Ball of Fire (1942)
This charming film was written by two of the best, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, and directed by a master of the genre, Howard Hawks. The talent onscreen is just as formidable with Barbara Stanwyck as the slang-spouting singer and Gary Cooper as the stuffy linguistics professor.
The role of Professor Potts was always intended for Gary Cooper and started life as a vehicle for the star. At the time, the actor was under personal contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn. Cooper had become a huge star in the early 1930s and enjoyed success throughout the decade with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Westerner (1940), and Meet John Doe (1941), among others. But all of those were the result of Goldwyn loaning the star out to other studios, and the producer wanted a hit with Cooper under his own name.
But Goldwyn started the project by borrowing talent from Paramount. He asked for Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, a top writing team at the studio who had written the Cooper movie Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). Paramount didn’t usually loan out their writers, but they wanted Cooper to star in their upcoming adaptation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). So Goldwyn got the writers in exchange for loaning Cooper to Paramount.
It’s not surprising that Goldwyn went to the trouble of hiring Wilder and Brackett. They were a very successful writing team with films such as Midnight (1939) and Ninotchka (1939) under their belts. But despite several years of steady work, Wilder was frustrated because he wanted to write and direct his scripts. He was tired of giving his screenplays to directors who mishandled his work (at least that is how he saw it.)
But despite Wilder’s urge to start directing, he agreed to write Ball of Fire because Goldwyn was willing to pay $80,000 for the script (almost $1.4 million in 2017 dollars). Plus, Goldwyn agreed to let Wilder “observe” the director during production.
Luckily, the director he observed was the master Howard Hawks, and after finishing Ball of Fire, Wilder finally got in the director’s chair with his next project: he wrote and directed The Major and the Minor (1942). He never looked back, and wrote/directed many classics including Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Blvd (1950), Sabrina (1954) and Some Like it Hot (1959) among many others.
Back to Ball of Fire! Brackett and Wilder rejected every single idea that Goldwyn presented and instead decided to take a story Wilder had first sketched out almost a decade earlier in his native Germany.
When he came to the US, he revised it with Thomas Monroe, and it was this Americanized story called “From A to Z” that they pitched to Goldwyn. It concerned a “burlesque queen” who teaches a professor slang. Goldwyn liked it and gave the writers the go-ahead.
Meanwhile, he set about hiring a director. Hawks wasn’t a foregone conclusion; he and Goldwyn had worked together before, and it hadn’t been a good experience. In fact, Goldwyn fired Hawks from Come and Get It (1936), and the pair hadn’t spoken since that debacle. But as Ball of Fire was in development, Hawks was directing Cooper in Sergeant York (1941), and Cooper convinced Goldwyn to give the director another chance because the star thought that Hawks would be perfect for the movie.
Hawks got some revenge for his firing from Come and Get It by delaying talks with Goldwyn until Sergeant York premiered to great acclaim. This gave the director added bargaining power (and probably some great personal satisfaction, too). He eventually got a $100,000 salary (roughly $1.7 million today) for directing this film.
Next for Goldwyn was finding the female lead. Although now it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Barbara Stanwyck in the part, she was actually far down producer Samuel Goldwyn’s list. He wanted Ginger Rogers, but unfortunately for him, she had just won an Academy Award for her performance in the drama Kitty Foyle (1940), and she refused the role because she didn’t want to play a stripper now that she was a “serious actress.”
But she would have been great in this role. (Also, the “stripper” characterization is subtle. When we see the character perform, it’s a normal nightclub floorshow without suggestive dancing or lyrics. Later, she jokes that one time her zipper got stuck during her show and she couldn’t take anything off. It was terribly “embarrassing!” But that’s the only stripper hint, and it could be argued that she is just trying to horrify the prudish housekeeper. My point is that the character doesn’t actually strip in the film.)
