When the choice is between pursuing a line of thought and pursuing the line of Barbara Stanwyck’s fabulous gams, there’s no contest. The smarts of Howard Hawks’s 1941 Ball of Fire lie in Gary Cooper realizing it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. As the youngest of a group of Poindexters toiling away to complete an encyclopedia in a Manhattan brownstone, Cooper, working on the entry on slang, gets out of the library and runs into Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss O’Shea, a showgirl the cops are pressing to give up the goods on her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews). Stanwyck looks at Cooper, with his ill-fitting suit and proper grammar, and sees a young cornball. But Sugarpuss agrees to help him research his subject, figuring the law will never find her hiding out amid a basketful of eggheads. And of course, the breezy blast of air she lets into their world enchants them all.
When Hawks told Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett, that the story was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Stanwyck’s nefarious associates being the Evil Queen), Wilder reportedly told him that insight wouldn’t get the director a co-writing credit. The writing, as it is, is a marvel. The patter that flows forth whenever some regular Joe flaps his jaws is a wonder to hear. Garbagemen and waiters, pool hall bums and showgirls, newsboys and college boys — they’re all virtuosos singing the wisecracking arias Wilder and Brackett have given them. (Film Forum is showing the film from an archival 35mm print.)
Ball of Fire has always been something of an also-ran among the great American romantic comedies of the period and among Hawksians. But as Robin Wood pointed out in his book on the director, the movie is another of Hawks’s celebrations of a group that nonetheless honors individuality, that is in thrall to the beauty of people doing what they were born to do — which here includes both the elfish professors discoursing on their specialties and Gene Krupa pounding the skins on “Drum Boogie” (and brushing some Diamond Blue Tip matches on “Match Boogie”). Hawks manages to make the professors comic without ridiculing their knowledge. Similarly, Sugarpuss’s curiosity blooms without the director denigrating her brash vitality (she’s not reformed, thank God). And when gangsters invade their domain and begin shooting it up, you really feel that the idea of civilization is being threatened.
The picture is a treasure trove of Forties character actors. Dan Duryea, Elisha Cook Jr., S.Z. Sakall, Oskar Homolka, and the lovely and touching Richard Haydn all show up. Cooper was a few years past the youthful sexiness he showed opposite Dietrich in Desire and Morocco, and a few years away from the Fifties pictures (like Vera Cruz and Man of the West) that would cause Godard to say his face belonged to the mineral kingdom. But, because he allows himself to play befuddled, he’s winning as the intellect who’s always a few beats behind. And Stanwyck, in everything from the way she moves across the room to the way she delivers a snappy comeback, is one of the great ravishing wonders of the movies.
In some ways, their romance is no match for the movie’s hard-boiled love affair with our impudent and vital native can-doism. Ball of Fire came out five days before Pearl Harbor. You can imagine Americans listening to its flood of slang and knowing exactly what they were fighting for.
Ball of Fire
Directed by Howard Hawks
Opens December 25, Film Forum