Sunday, July 03, 2011

Underrated Movie #121: Ball of Fire

Title: Ball of Fire
Year: 1941
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, from a story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe
Stars: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Homolka, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Henry Travers, S. Z. Sakall, Gene Krupa

The Story: Hoochie-coochie dancer Sugarpuss O’Shea is on the run from the D.A., so she hides out with eight professors who are writing an encyclopedia, one of whom uses the opportunity to learn the latest slang—and a few other modern ideas.

How it Came to be Underrated: I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned, this should ranked alongside Hawks’s greatest screwballs, Bringing Up Baby and His Gal Friday, but it’s nowhere near as well known.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Like Henry Fonda, Cooper was so good at heavy drama that it was easy to overlook the fact that he was equally great at screwball comedy. Cary Grant is justifiably remembered as the king of screwball, but that must be partly because he was less convincing in straight dramas than Cooper and Fonda were, so he got to spend more time honing his comedic chops.
  2. If your movie is based on a ludicrous pretense, then you have to find a way to make it seem sensible. The idea that she would think of hiding out with the professors, if glossed over, would seem ridiculous, and the whole movie would have fallen apart. But one little scene of her listening to them list all of the various ratholes where they want to stash her, and suddenly this ludicrous option seems perfectly reasonable. And since the exchange is funny, the audience doesn’t even notice that the plot is being hammered into shape.
  3. Forget Rita Hayworth. Forget Marilyn Monroe. For my money, nobody could steam up the screen like Barbara Stanwyck. She may not be the most beautiful, but she did the sexiest acting. Let her rattle off just a few lines of seductive dialogue and nobody could boil a thermometer like she could. And she could do dramatic-sexy or humorous-sexy. Ball of fire indeed.
  4. After being one of the top screenwriters of the ‘30s, Wilder had directed his first film in 1940 and there was no looking back, so this was his last script that he let go without directing it himself. Two years later, he would write even sultrier dialogue for Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
  5. My favorite line? She’s claims that they can’t throw her out in the rain since she’s got a cold. If they don’t believe her they can “Check out my throat— It’s as red as the ‘Daily Worker’ and twice as sore!”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Stanwyck and Cooper were equally good and equally underrated the same year in Meet John Doe. Six years after Ball of Fire, Hawks remade his own movie as a Danny Kaye vehicle called A Song is Born. It’s not as good as this, but it’s a lot of fun and well worth watching.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly.

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Unknown said...

When I watched this film, last year, I had a great time with it...until the final act, at which point I felt that it jumped the rails a bit. Am I being unfair? Did you feel that the final 20 minutes or so lived up to the rest of this rich comedy?

Matt Bird said...

Oh no, I agree. The last act is 40 minutes long when it should be 20. This was often a problem for Wilder: I would say that the same is true for other early screenplays like "Ninotchka",and especially for his later movies like "Irma La Deuce", "One Two Three", "Kiss Me Stupid"... even "Some Like It Hot" has a bloated third act.

For some reason, he seemed to lick this problem from about '44-'57, but before and after that, watch out.

Betty (Beth) said...

Your post just reminded me of this film which I watched on TCM a few years back. I remember enjoying it, but not much else. I'm going to have to watch it again! Thanks!

j.s. said...

I await the remake staring Adam Sandler as an academic compiling the lingo of the 'hood from a house full of hip-hop artists, some of whom are hiding out from the law.