Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ball Of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

  A group of eight professors, each in a different field of study, are working together to complete an encyclopedia on all world knowledge. They are currently on the letter S and are being pressured to hurry and finish up their work by the daughter of their now-deceased financier, Mr. Totten. Thankfully, the daughter of Mr. Totten has the hots for the youngest professor,  Professor Potts (Gary Cooper), and is willing to continue financing them. The professors are tended to in their home by their brash and bossy housekeeper, Miss Bragg. One day, the professors are visited by a janitor who wants an answer to a question regarding Cleopatra. They are able to discern exactly what the janitor is asking after several efforts to pierce through his prominent usage of slang. Professor Potts, the grammar nazi of the group, states that working in their secluded home has prevented him from amassing knowledge of slang words for the encyclopedia. He decides to venture out into the world and gain an understanding of the outside world's use of slang. During his adventures, he ends up in a nightclub where he becomes fascinated by the singer, Sugarpuss (lol, dead ass) O'Shea and her mastery of slang words. Backstage, Sugarpuss is informed by two of her mafia boyfriend Joe Lilac's associates that the police wants to subpoena her to testify against Joe Lilac for information she may have concerning a murder he may be involved in. The two associates tell her she needs to hide. In her dressing room, Sugarpuss is visited by Professor Potts who asks for her help in his research. She turns him down and flees with the two associates, looking for a place to hide. However, when the going gets tough, she decides to take the professor up on his offer. She shows up at his doorstep and forces herself into the house, demanding to be allowed to stay as an aide in the research. And so it happens that the eight professors' home is upturned with the sudden appearance of an attractive and vivacious young woman in their boring lives. They are unable to classify her like much of the things around them; unable to fathom the real reason for her stay with them. Only Miss Bragg seems against Sugarpuss staying at the house. The professors, for their part, take an immense liking to the young woman, most of all Professor Potts.

   Ball Of Fire was a hell of a ride. I mean that. A true roller coaster ride. It started off so strong and promising. I was extremely giddy, given that lately I haven't been enjoying classical Old Hollywood films as much (looking at you Laura). Then, around the halfway mark, as the romance aspect begins to gain more prominence, I felt that the film was getting off its rails. I did not like where the film was headed at all.  "Oh no, not this sappy, doomed love story shit again". I really felt that the film was milking the blooming relationship between Stanwyck and Cooper, a relationship that pretty much did not show any believable progress towards true romance -- could hardly call it blooming. Then, after those thirty-something minutes of lost hope, the film more than picks up its pace and regains its former stature. The formed romantic relationship finally makes sense and befits the characters, their motives and their ever-growing nature. The laughs come back aplenty. I mean, I was completely blown away by the finale. Ball Of Fire has been included in AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs; It more than deserves to be a part of that list. Still, for those last few minutes alone where comedy, crime and suspense are perfectly blended into one of the best scenes committed to film, Ball Of Fire should also have been included in AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers as well.
    Gary Cooper who I've only thus far seen in my beloved High Noon does a great job here. I expected him to be as stiff as his character in High Noon (something that was required for that role and which he did a great job with) but in Ball Of Fire he exhibits such awkward charm that I cannot help but root and feel for his character. His clueless-ness is never irritating but rather endearing. While Barbara Stanwyck no doubt is supposed to be the focal point of the picture, it is Gary Cooper's character that I gravitate towards more. This is not just a result of the story or the way the character was written. This is all Cooper's fantastic acting at play, making a potentially stereotypical geeky type character work wonders onscreen. Cooper gives a nice balance to the picture, having to be the bridge between his kooky professorial associates and the criminal aspect of the story. Speaking of which, the actors playing the other seven professors were for the most part effective in their role. At least two (one of which is the oldest professor, the only one who's being married before) are annoying for the majority of the film but manage to win me over by the end of the film. Some also manage to stand out and draw a lot of laughs, like the guy who played the angel Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life (Henry Travers) and Oskar Homolka. Two of the other professors appeared in Casablanca, S.Z. Sakall and Leonid Kinskey. Of the two, only the former manages to make an impression. Ironically enough, Dana Andrews who appeared in my loathed Laura stars here as the main antagonist Joe Lilac. And boy did he do a good job. Very menacing and believable, much more so than his bland character in Laura. Now to Barbara Stanwyck. My adoration for this woman will never cease. I rank her behind Marilyn Monroe and Vivien Leigh as my favorite actress from Old Hollywood. The magic she brings to her role here is otherwordly. Her character's past is never revealed, but in Stanwyck's face you can read the entire story of a little girl lost. She tries to portray herself as hard but deep down she's frightened and yearning for love. Stanwyck nearly steals the picture from everybody else, where it not for Cooper's performance abridging the spectrum. Her comedic timing is on point, but she under-layers her performance with a subtlety for drama and at humanity that is deserving of more recognition. Stanwyck is a boss.

   Final point: the publicity shots for this film are so misleading! I thought Barbara Stanwyck was going to prance through most of the film in her nightclub singer outfit. I wouldn't have minded at all. I would be willing to suspend my disbelief and let her wear the same outfit for four days straight. Lady had a figure!
    Ball Of Fire is a film that started strong and ended strong. Thirty or so minutes of it smack dab in the middle threatened to go in a direction that would have cheapened the rest of the production. I doubt this was done on purpose to mislead audiences. But that the film refused to go there and decided to get back on track makes me love it even more. It made me applaud the direction. Howard Hawks has yet to disappoint me. So, it should come as no surprise that I am awarding Ball Of Fire the highest honor despite this nminor flaw.
Get it gurl.

Ludovico Rating


  1. Glad to see you liked this one. Stanwyck is one of my favorite ladies to watch and I feel that this role is perfectly suited for her.
    I enjoy Cooper in his comedic roles as well and if you enjoyed him in this you should check out his Ernst Lubitsch films like "Design for Living" and "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife". Hes also quite funny with Stanwyck in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" despite the fact that Stanwyck steals the attention.

  2. I always confuse Mr. Deed and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Never realized Barbz was in the former. It's high time I got around to seeing my first Lubitsch, so along with Ninotchka I will check out your other two recommended titles.