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Ball of Fire and Gary Cooper: 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon Post #4

August 25, 2012

This is my fourth post in the 2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Jill Blake (Sittin On A Backyard Fence) and Michael Nazarewycz (Scribe Hard On Film).

When classic movie lovers discuss what year is considered the best ever in Hollywood cinema, 1939 is usually the one that gets chosen, as it was the year of such films as Gone with the WindMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonStagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. However, you could make a very good case for 1941 being the best year Hollywood had to offer, given that was the year of such films as Citizen KaneThe Lady Eve and The Maltese Falcon. And Gary Cooper, who won his first Best Actor Oscar in 1941 with Sergeant York, might have agreed 1941 at least was a banner year for him personally. In addition to that film, Cooper also appeared in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, and worked again with both Howard Hawks (his director on Sergeant York) and Barbara Stanwyck (his co-star in Meet John Doe; she also was having a banner year, with that and The Lady Eve) on Ball of Fire, a delightful comedy.

Despite the array of talent involved in the movie – in addition to Hawks, Cooper and Stanwyck, the film had a script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (a year before Wilder became a director), and the film co-starred Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, S.Z. Sakall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, and Charles Lane, among others – it doesn’t quite have the reputation it deserves. In his biography of Howard Hawks, critic Todd McCarthy found it utterly charming, but not up to Hawks’ other comedies, while in his critical study Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, critic Richard Corliss thought the script was marvelous but that Hawks had trouble pacing it. And Wilder himself, in Cameron Crowe’s book-length interview with him (Conversations with Wilder), dismissed the movie as “not very good”. All due respect to Wilder (one of my all-time favorite directors and writers), Corliss and McCarthy (two critics I like quite a bit), but I love the film, and always have.

Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) shows Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and his seven colleagues what they’re missing.

Wilder had originally thought of the idea for the story in Germany, but when Samuel Goldwyn, who distributed the film, wanted a hit movie for Cooper (who was busy being in hits for other studios, such as Meet John Doe and Sergeant York, which were both made at Warner Brothers), and Wilder agreed to write one last screenplay for someone else (he would make his directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, the following year), he and Brackett dusted off the idea for this film. Originally, the main character was a British professor, but Wilder changed it to American to fit Cooper. Hawks had been fired from a Goldwyn film several years previous to this (Come and Get It) for going over schedule, but Cooper, who had been friends with Hawks ever since working with him on Today We Live, insisted. And when Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Sugarpuss, Cooper was the one to suggest Stanwyck, since they had gotten on so well during Meet John Doe.

The story, loosely based on the story of the Seven Dwarfs, follows Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) and his seven colleagues – Professors Gurkakoff (Homolka), Jerome (Travers), Magenbruch (Sakall), Robinson (Tully Marshall),  Quintana (Leonid Kinskey), Oddly (Richard Haydn) and Peagram (Aubrey Mather). They live in a house in New York City and are putting together a comprehensive encyclopedia set under the patronage of Miss Totten (Mary Field), daughter of Daniel S. Totten, who (in the movie, anyway) invented the electric toaster and was so angry about being snubbed by the Encyclopedia Britannica that he started the project in the first place. Each professor has their specialty; for example, Professor Jerome is in charge of geography, Professor Oddly is an expert on botany, Professor Peagram knows history, and Bertram, who is the head, is a language professor. Despite the fact Miss Totten (who has a crush on Bertram) and her lawyer, Larsen (Lane), would like them to hurry the project, Bertram is sure they are all on the right track. That’s when the neighborhood garbageman (Allen Jenkins) throws a wrench into their plans. He comes in asking for help on a radio quiz program, and the slang he uses (describing a woman he wants to make it with as “a real dish”) makes Bertram realize his article on slang for the encyclopedia is hopelessly outdated. So Bertram goes around the city conducting field research, listening to people talk, and inviting them to a workshop so he can do even more research. This eventually leads him to a nightclub where Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck), a “dance hall hostess”, is performing (the song “Drum Boogie”, with Gene Krupa and his orchestra; Martha Tilton dubbed Stanwyck’s voice).

Bertram at the nightclub where he first encounters Sugarpuss.

It turns out Sugarpuss is in a jam of her own. Joe Lilac (Andrews), a gangster who is her employer/boyfriend, is being investigated for a murder one of his associates committed under his orders. His henchmen Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma (Ralph Peters) tell Sugarpuss the district attorney and police are looking for her as a result (there’s also the matter of a pair of customized pajamas she had made for Joe, which are evidence in the case), and she needs a place to hide. Naturally, she gets this news right before Bertram comes to her dressing room asking if she’ll join his workshop. At first, she brushes him off, but she then realizes it’s the perfect hiding place, and shows up at the professors’ house late that night. She insists on staying at the house (she claims she can help Bertram more that way), and while she ends up delighting the other professors, she does delay work on the encyclopedia (to say nothing of upsetting the housekeeper Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard)), and so Bertram eventually asks Sugarpuss to leave. Naturally, in order to stay there (Joe is arranging to marry her so she can’t be forced to testify against him), she seduces Bertram, and he falls in love with her. Naturally, when she realizes this, she falls in love with him too.

