Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) It doesn't get much better than this: screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (from a story by Wilder), produced by Samuel Goldwyn, photographed by Gregg Toland, music by Alfred Newman and directed by Howard Hawks. Add that it's a swing-era version of "Snow White" stock-piled by anything-but-dwarvish character actors (Henry Travers, Richard Hayden, Oscar Homolka, S.Z.Sakall), some nifty up-and-comers like Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea, and top-lined by Gary Cooper (in pixie-ish Capra mode) and Barbara Stanwyck (who usually runs on all cylinders, but seems turbo-charged in this one) and you have the makings of a great, stylish and culturally-winking comedy, with lots of great musical material, too.*

It's a charming conceit: years in the making, the Dutton Encyclopedia, written by eight myopic scholars, is hitting the skids just as it's hitting the "S" words. Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) has just finished a 26 page treatise on "Slang," when a garbage-man walks in with some fancy (and utterly incomprehensible) patter that puts his research to shame. Potts determines that he will leave his ivory tower and venture forth into the world to see what all the...what's the word? *flip/flip*..."rhubarb" is about. He stumbles upon a nightclub (where Gene Krupa happens to be playing) and taking on the lead vocals is "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Stanwyck, in full "bad-girl" mode), mob-moll to Joe Lilac (Andrews) who's being investigated by the New York cops. The focus of their flat-footing is Sugarpuss, who can give them a lot of inside information, so she has to go on the lam, and the professor's invitation to her to be a part of his slang symposium, gives her the perfect hideout, going "to the mattresses" with the eight encyclopediacs, even though under the distrusting baleful eye of their housekeeper, Miss Bragg.
Complications arise, with the possibilities of broken and/or ventilated hearts, as it turns into a particularly pointy triangle between Potts, O' Shea and Lilac, with a suddenly energized Greek chorus of academics trying to deal, rather haplessly, with the real world. "Snow White" is the inspiration, but fans of "The Big Bang Theory" will also see that show's roots in this and its Grimm ancestor. One also has Ball of Fire to thank for Billy Wilder's directing career, as Hawks let him sit in on the set, auditing during the making of the film, observing, taking notes, prepping for his own directorial turn that year with The Major and the Minor.
This is one of the great unsung Hawks movies, slightly different from his formula, thanks to Brackett and Wilder's script, but it still falls under his M.O. of story material where a team of differently skilled people—in this case scholars—come together under circumstance to form a like-minded unit, even if, as here, it happens a little late in the proceedings. It was Hawks' version of making a film about film-making, but obliquely, showing that any group of gypsies can unite under a common goal despite their differences. It's part of the charm that makes Hawks one of the most American-minded of film-makers, those films being a reflection of the melting pot of the Great National Experiment.
* One of Hawks' trademarks is a musical number in the proceedings, often by amateurs to show they're bonding in their efforts.

  Ball of Fire was re-made eight years later by Hawks in a musical version called A Song is Born (also photographed by Toland, but this time in technicolor) starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.

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