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Close-Up on "Ball of Fire": Screwball Classic Skewers Stuffiness with Snappy Slang

Exploring Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck’s delightfully silly screwball comedy, now playing in the US.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Ball of Fire is playing on MUBI in the US January 8 through February 7, 2016.

To rephrase a popular literary adage, one shouldn’t judge a film by its credits. Many a noteworthy roster of talent has yielded a less than superior motion picture. Such is not the case, however, with the 1941 Samuel Goldwyn production, Ball of Fire. Aside from the legendary producer, who had over 100 movies under his belt by this point in his career, the film boasts an Oscar-nominated story by Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder, a script by Wilder and frequent co-writer Charles Brackett, a supporting cast of famous faces like Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, and Elisha Cook Jr., and superb star turns by Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Behind the camera, the music is by Alfred Newman, Gregg Toland is the cinematographer, Daniel Mandell is the editor, and the costumes are done by Edith Head; all of these individuals had, or would receive, multiple Academy Award wins and nominations. So yes, in terms of associated names, Ball of Fire has much in its favor. And fortunately, it delivers in most every way possible.
Conceived of while Wilder was still in Vienna and titled then, as in the initial Monroe/Wilder story, “From A to Z,” Ball of Fire seems to riff on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for its basic scenario, as Hawks was quick to point out. In this case, the dwarfs are a group of learned professors who are compiling an all-encompassing encyclopedia. Together, these men are the epitome of excessive studiousness; while they may be historically, scientifically, and grammatically savvy, their single-minded focus has left them detached from the modern world. They speak in equations and theoretical suppositions, but they don’t have the slightest inkling when it comes to verbal “vulgarisms” like “smackaroos” and “skedaddle.” English specialist Bertram Potts (Cooper) is inspired by the local garbage man, who dazzles him with phrases like, “The mouse is the dish. That's what I need the moula for,” and so embarks on a research expedition to soak up the idioms of the contemporary hip. Just as Wilder and Brackett toured drugstores, a racetrack, and other Hollywood venues to assemble an assortment of slang terms, Potts likewise visits a ball game, a pool hall, a school campus, and a nightclub, and that is where he first encounters Snow White.
In Ball of Fire, the fairy tale princess is refashioned into the brilliantly named “Sugarpuss” O'Shea (Stanwyck), and she more than lives up to the wildly risky insinuation of the film’s title. Potts is besotted by the freewheeling entertainer who, purely in the interest of his studies—of course—represents everything he hopes to discover about the fashionable tongue. Though she has little interest in his work to start, with the district attorney hunting her down as a result of her shady associations, O'Shea is soon on the lam looking for a place to lie low. In a classic screwball foundation, the question arises: Where could be a most “highly irregular” place for her to seek refuge?
Cut to the Daniel S. Totten Foundation, where Potts and his academic colleagues abruptly find themselves host to a new house guest. Overcome with bewilderment at the seductively foreign creature and her captivating feminine wiles, the men turn into bumbling school boys when in the buoyant presence of Sugarpuss. Their positions of scholarly objectivity soon waver, and Potts in particular changes more than he could have imagined; an explicit sign of the transition is when O'Shea stands on a stack of research books in order to reach him for a kiss. Though she may be acting a conniving part to start, O'Shea can't help but be genuinely genial any more than the professors can fight their own faltering inhibitions. Stanwyck, who would receive her second of four Oscar nominations for her performance here, excels as the pleasant, if slightly opportunistic, singer; she is a charming blend of authentic exuberance and slick, been-around-the-block scheming.
Smitten with the newcomer, the giddy professors now all of a sudden want their pants pressed at the same time, much to the chagrin of bitterly fastidious housekeeper Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard)—that’s “Bragg,” not “bag” as O'Shea quite accidentally misunderstands—who declares the stranger to be the “kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple.” As O'Shea and those wise to the communicative ways of the time explain to Potts the subtle differences between “corn” and “baloney,” love begins to bloom in this unlikely soil, just as the singer’s disreputable past catches up with her.
Playing the youngest member of the group (though not the junior actor in real life), Cooper is the perennially “aw shucks” male lead at his most naively homespun. As the ostensible leader of the brainy though generally absent minded pack, Potts is more concerned with the evils of splitting an infinitive than he is keen on the ways of love. Nevertheless, his good looks and decency are enough to ensure his place as the romantic interest and to all but guarantee the inevitable obstacles with the opposite sex, unsurprisingly so given he and the others repeatedly appear as sexually befuddled adolescents.
With Ball of Fire, later remade by Hawks himself as A Song Is Born (1948), Wilder and Brackett craft a screenplay that takes as its chief target the sort of bland intellectualism that renders these stuffed shirt didacts severely out of touch with a more spirited reality. In their stale preoccupation with by-the-book education, they comically scrutinize the least little thing, and when they are exposed to the colloquial phrases of O'Shea and other street-wise collaborators, they repeat the terms with a bemused, unnatural inflection and no hint of emotion. With its humorous abundance of slang terminology, spouted off at a rapid-fire pace by everyone except Potts and his cohorts (even O'Shea has to question the use of “Ameche” to mean telephone—Don Ameche starred in 1931’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell), Ball of Fire carries some present-day relevance in this age of ever evolving techo-jargon where Twitter abbreviations and text message shorthand is itself a language all its own.
If much of the oral and narrative cleverness of Ball of Fire derives from Wilder and Brackett (their sociopolitical sharpness also coming though in lines such as “As red as the Daily Worker and just a sore,” for example), one also finds Hawks poking fun at his own thematic penchant for professionalism. As their veneer of stringent academic focus begins to break down and the professors let loose, Ball of Fire becomes the relatively rare Hawks film where there can be such a thing as being too serious at work after all (shades of Cary Grant’s reeducation in 1938's Bringing Up Baby, perhaps). In the way the professors study the newfound vocabulary, it’s tempting to similarly read into the film a criticism of just the sort of over-analysis Hawks himself decried, but that would seem to itself conflict with his stated aversion to unnecessary interpretation.  
Ball of Fire is also the somewhat atypical Hawks picture where certain visual constructions are given blatant attention. While this may have something to do with having master of deep-focus Gregg Toland manning the camera, there are, either way, some remarkable compositions in the film. Scenes of the men in their joint study are particularly outstanding, and Hawks and Toland stage a staggeringly staggered workspace with layers of desks and icons of research arranged in extraordinary depth. Here and in the opening nightclub sequence, the almost comically crowded frame is likewise filled to the brim with faces and accessories. In a further technique uncommon to Hawks, the director also uses imagery to take on symbolic significance, such as the aforementioned standing on the texts for a smooch. This is also the case when the curtain is pulled on the office skylight. Not only does Hawks cut away to give the action its own exclusive shot, the act itself serves both a metaphoric purpose (O’Shea’s dance instruction shines vibrant light on the docile lives of these men holed away in their work) and a narrative purpose (the sunlight plays a key part in the film’s denouement). For someone who more often than not appreciated pared down imagery with no supplementary relevance, visually striking setups like these run counter to what one sees in most of Hawks’ output. Again, though, he would have no doubt denied any such significance.
Ball of Fire doesn’t always reach the same heights of hilarious Hawks perfection as Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday (1940), and Wilder was at his most proficient when directing his own scripts, yet all involved are doing what they do best. Even if it isn’t the finest example of their individual strengths, there is still much to appreciate about this delightfully silly entry into the screwball subgenre. With all of this talent, how could there not be?

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