Once Rogers passed on the part, Goldwyn moved on to Jean Arthur, a frequent co-star of Cooper but not someone I’d think of to play a saucy nightclub singer. This idea fizzled because Goldwyn wasn’t able to work out a loan deal with Columbia, Arthur’s home studio. Ahh, the struggles of an independent producer in the studio era!
He then offered the role to Carole Lombard, but she didn’t love the script and turned it down. Her decision turned tragic when she was killed in a plane crash returning home from a war bonds tour in 1941. According to TCM, had she taken the role in Ball of Fire, she couldn’t have gone on the tour because she probably would have attended the movie’s premiere, instead.
After Rogers, Arthur, and Lombard fell through, Gary Cooper mentioned Barbara Stanwyck for the part. They had just made Meet John Doe (1941), and he enjoyed working with her. Goldwyn also had positive experiences with Stanwyck on his film Stella Dallas (1937), so he offered her the part. She accepted, and they were off!
Fun fact: this film is notable as the project that first put Wilder and Stanwyck together. He thought she was fantastic and cast her in the role of a lifetime in his film noir Double Indemnity (1944).
Another fun fact: most consider Ball of Fire to be the last screwball comedy of the classical era, though it doesn’t feel as topsy-turvy as other iconic screwballs such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) or My Man Godfrey (1936). The pace is slower, the dialogue–though witty–isn’t flung through the air quite as quickly, and the characters are a little straighter. For me, it’s screwball in retrospect when you examine the overall structure and set pieces, but it feels less screwball and more straight-comedic when watching. (For more on screwball comedies, visit my post Bringing Up Baby: An Ode.)
To the film! We open with an explanatory title and follow the eight wise men (Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Gary Cooper, and Aubrey Mather) on their morning “constitutional,” a walk through Central Park.
They’re a funny lot inspired by the seven dwarfs. Disney’s animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had come out a few years earlier, and Brackett and Wilder based the professors on the fairy tale characters (as well as the idea of a woman entering a bachelor household and livening up the place.)
Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), the linguistics expert, exhorts his cheerful colleagues to return to the house exactly on schedule rather than take another turn about the park. They are nine years into a 12-year project, and their encyclopedia will never be finished if they dawdle! They have just made it to the letter “S” and don’t dare lose their momentum.
A visit from their benefactor’s daughter, Miss Totten (Mary Field), drives this point home. Her father invented the electric toaster, but he was horrified to discover that his life only received a tiny mention in the encyclopedia.
So he formed the Totten Foundation to write a new encyclopedia on the condition that it gave him proper attention. The Foundation supports the professors and pays for the house where they live and work.
But the project has run over budget, and now Miss Totten is forced to use her own money to finance the work. She isn’t very keen on this, but fortunately she has a crush on Potts. He smiles shyly at her when she visits, and this meager attention is enough to keep the project going.
Fun fact: notice the use of “depth staging” (actors arranged deep into the shot instead of lined up horizontally like a clothesline) and “deep focus” in the shots of the group (when several planes of the image are in crisp focus.) So in the bottom two images of the collage, for example, the actors are in different planes but they are all in focus. Compare those Ball of Fire shots to the shallow focus style, which was more of the norm in classic Hollywood:
Deep focus was difficult and time consuming because it required technical mastery, tons of light, and meticulous planning. There was very little room for error when chasing this style. But Gregg Toland, Ball of Fire‘s cinematographer, was one of the best. Indeed, he had finished filming Citizen Kane (1941) just a few months before he made Ball of Fire. Citizen Kane is one of the most famous examples of the style; Orson Welles and Toland pushed the limits and the film is a showcase of virtuosic deep focus.
But Howard Hawks was less enthused with the style. He liked to work quickly, which usually didn’t leave enough time for the labor intensive process. Besides the technical issues, he didn’t think the style was especially useful in a movie. (I think I agree with Hawks on this one: I’m not sure that the artfully arranged shots add anything to this film. In a screwball comedy packed with witty lines and motion, deep, static shots don’t always suit.) But Hawks let Toland get some striking shots in nonetheless. So watch for moments of deep focus sprinkled in.