All of the movies Stanwyck made in 1941 more or less followed the pattern of her playing a smart, tough-as-nails woman who ends up using a not-so-streetwise man for her own ends but who ends up falling for him and not wanting to see him get hurt. Admittedly, compared to those other two films, Ball of Fire isn’t as complex on either a narrative level (The Lady Eve) or a thematic one (Meet John Doe). Sugarpuss simply wants to stay out of jail. But “simple” shouldn’t be confused here with simplistic. Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses both for the authenticity she brought to her roles and her unaffected acting style, and both are ever present here. The scene where she seduces Bertram is a good example.

Bertram has seen her teaching the other professors how to dance (right after Miss Bragg tells him, “Either she (Sugarpuss) goes, or I go”), and is so disturbed by what he sees that he sends Sugarpuss out so he can scold the others (conveniently, this is when Pastrami and Asthma come by to tell Sugarpuss about Joe’s scheme to marry her). When Bertram is done, he sends the professors out to call Sugarpuss to the library. She acts unconcerned, even at Bertram’s manner of addressing her as a school principal would a trouble-making student (Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland shoot the scene at the beginning with the camera pointing upward, as to accentuate Cooper’s height advantage; also, we only see part of the chair Sugarpuss is sitting in, as if she’s sinking in it). Bertram going full speed ahead in comparing the encyclopedia undertaking to a voyage, and how Sugarpuss has disrupted it, but when he gets to the part of her ankles being a disruption (particularly compared to Miss Bragg’s), he starts to falter, only to reassert himself when Sugarpuss jokes about sitting on her ankles (in view of the voyage metaphor, she also calls him “Admiral”), and firmly tells her she must leave. First, she appeals to his intellect, telling him there are still things he needs to learn about slang, like “Ameche” for “telephone”, because he invented it “in the movies” (Wilder was fond of referencing other movies like this; Hawks didn’t do it as much, but had the occasional one like this), which leads to Bertram confessing, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”

Sugarpuss is about to show Bertram what “yum yum” is.

Lesser actors would telegraph on their face, or in their voice or body language, how much that line would be an invitation to go in for the kill. Stanwyck merely whistles, shrugs her shoulders, and seems to acquiesce, not even looking at Bertram. She does perk up when he further confesses how he’s been aware of her presence, but even then, Stanwyck never oversells her seductiveness. She does do a sexy walk when she goes over to the window (Bertram mentions how she looked while standing in the sunlight), but when she gets there, turns around and stands there (which has the desired effect), Stanwyck just stands there looking at Bertram with a normal expression on her face. Of course, she pulls out her last weapon later in the scene, where she lies to Bertram that she’s “wacky” about him, leading to the “yum yum” scene. She has to take a couple of books lying around in the room just to be able to stand up on his level and kiss him, but that she does, and Bertram (or, as she calls him, Pottsy) is a goner.

Arguably, Stanwyck’s most famous role was as the femme fatale in Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity, a character with no heart (or, if there was one, extremely well hidden), but as she showed in Ball of Fire and in other movies, she was equally adept at showing that heart, and her change of feelings towards another character. When Bertram gives her an engagement ring, and recites the quote from Richard III alluded to in the inscription (Act I, Scene II), all she does is say, “Unquote, I suppose,” and lets her eyes show us how deeply affected she is by Bertram. Later in the movie, of course, Bertram finds out about Sugarpuss’ deception, by which time she’s fallen completely in love with him. She gives a speech to that affect to Joe, explaining why she won’t go through with marrying him: “Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!” Once again, she doesn’t overdo the moment, delivering the speech in a flat, unaffected voice, except for the slight catch in her voice at the last line.

Sugarpuss tells Joe she loves Bertram and why.

Of course, this wouldn’t work if she didn’t have Cooper to work off of. Cooper first became a star in 1929 with The Virginian (with the immortal line, “If you want to call me that, smile!”), and became one of the actors most identified with westerns (High Noon, his most famous one, also gave him the role he won his second Best Actor Oscar for), as well as playing strong, silent types (Marlene Dietrich, who worked with him on Morocco and Desire, claimed he was a star merely because of his physique. Yet only around one-fifth of Cooper’s movies were westerns, and he had played in quite a few comedies before Ball of Fire, most notably Design for LivingMr. Deeds Goes to Town, and the highly underrated (for me, anyway) Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (and he even shows comic timing in The WesternerSergeant York and Meet John Doe, though none of them can be classified as comedies). More importantly, he played his share of well-spoken characters (as in Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, the two films he did for Lubitsch), and handled them with elan.

