of Piddleville, Happy Miser and Oshimoi.)
Ball of Fire is a two-hander--”on the one hand...on the other...” On the one hand, it’s intensely lovable, and was requested by more individuals than any other single movie. On the other hand, despite the amazing array of talent, it’s got some problems. This was the Siren’s second encounter with Ball of Fire, and she spotted the same flaws she did on the first go-round. But she still had a great time.
Ball of Fire was produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1941, and was the last movie Billy Wilder made before moving on to directing. One of Wilder’s conditions for writing the screenplay was that he be permitted to observe every day of Howard Hawks’ shooting, and Hawks was happy to let Wilder hang around and learn. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov argues that Hawks’ fluid, understated, harmonious visuals were ultimately a stronger influence on Wilder the director than his acknowledged idol, Ernst Lubitsch. Hawks had nothing but praise for Wilder and Charles Brackett as screenwriters. (But when Hawks later claimed credit for pointing out that “hey, this is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!”, an annoyed Wilder said that had occurred to him on his own, thankyouverymuch.)
Samuel Goldwyn felt aggrieved that his most valuable contract player, Gary Cooper, was having more success in movies made on loanout than in Goldwyn-produced pictures. So Goldwyn obtained Wilder and Charles Brackett on loan from Paramount and put them to work on a vehicle for Cooper. After Wilder rejected a number of old ideas, he hit on a tale he’d written years earlier, concerning a professor of linguistics who gets involved with a burlesque singer and has a run-in with the lady’s gangster associates. Wilder and Brackett set to work on the script that would become Ball of Fire, with Cooper as a professor whose initial interest in jazz singer Sugarpuss O’Shea is her facility with American slang.
Who besides Billy Wilder would look at Gary Cooper, the most laconic speaker in Hollywood, and think, “Linguistics!” Not only is that genius, it’s unparalleled mischievousness, and with Wilder, the two qualities are joined at the hip. Everybody seems to have accepted casting Cooper as a language maven as a self-evidently great idea, with the exception of Cooper himself, who was fine with playing a professor but got the shrieking blue fantods when he laid eyes on the dialogue. According to Sikov, Cooper described his polysyllabic lines as “gibberish” and declared, “I can’t memorize it if it doesn’t mean anything.” The actor made an appointment to complain to Samuel Goldwyn, the only person in Hollywood with more of a reputation for giving English a wide berth, and Sikov observes, “That must have been a real meeting of minds.” Give Goldwyn credit, however. When Cooper emerged from the producer’s office, he’d agreed to do Brackett and Wilder’s dialogue almost without alteration. “Two-dollar words, okay, but not ten-dollar words,” was Cooper’s final say.
Let’s swing here into the things about Ball of Fire that don’t work, so we can move on to the things that do. Counting down in reverse order...
4. Cooper had a point, in the sense that the movie, at 111 minutes, is too long and a bit sluggish. Hawks was aware of this and according to Todd McCarthy, he defended the picture by pointing out that “when you’ve got professors speaking lines, they can’t say ‘em like crime reporters.” Still, one hallmark of a wholly successful comedy is pace, and a screwball (which Ball of Fire is, fundamentally) is fast. The flawless timing of Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday is missing from Ball of Fire. Even Dana Andrews, playing a gangster who might conceivably be a fast talker, is a beat or two slower than he should be. (He’s so handsome, though, that the Siren doesn’t much care; she was drooling over him more than Cooper.)
3. Richard Haydn. The Siren admits to the personal nature of this quibble, but Haydn’s adenoidal speaking manner as Professor Oddly drives her up a wall. She’s convinced that Mel Blanc must have had this actor, in this role, in mind when he voiced Marvin the Martian. Each time Haydn speaks the Siren hears, “The Illudium Q36 Explosive Space Modulator! That creature has stolen the Space Modulator!”
2. Cooper doesn’t have much chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck. The Siren believes Bertram Potts is attracted to Sugarpuss, as with the fabulous line, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.” And the Siren believes that Sugarpuss is attracted to “Pottsie”; Stanwyck is so great she could make the Siren believe she’s got the hots for S.Z. Sakall. But when Stanwyck stands on some books and it’s time to get the yum-yum on with Coop, they ignite a Zippo lighter, not a bonfire.
