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Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire

Gary Cooper was the archetypal American long before either John Wayne or James Stewart moved into that spot, but he died relatively young fifty years ago and the passionate fervor with which he was adored has been forgotten.  His tall good looks combined with a little-boy innocence was like catnip for women:  the word is that of all Hollywood players, Cooper had the highest score.  His acting style was imitable but not emulatable.  Orson Welles told me he’d stood not more than three feet away from Coop while a close-up of the actor was being made and was convinced that it would have to be re-taken because he could see nothing happening.  When he later saw the dailies, Welles was astonished by the subtle play of expression the camera had caught.  “I swear I could see none of that from three feet away!”  This was Cooper’s mystery, and it made him a born picture-star…

The year after Cooper won the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor in Howard Hawks’ memorable World War I biographic drama, Sergeant York, he appeared in as different a Hawks picture as could be:  a wacky screwball comedy in which Cooper was equally good, 1942’s delightful BALL OF FIRE (available on DVD). His co-star, at her brazen best, was Barbara Stanwyck (Oscar-nominated for it), with whom he had appeared the year before in Frank Capra’s heavyweight Meet John Doe.  Looking at all three pictures gives a small indication of the considerable range within these stars’ personas, and the different levels on which directors and writers could play with them.  What a rich time it was!

The Ball of Fire script developed from a story of Billy Wilder’s (also Oscar-nominated) which he and Charles Brackett fashioned into an outline they sold to Samuel Goldwyn.  The plot concerned a group of scholars cloistered together working on an encyclopedia, when one of them gets involved with a nightclub singer/gangster’s moll.  Goldwyn sent the outline to Hawks, who agreed to direct, saying he saw it as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  Indeed, Hawks treats the piece somewhat like a fable, and certainly this is the most leisurely and sentimental of Hawks’ comedies.  When I first saw Ball of Fire, I had just been looking at the director’s other major comedies (Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was A Male War Bride) and noted for my movie-card file:  “Slightly restrained, a bit too ‘tasteful,’ Goldwyn-produced Hawks comedy about a scholarly encyclopedia-writer’s pursuit of the meanings of slang, which leads him into romance and underworld intrigue with a boogie-woogie singer.  Cooper, Stanwyck and the rest of the cast fall in easily with Hawks style, but the picture doesn’t have the darkly frenetic quality of his other comedies, and thus is not as effective or funny.”

Yes, but—having realized that the number of even semi-terrific comedies with stars and directors of this caliber is finite—Ball of Fire now seems to me more precious.  Also, the relatively relaxed pace of Ball of Fire is connected to Cooper’s delivery, which could never have the speed of Hawks’ other comedy stars, Cary Grant or John Barrymore.  What’s lost has been compensated for by other virtues:  The high-voltage chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck; an international group of charming, superb character-actors including S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn and Leonid Kinsky; nice tough-gangster support from Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea; for jazz buffs, an energetic appearance by drummer Gene Krupa; striking black-and-white photography, with extremely effective deep-focus groupings, done by the legendary Gregg Toland, who had just completed another picture famously filled with deep-focus shots, Citizen Kane. Altogether, Ball of Fire is Gary Cooper’s best comedy.

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Stanwyck may have sung in several films, but “Ball of Fire” wasn’t one of them. She was dubbed on “Drum Boogie” (don’t recall who it was, but I know it wasn’t Anita O’Day, who had joined Krupa’s band in 1941 and gave them a big hit with “Let Me Off Uptown”). And yes, Stanwyck is the most versatile of the classic era actresses, excelling in everything from drama to comedy to western to film noir. The lady could do it all.

Most of America may have seen “Ball Of Fire” in 1942, but it was actually released near the end of ’41. I mention this because apparently Hawks first approached Carole Lombard about playing Sugarpuss O’Shea, and she turned it down. It certainly is nowhere as exquisite a role as Maria Tura in “To Be Or Not To Be” (and apparently she’d wanted to work with Lubitsch ever since she unsuccessfully tried to get one of the lead roles in “The Smiling Lieutenant”), but Carole in “Ball Of Fire” might have brought some of her unique qualities (as well as her brand of sex appeal and good legs!) to the character. Still, I can’t imagine her outdoing Stanwyck, who with that film capped off a sensational 1941 — arguably the best year any actress has ever had. (For males, my two leading contenders are William Powell in 1936 and James Stewart in 1939.)

Incidentally, Peter, could you estimate how many people you’ve met over the years who actually knew Lombard? Given your ties to classic Hollywood, I would guess it would be a substantial number (dating back to Allan Dwan, her first director). I do a Lombard blog, and I recently discussed one of the people I’ve met who knew Carole, and the starring role he might have had opposite her:

Mickey Fisher

I’ve never thought of Stanwyck as necesarily pretty, but she could be drop dead sexy when she had to be, and this is one of those times. I personally think she was the greatest actress we had. There really wasn’t anyone who could do comedy, western, and drama as well as her. She showed she could sing, too. Probably, had she chosen to do an Ali Baba or pirate film, she’d’ve shone in those as well and fit them perfectly.

But when others tried to go outside their genres, they didn’t fit. (Joan Crawford in JOHNY GUITAR. Bette Davis In THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D.) Stanwyck could do it all.

She and Cooper, who, as you mentioned above, fit his role perfectly (In his book Alternate Oscars, Dann Peary gives Cooper the Oscar for BALL OF FIRE instead of SGT. YORK.), are a wonderful team. Sadly, 1941 was the only year they teamed together, churning out two classics.

Phill Powell

A really enjoyable comedy, with such a nice spirit. For me, the most appealing scenes involve the way the professors and Stanwyck intuitively and immediately bond. (She seems to find them as clinically interesting as they find her!) Plus, the scholarly way the professors regard the hep-cat vocabulary they’re studying is a constant blast.

Curious if Mr. B could comment on whether or not Ryan O’Neal’s performance in “What’s Up, Doc?” was modeled on Cooper’s turn in “Ball of Fire.” In his 1972 review, Roger Ebert saw O’Neal as trying to channel Cary Grant, but the similarities seem to suggest Cooper more strongly (e.g., both actors were playing strongly against type as college professors, both actors played them as being stiff in demeanor, etc.).

Great movie to kick off these reviews with…

Tony Williams

Thanks for the entry, Peter.

I’m teaching BALL OF FIRE in my Hawks class this semester.

Dennis Doph

Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire” ! Incendiary.

Stanwyck was my personal role model. Not Gable,, or Cooper, or Wayne, or, like the other little boys, Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Stanwyck.

Peter, we met during the period you were prescreening your film Nickelodeon. I was the personal assistant to Col Pix’ exec VP Milt Goodman.

We share exactly the same birthday.

I originated Columbia Classics and was phased out after I managed to get the restoration of Lawrence of Arabia off the ground. Appreciated by everyone except upper management.

I have a couple of Stanwyck anecdotes which will make you gasp, but I can’t go into that here. Congrats on the new, theoretically productive outlet!

Dennis Doph

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