But then, Cooper was always being underestimated; there have been numerous stories of directors and other actors working with Cooper who, while the scene was being shot, didn’t see him doing much of anything, only to realize, once they watched it on film later, just how much he was doing. While the film uses the naïveté that was often part of Cooper’s on-screen persona (as in his Capra films, Mr. Deeds and Meet John Doe), it’s balanced with his intellect, which Cooper manages to sell. He also pulls off some speeches of his own, as in the scene late in the movie when he confesses the depth of his feelings to Sugarpuss (he doesn’t know she’s in the room at the time; he thinks he’s telling Professor Oddly about it). And while it may seem to stretch credulity to have Bertram have to speed-read a book on boxing in order to match up against Joe at the movie’s climax – given not only Cooper’s past roles but his imposing physique – Cooper is able to make that work as well.

Sugarpuss reacts after inadvertently hearing Bertram confess the depths of his feelings for her.

Another reason the movie stands out is the portrayal of the professors in general. They may have shut themselves off from the world voluntarily to finish the encyclopedia, but that doesn’t mean they look down on it. When the garbageman comes by the first time, they don’t treat him as if he’s an idiot, but are completely engaged with what he’s asking them. Bertram, who may seem more standoffish than the others at times (he’s constantly correcting Miss Bragg’s grammar), is genuinely open with the garbageman and others he recruits in his quest to learn slang, saying that they all speak a living language. There’s no condescension there, just a genuine thirst for knowledge, which all the professors share. And while they may not seem to have much experience with women (we only hear about Professor Oddly, who’s a widower, and seemingly old-fashioned with women), they don’t look down on romance either. At the beginning, they know Miss Totten’s feelings for Bertram, and try to play up on that, making him look more presentable, and Gurkakoff poking Bertram in the back when he falters in his speech to Miss Totten when he’s talking about her (the gasp he gives at that excites her enough she decides to continue the encyclopedia, which she had thought of stopping). And they are delighted by Sugarpuss as well – especially when she’s teaching them to dance – and are further delighted by her and Bertram coming together (when Sugarpuss does go off with Joe and Bertram is of course desultory at this, it’s Professor Oddly who points out she left Joe’s ring for Bertram, and the others, Gurkakoff in particular, say this is showing her true feelings for Bertram). Finally, while you might think the professors are being stereotyped as kindly but slightly out-of-it old dears, there’s a scene late in the movie where, after Oddly has given Bertram romantic advice and remembered his late wife, he and the other professors sing “Sweet Genevieve”, and it’s a lovely but melancholy moment.

Wilder is often accused of being too cynical or sour, and admittedly, the sourness would take over some of his later work (like Kiss Me, Stupid or A Foreign Affair, my two least favorite movies of his). But most critics at the time – and some even today – seem to overlook the romantic ardor that could surface in his films. Mostly, it’s in the films he did with Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon), but it’s in other pictures as well, including some well-known (The Apartment) and less-known (his two most underrated films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti). And Wilder is able to balance it with genuine humor and melancholy, which is also true in this film. The melancholy, of course, comes out in that scene I mentioned in the above paragraph, but it’s also there in other scenes (as when Bertram finds out about Sugarpuss and Joe). And the humor comes out in some of the moments I mentioned above, as well as in much of Sugarpuss’ dialogue, particularly the innuendo when Sugarpuss is trying to get Bertram to let her stay at the house in the beginning (“I figured on working all night”).

As for Hawks, I think Ball of Fire tends to pale in light of his other comedies, particularly Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday because it’s more relaxed in tone than those films (according to McCarthy’s biography, Hawks said the relaxed tone was due to the “pedantic” nature of the professor characters), and therefore might not seem to be as inventive (or maybe it’s because admirers of Hawks mostly disdained Wilder, at least at first). But Hawks was working with Toland, one of the great cinematographers of that era (that same year, he shot Citizen Kane), and while the movie doesn’t call for visual flourishes, it’s still thought out well in visual terms. The professors are often shot in deep focus, emphasizing how well they work together as a group. And while credit for this should probably go as much to Wilder and Brackett as to Hawks and Toland, the scene where the professors realize how to turn the tables on Pastrami and Asthma (who are holding them hostage until Sugarpuss agrees to marry Joe) is another example of how well the movie is shot. When the garbageman innocently walks in on the hostage situation, asking about the sword of Damocles (another quiz show question), and he’s shooed into the room to sit with the others, Hawks cuts back to Pastrami, who’s standing behind Professor Jerome. As Pastrami goes to sit in front of a certain painting, Toland pans down as Professor Jerome looks at where Pastrami’s sitting, and then at the painting, subtly showing him getting the germ of an idea. He then walks over to the others (after getting permission from Pastrami to do so and to talk), and begins telling the garbageman about the meaning of the sword of Damocles, and the lesson it imparts. Even before the shot where we see the figurative sword – the portrait picture – hanging over Pastrami’s head by ropes (so a well-placed microscope can reflect sunlight from the sunroof onto the ropes, causing them to burn), Toland and Hawks have therefore subtly set things up.