Back to the film! After Miss Totten’s visit, the garbage man (Allen Jenkins) arrives with questions for the professors. He has entered a radio quiz show and hopes the eccentric group of academics can help him win the prize. It’s a comical scene because although the professors can easily answer his questions about history and geology, they are mightily confused by the slang he slings.
For example, he says, we’ll be stepping me and the smooch (i.e., he and his ladyfriend will go out on the town), he calls his “girlfriend” a mouse and a dish, comments on her pair of gams, “legs,” and uses an assortment of colorful terms for “money,” including moolah, dough, smackeroo, and bundle of scratch. You can watch the scene here.
None of the professors understand these “accepted vulgarisms,” but the conversation especially upsets Potts. He just finished his entry on “slang,” and he realizes that his research is hopelessly outdated. It hits him that he can’t possibly write relevant entries on language if he stays cloistered in the house, so he heads out in the world.
His research takes him to a newspaper stand, a bus, a ball game, and a pool hall. At each locale, Potts invites the most colorful speakers to come to the Foundation the next morning for a research session.
Fun fact: the newspaper boy mockingly asks Potts, “Who are you, Father Flanagan?” when Potts begins talking with him. This is a reference to the Catholic priest Edward Flanagan who founded the Boys Town orphanage in 1917. Spencer Tracy had recently won an Oscar for his portrayal of Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938), so 1941 audiences would have gotten the reference.
Another fun fact: the baseball game footage was shot at Yankee Stadium during the World Series. But Cooper didn’t actually go—it was shot by the B-unit crew and then projected behind Cooper.
Yet another fun fact: just as Cooper’s character visits various locales to get a taste of the vernacular, so Wilder and Brackett searched out the hottest terms for the script in a drugstore across from Hollywood High School, a pool room, the Hollywood Park racetrack, and a burlesque house.
He ends the evening at a nightclub where he orders milk (naturally) and watches Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) with something like wonder. (That name, though!) She sings “Drum Boogie” in a costume that is mostly strips of sequins. She’s a knockout, a real dish with a killer pair of gams.
Fun fact: Stanwyck started her career in the 1920s as a dancer (under her real name Ruby Stevens) before she made it in Hollywood. She was a Ziegfeld girl and danced on stage and in nightclubs for years, so it’s fun to see her strut her stuff in front of a band. But her voice was dubbed by Martha Tilton, a lead singer with Benny Goodman’s band in the late 1930s who became a recording artist as well as a popular radio and TV personality.
You can watch the performance here:
Fun fact: after they wrapped the “Drum Boogie” number, which features Gene Krupa in an extended drum solo, Hawks noticed Krupa “drumming” with match sticks for fun. So Hawks asked the drummer to do the trick onscreen in a reprise of the song. He filmed it on a shiny table so you can see Stanwyck’s face reflected next to the matchbox. The rather complicated scene was filmed in only two hours! You can watch it here.
After the show, two small-time gangsters named Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma Anderson (Ralph Peters) rush Sugarpuss back to her dressing room. They were sent by Sugarpuss’s boyfriend, Joe Lilac, a big-time gangster, to warn her about heat from the DA’s office.
A murder has been linked to Lilac, and the DA thinks that Sugarpuss might be the key to the case. They’re planning to subpoena her, and Joe obviously can’t have that. (The murder case is convoluted but comical–it hinges on monogrammed pajamas.) Duke and Asthma want to whisk Sugarpuss away before the authorities can find her, but just then Potts arrives to ask Sugarpuss if she will come to the Foundation for his research roundtable.
She thinks he is from the DA’s office, so they talk in circles for a while before she figures it out. She dismisses him with some choice language (which delights rather than affronts him), and then escapes out the window just before the real authorities arrive. You can watch the scene here.
In the cab, Sugarpuss notices Potts’ card and gets an idea. The Foundation would be the perfect place to hide from the cops! So she heads straight there.