1. The cinematography. And right now, the Siren’s readers are checking the credits, seeing Gregg Toland’s name, and lining up to feel her forehead and ask if she’s feeling herself today. Yes, complaining about Toland’s cinematography may seem the product of delirium or glaucoma. But this isn’t a question of skill or beauty--of course it’s beautiful, it’s Toland and Hawks--it’s a question of what suits the material. Ball of Fire’s pacing problems are exacerbated by a look that’s disconcertingly gloomy. The house where the professors are compiling their encyclopedia is lit like Xanadu, and instead of emphasizing the contrast between the eccentrics and what one of them calls “a mausoleum,” the visuals just muffle the action further. All the deep-focus shots keep pulling the Siren into the sets, when she wants to concentrate on the conga line.
Nits picked. On to the fun stuff. Again, in reverse order:
4. Oscar Homolka as Professor Gurkakoff, the scientist/mathematician. This may be another perception unique to the Siren, but he’s her favorite dwarf. The Siren once worked for mathematicians, and Homolka’s performance, combining a certain innocence with common sense and kindness with oddball humor, is a compendium of all the things she loved so much about those guys. Coop aside, he’s also the only professor with a little bit of sex appeal. (Like the Siren said, this may be a personal thing...)
3. The movie’s sweetness. Even Joe Lilac (Andrews) gets a signature color that's a nudging joke and some pretty funny moments, considering he’s described as the head of Murder Incorporated. Dan Duryea, one of the movies’ most reliable sadists, also goes easy as thug Pastrami. So do his partner Asthma (Ralph Peters) and the professors’ battle-axe housekeeper Kathleen Howard. But the real tell is the gentle, loving treatment of the Seven Dwarfs. Intellectuals get sent up a lot in American comedy; as stuffed-shirt targets, they--oh all right, we--are irresistible. The profs are babes in the Central Park woods, the first ones you’d pull out of a crowd for a cozy little game of three-card monte. But we like them that way. When Sugarpuss arrives, they’ve got all the equipment needed to join the conga line and overcome a bunch of gangsters. The eggheads do it, however, without changing their essential natures. Witness the lovely scene where, after Haydn has described his sexless, John-Ruskin-esque honeymoon with a watercolor-painting virgin named Genevieve, the professors serenade him with the old Victorian song of the same name. They sing without a trace of condescension or pity; they’re just performing an act of lovingkindness for an old friend.
2. The dialogue. Nobody, but nobody ever venerated and immortalized American slang like Austrian-born Billy Wilder, and this was his chance to shoot the works. “Root, zoot, and cute--and solid to boot!” “Brother, we’re going to have some hoy toy toy.” “Scrow! Scram! Scraw!” “Blitz it, mister, blitz it, will ya!” “Patch my pantywaist.” “A slight case of Andy Hardy.” And one the Siren admires for its Code-proof double entendre: “Shove in your clutch.” What a feast this movie is. And the Siren thinks that while Wilder and Brackett recorded authentic phrases, they also just made shit up, and did it so well you think it’s something you’ve been hearing all your life. Of the lines above, which ones would you have heard on the street in 1941? The Siren can’t tell you. Maybe all, maybe none. Example: when Stanwyck says someone is going to “throw me out on my tin.” The Siren’s heard a lot of euphemisms, and seen a lot of movies, but that’s a new one on her. (She’s adopting it forthwith, by the by.)
And now we come to the Siren’s number-one favorite thing about Ball of Fire, the place where the whole movie comes together.
1. Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea. She was, incredibly, fifth choice, behind Carole Lombard, who disliked the character and the story, Jean Arthur, whom McCarthy says Hawks didn’t really want, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers, who was offered the part and turned it down because, she told Goldwyn via her agent, she only wanted to play “ladies” from now on. (Goldwyn’s response: “You tell Ginger Rogers ladies stink up the place!”) That’s an impressive list, and any of them could done have a creditable job. But not like Stanwyck, oh no. She was as sexy in this movie as any in her career, especially in the early scenes with her nightclub costume swaying around those gams like spangled vertical blinds. The Brooklyn that never entirely left her low-pitched voice gets free rein in lines like “Say, who decorated this place, the mug that shot Lincoln?” and “This is the first time anyone moved in on my brain.” Her dawning love for Pottsie is so perfectly calibrated it’s like watching a thermostat turned up notch by notch. Her attack of late-movie remorse over having deceived Pottsie is delivered with one line, “a tramp,” spoken in a way that tells more than her tears seconds later. In a movie stacked with some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, one gorgeous future leading man and one eternal legend, Stanwyck still carries the whole thing. She is, as Professor Bertram Potts might say, the complete conjugation.