I honestly don’t want to sound like a member of what William Goldman has called the “Yesterday Was Better” club – I not only think many of today’s pictures can stand with the those made in the past, but also believe many of them could never have been made back then due to the Code restrictions at the time, and it’s good they’ve been made today. Nevertheless, if there’s one way films of today fall short, it’s in the comedies, particularly the romantic ones. Genuine chemistry between the two leads, of course, then and now has covered a lot of sins, but today’s romantic comedies often seem labored, and so intent on following the mechanics of the plot they don’t allow for the human element (not to mention their over-reliance on “fate”). It takes a lot of hard work to make the elements come off right, but in this type of comedy, the result must seem effortless on-screen (Hawks, apparently needing money, remade the movie seven years later with A Song is Born, with the professors this time researching music forms, but despite the presence of able musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, it seemed labored and forced). Ball of Fire is effortless, charming, and despite the simple plot, very human, and that’s why I love it so. Of course, the combined talents of Cooper, Hawks, Stanwyck and Wilder don’t hurt, either.

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14 Comments
  1. Excellent BALL OF FIRE review, Sean! Being a fan of Barbara Stanwyck, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder, I knew I’d love this film, and your thoughtful, detailed review really nailed it! The blend of snappy comedy and gentle romance set in my hometown of NYC won me over. I’m usually not a romantic-comedy kind of gal — I tend to prefer much more action and suspense in comedies — but the poignant moments truly touched my heart and felt authentic; the “Genevieve” scene always gets me misty-eyed amid the comedy. Great job, Sean!

    P.S.: In case you’d like to compare and contrast just for the fun of it, Vinnie and I did a double-feature with BALL OF FIRE and OSCAR for TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED earlier this year:

    http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2012/01/wedding-bell-wackiness-double-feature.html

  2. Fantastic posting, so much detail and a lot of great points – I like your comparison of Stanwyck in this with her other roles from this year. There is loads of chemistry between her and Cooper and it is nice to see him playing such a different role. I was lucky enough to see this film for the first time on the big screen, as part of last year’s Hawks festival at the BFI in London – it wasn’t a very good print but I loved it and would have to say it is one of my favourite Hawks comedies. I read somewhere that the plot is inspired by Snow White, and I can certainly see that element in it.

    • Thanks, Judy! I guess I didn’t make that point clear in my write-up; yes, the movie was inspired by Snow White. That was Wilder’s idea, although Hawks took the credit for that part.

  3. John Greco permalink

    Ecellent work here Sean on one of my favorite screwball comedies of the 1930’s. Wilder was such great writer He had a great ear for dialogue and while he was a cynic he did have a heart too. Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses. She’s brilliant at both drama and comedy. The film also has a great supporting cast with S.Z “Cuddles” Sakall, Allen Jenkins and Dan Duryea.

    • Thanks, John! Certainly, I agree about Wilder; he’s in my top 5 all-time directors and screenwriters. I wish I had delved more into the supporting cast (in addition to the ones you single out, there’s also favorites of mine like Henry Travers, Tully Marshall, and Richard Haydn playing much older than he was at the time), but I was afraid of going on too long!

  4. Terrific expose on the movie. Your insight into Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper were great. Thanks so much for writing this and putting it out there.

  5. This is seriously one of my favorite films – I don’t think I could watch it enough! I hope you enjoy my post about it: http://thegreatkh.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/gary-cooper-ball-of-fire-1941.html

  6. I actually desired to discuss this unique posting, “Ball of Fire and Gary Cooper: 2012
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  7. This is an excellent and very detailed review, Sean! I especially appreciated your explanation of how it was often the subtleties in her acting that made Barbara Stanwyck so great. I have to admit, my jaw dropped a bit when I saw that we started our Ball of Fire reviews in almost the same exact way when I had never read your review before! 1941 was a great year!

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  1. 2012 tcm SUTS Blogathon Day 26: Gary Cooper « ScribeHard On Film

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