Potts is embarrassed by her late arrival and mortified by her request to spend the night in their all-bachelor household. He asks her to come back in the morning.
But Sugarpuss quickly gets the other professors on her side–these “dwarfs” are starved for company! She also starts calling Potts “Pottsie,” which is probably the first time anyone has dared use a silly nickname for such a dignified professor. You can watch the scene here.
The old men are harmless but very susceptible to Sugarpuss’s charms. Her skimpy costume might have something to do with it, too. Paramount’s head costume designer Edith Head designed Stanwyck’s outfits in this film. They had first worked together on The Lady Eve (1941), and Stanwyck loved the way that Head made her look (for more on the tricks and techniques Head used, visit The Lady Eve or Double Indemnity.) Stanwyck would request Head as her costume designer for almost all of her future films.
The professors immediately like Sugarpuss, but they have trouble understanding her very colorful, spicy language. Even her name is a puzzle (her real name is Catherine but she never goes by it): there is a cute sequence when Potts explains that “puss” means face, and “sugar” implies “sweetness in her appearance.” Ah-hah!, say the professors. You can watch the scene of her first morning in the house here.
Three days pass. Sugarpuss and the other “slang-gurus” work every morning with Potts explaining various colloquialisms. Some favorites include the snooze den for “bedroom,” right off the cob for “corny” and I’ll get you on the Ameche for “I’ll call you” because Don Ameche played the inventor in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)!
While Sugarpuss explains slang to Potts, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) continues to evade the murder charge. Without Sugarpuss, the DA doesn’t have a case. And Joe knows it.
The police keep searching for Sugarpuss without any luck. The clever girl even manages to hide the newspapers with her picture from the professors and their sour housekeeper, Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard). They have no idea that they are harboring a fugitive.
Three days into the adventure, Duke and Asthma stop by with an enormous engagement ring from Joe. He has decided to marry Sugarpuss to keep her from testifying against him. She is thrilled despite the unromantic reason behind the proposal.
Meanwhile, just like Snow White, Sugarpuss is inspiring and improving the eight “dwarfs.” For instance, they start dressing better and ask Sugarpuss to teach them the new dances. They especially enjoy the conga, but Potts and Miss Bragg are horrified.
After catching his normally staid colleagues doing the conga, Potts orders Sugarpuss to leave. He claims (quite rightly) that she is a distraction that the group cannot afford. As he says, so perfectly: “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”
Sugarpuss knows she has to stay at the Foundation until Joe can arrange an escape, so she pretends that she is “just plain wacky” about Potts. She turns on all of her prodigious charm and convinces him that she is in love. It’s cruel but effective. Poor innocent, naive Potts never had a chance–one kiss and he is a goner.
The next morning, Potts brings Sugarpuss breakfast in bed with an engagement ring hidden in the toast. He has fallen hard and quickly. The diamond is a little smaller than Joe’s offering, but it touches Sugarpuss’s heart. She refuses Potts as gently as possible.
He pulls a Mr. Collins and isn’t dissuaded by her refusal. Then the phone rings. It’s Joe calling through Duke and Asthma in a clever, low-tech anti-tracing scheme. Joe jokes that Sugarpuss is hiding out with the “seven dwarfs,” but she says there are actually eight and she needs to get out of there right away because one of them has a “slight case of Andy Hardy.” Love that slang for a “crush!”
Joe and Sugarpuss plan how to get to New Jersey to a friendly justice of the peace when Potts appears. Sugarpuss pretends she is talking to her dad, and dear Pottsie asks to speak to his future father-in-law. Joe picks up on the game right away, gives Potts permission to marry his “daughter,” and asks them to come to New Jersey so he can see his daughter get married. Joe knows that Sugarpuss has a good chance of escaping the police dragnet in the company of eight respectable professors.
Sugarpuss hates the idea of including the “dwarfs” in the scheme, but it’s too late. She’s a good woman at heart, and being with Pottsie and the other sweet gentlemen at the Foundation has shown her the error of her ways. For the first time, she seems disturbed by Joe’s actions.
