1940s, 3/4, Comedy, Howard Hawks, Review

Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire - Wikipedia | Barbara stanwyck, Gary cooper, Gary

#22 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.

If Billy Wilder had held onto this script for just a few more years, he might have made it himself. Released a year before his first Hollywood feature film, The Major and the Minor, it’s the same kind of fantastical but grounded setup he became well known for, but Wilder didn’t have the power to direct just yet. The assignment went to Howard Hawks who made the best Billy Wilder movie until Billy Wilder started making movies himself. It’s a distinctly un-Hawksian movie with a bookish main character in a safe little profession, but it also helps to show that Hawks could make movies outside of his wheelhouse when called upon. It reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Mr. and Mrs. Smith in that way.

Gary Cooper plays Professor Bertram Potts, one of eight learned men working on a new encyclopedia for a deceased toaster inventor’s estate, all assembled to fix the error of the other encyclopedias that left him out completely. They’re nine years into their mission, and they’ve reached the S’s as well as the end of their grant from the estate. The estate’s representative, the inventor’s daughter, Miss Totten, wants the project to complete in honor of her father’s wishes, but also for it to end quickly. Potts, the youngest of the professors, realizes how little he knows of slang, his current entry based on a paper he wrote, and he sets out to immediately take several days collecting people from around New York to teach him about modern slang. The efforts to get the encyclopedia finished as soon as possible comes to surprisingly little, though.

Potts finds a few people, in particular is the singer Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwick. She initially wants nothing to do with Potts, but when she discovers that she has no safe place to hide from the DA looking for her in connection to her gangster boyfriend’s crimes, she appears at his door, ready to take part in his study for a few days if it gets her off the street. Well, we can all see where this is going to go.

What makes the story work is the chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck. Cooper was a leading man for a reason. He was handsome and charming, even when he played less obvious leading characters. Potts is similar to Alvin York in that he is a bit of a bumbling individual with some trouble understanding women, hiding the charm under a veneer of aw-shucks awkwardness. Opposite is Stanwyck, beautiful with great legs, and witty to boot. They’re opposites, brought together in close quarters, and they, obviously, grow close and fall in love. His attraction to her is obvious and immediate, though he controls himself as best as he can. He can’t deny it and proposes to her after just a few days.

Through their little romance, earnestly played out on one side and endearingly accepted to a certain degree on the other, the movie moves through its second and into its third act. Sugarpuss’ boyfriend, Joe Lilac, has a plan to protect himself from Sugarpuss needing to testify against him, and that’s to get her to marry him. It’s comical and light stuff. She’s in New York and would be followed by the police if they figured out where she was, and he’s in New Jersey, hiding out from the police unable to go into the city. How to get her to Jersey to go through with Joe’s plan? He tells her to accept Potts’ engagement as a ruse to get him to transport her out of New York, through the police blockade, and into his arms. The problem is that, of course, Sugarpuss has begun to fall for the awkward professor of English.

In a large car all eight professors take Sugarpuss out into the country, easily bypass the police, and end up in a hotel off the side of the road when the driver accidentally drives into a sign. As they wait for the car to get fixed, Potts professes his love deeply to Sugarpuss in a way that convinces her to fall for him just the same. Joe arrives, takes Sugarpuss away, and tells Potts about the scheme to get her out of the city. Of course, it can’t end with that as Sugarpuss refuses to marry Joe, leading to Joe sending a pair of his toughs to the encyclopedia headquarters to threaten them all with death if Sugarpuss doesn’t accept. What follows is probably the best comic use of the seven other professors in the film.

The seven professors (other than Potts) were based on the seven dwarfs in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They don’t really pop out all that much, though. Three of them make any real kind of impression (the botanist in particular), and they end up largely running together, much like many of the dwarfs in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. Since they’re not the focus of the film, that’s not really a huge problem, but I feel like there’s comic potential that’s being left on the table. Anyway, they have to gang up on the two toughs with guns by speaking in educated code about the Sword of Damocles and the Fire of Archimedes in order to organize an effort to take them out. The effort is amusing, using their different fields of study in order to find their way out of the situation.

The resolution is exactly what you would expect from this kind of movie where true love is in question. It’s easy and nice, helped wonderfully by the chemistry between the two leads and the crisp direction from Hawks. I can see why it was such a crowd pleaser in its day.

Rating: 3/4

10 thoughts on “Ball of Fire”

  1. Two things about this movie always surprised me: one, just how hot Barbara Stanwyck was (I was introduced to her via her later movies when she’s stopped playing fireballs). The second surprise is, you guess it, that Howard Hawks directed this movie.

    It’s odd, I knew the movie long before, enjoyed it for what it was, watched it when it came on TV, but never bothered to check the director’s name.

    Man, the things you learn when someone else does all the hard work and research 🙂


    1. My first real exposure to Stanwyck was The Furies. I’d heard of her and even seen pictures, but never quite got it. Then she was awesome, fierce, and sexy in an Anthony Mann western, and I got it. She does play the sexpot here quite well, especially with those legs.

      Hawks’ career is pretty much as long and as dense as Hitchcock’s. He was a tireless worker from the late 20s through the early 50s when he finally took a break. It’s easy to see how even good stuff gets ignored when reviewing his career.


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