As they prepare to leave the house for the “wedding,” Miss Bragg snoops around Sugarpuss’s room and finds the hidden newspapers. She (unwisely) confronts Sugarpuss, who socks her and locks her in the room. Then she and the men leave for New Jersey. Fun fact: according to TCM, Stanwyck mis-fired on one of her punches and really hit Kathleen Howard. The blow broke her jaw! Yikes!
It might seem weird that Pottsie and Sugarpuss get engaged in the morning and plan to be married that evening, but it was not that unusual to have very brief engagements. Nor was it strange to use a justice of the peace or to get married at home, as Joe has asked Potts to do. The 12-18 month engagements and elaborate weddings that are so typical now are a relatively recent custom. You can read more about weddings in old movies in History Through Hollywood: Love.
The professors and their fugitive make it out of New York but have an accident before they reach Joe. They stop at a motel that evening and plan to continue in the morning. That night, Potts talks about love and what he feels for Sugarpuss, and how excited he is to marry her the next day. This all makes her feel absolutely terrible. And rather fond of Potts…in fact, she has started to fall in love.
When Pottsie accidentally comes to her room and performs a beautiful monologue about how much he loves her (the number on the door fell off so he thought it was one of the professor’s–it’s a whole thing) she confesses her love and they kiss in the darkness.
It’s a beautifully shot scene, and close-ups of Sugarpuss are especially striking. The story goes that Hawks wanted Stanwyck’s eyes to show up in the shadows, and Toland had an odd solution: put Stanwyck in blackface so that her face would melt into the darkness but her eyes would be visible. So Stanwyck played the scene with her face covered in black greasepaint. It worked–you’d never know such a weird technique was used, either. All you can see are her sparkling eyes in the dark.
Sidenote: It’s believable that Sugarpuss would respect and admire Pottsie for his excellent qualities, but it’s less believable that she would fall in love with him. They’ve known each other for about four days, and Pottsie is still a stiff, awkward, old-seeming scholar. We don’t get enough glimpses of the funny, charismatic hottie the movie wants us to believe is in there. Also, what in the world are they going to talk about? Slang all day long? I think Joel McCrea would have been an excellent choice for the part–I know, I know, I always think Joel McCrea would be a good choice–but he would have quickened the pace and been more adorably awkward and not as humorless. It’s a stretch to have Mr. Laconic Cowboy Cooper as a screwball linguistics professor. Funny, but not as successful.
Just after this romantic scene, Joe Lilac arrives to get Sugarpuss. He quickly exposes the whole plot and makes sure to humiliate Potts, too. He mocks him for believing that a woman like Sugarpuss would love him, and claims that she has been manipulating him the entire time. Then he beats him up. It’s horrible.
Potts confronts Sugarpuss, but she doesn’t try to defend herself. She goes with Joe, but she feels awful.
Fun fact: notice how Sugarpuss’s hairstyle has changed since her first appearance. I don’t think it’s an accident that her curls have gotten a little more natural, and her bangs are pinned back in a simpler style. She has shed her glamorous, risqué look, and this exterior transformation reflects an interior one, too. Interestingly, her hair style changes as soon as she kisses Potts!
Another fun fact: I love the huge monogram on her sleeve! The 1930s-1950s fashion for enormous monograms is awesome.
Anyway, Sugarpuss and Joe take off for the justice of the peace while Potts and the professors head back to New York. But Sugarpuss refuses to marry Joe, so he sends Asthma and Duke to hold the professors hostage in the hopes that it will force Sugarpuss’s “I do.”
The professors slowly creak into action when they realize that Sugarpuss doesn’t want to marry Joe. Duke and Asthma have guns, but they are no match for the professors’ intellects. The deceptively harmless men manage to disarm their captors with historical knowledge and scientific facts.
Then it’s off to rescue Sugarpuss. Potts reads a book on boxing as they drive. He’s ready for a rematch!
The professors storm the house and emerge victorious against the hardened gangsters.
Potts and Joe battle it out on the lawn. Potts takes a lot of punches, but he manages to flatten Joe and win the day. Then it’s kissin’ time!
The end! The slang-slinging Snow White and the cutest dwarf live happily ever after. One assumes.
This movie was in production from August 6, 1941 to the middle of October. It wrapped one day ahead of schedule and came in with a budget of $1.152 million. Out of that, Stanwyck earned a salary of $68,000, and Cooper more than doubled her check with a whopping $150,000 payday.
At various times, the film had the working titles From A to Z, the title of the original story by Billy Wilder, Blonde Blitzkrieg (they wisely didn’t go with that one in 1941…) and The Professor and the Burlesque Queen.
It premiered under the name Ball of Fire just a few months later on Christmas Eve, 1941. Goldwyn reportedly hurried the post production team because he wanted to ride the wave of Cooper’s success in Sergeant York (1941). (A 1942 release date is often attached to this film because its “official” release wasn’t until January 1942. Since TCM and AFI use 1942, I do, too.)
Despite that confusion, the film’s December 1941 premiere made it eligible for that year’s Academy Awards. It garnered four nods: Best Sound Recording, Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Alfred Newman), Best Actress for Stanwyck, and Best Original Story for Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe (the writer who had helped Wilder “Americanize” his original tale.) It didn’t take home any Oscars, though.
Fun fact: Stanwyck lost to Joan Fontaine for Suspicion, though Gary Cooper won Best Actor, but for Sergeant York, not Ball of Fire. He did beat Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, but that film took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Toland was nominated for Citizen Kane but lost the Best Cinematography award to Arthur C. Miller in How Green Was My Valley, which also won Best Picture and Best Director (John Ford), beating Howard Hawks for Sergeant York. It was a packed field that year, and Ball of Fire‘s people did quite well.
This movie became one of the top twenty highest grossing films of 1942 and helped propel Stanwyck to the top of the Hollywood ladder. Thanks to Ball of Fire, Meet John Doe, and The Lady Eve, she had a very good year.
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times was less crotchety than usual in his review. Like other critics, he found the movie a tad long (it’s 111 minutes which is lengthy for the era), but it didn’t bother him too much.
He wrote, “As usual in a Samuel Goldwyn picture, the production is excellent, and Howard Hawks has kept the whole thing moving at accelerated pace for nigh two hours. That is an awfully long time to drag out a single-note plot, but, oddly enough, it works.” He called the movie “a wholly ingratiating lark” that “had the customers jumping with enjoyment at the Music Hall yesterday.”
He also described the film’s similarities to other tales, noting that Cooper’s character is
just Mr. Deeds with a lot of book-learning. And Miss Stanwyck as the flashy night-club singer who becomes his most fruitful source is strictly the Lady Eve with the same old apples to sell. And the story, which lets Mr. Cooper and a septet of academic pals give shelter to the fugitive Miss Stanwyck in their old-fashioned ivory tower, is frankly just an up-to-date version of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ But who wants to be a Crabapple Annie about a little larceny like that. So long as it fits together and sends you, it’s in the groove. And ‘Ball of Fire,’ we assure you, makes with the words and the fun.
High praise from Mr. Crowther!
Several months after the film’s premiere, Stanwyck played Sugarpuss opposite Fred MacMurray for a Lux Radio Theatre version in June, 1942 (two years before they would act in Double Indemnity). The broadcast was directed especially at troops serving abroad:
Goldwyn came back to the film, too: he produced A Song is Born (1948), a musical remake of Ball of Fire starring Danny Kaye (as a music professor) and Virginia Mayo. Hawks directed it, and Mary Field played Miss Totten again! Three years after that, Franchot Tone and Wendy Barrie co-starred in a TV version for Hallmark Playhouse.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here. For a great essay on the film, visit the Self-Styled Siren’s review. And as always, thanks for reading!