Title: Ball of Fire
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Howard Hawks
Music: Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Elisha Cook Jr.
Howard Hawks’ emblematic screwball comedy germinates from the wheeze of Billy Wilder when the latter was still in Germany, it is the quintessential coupling of the pedantic and the sultry, Gary Cooper plays Prof. Bertram Potts, a grammarian who is leading a group of eight scholars compiling and collating an encyclopedia, when a sultry nightclub performer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) takes shelter in their residence in NYC, who indeed is the gun moll of mob boss Joe Lilac (Andrews), the rest is written in the stone although it takes a tortuous route to reach its feel-good finish line.
Less loquacious and rapid-fire than Howard’s BRINGING UP BABY (1938), BALL OF FIRE points up the mine of vernacular in lieu of verbal rebuttal between the opposite sexes, it is during Prof. Potts’ field trip to collect current lexicon of slang when he is swept off his feet by a bling-bling Sugarpuss, performing DRUM BOOGIE with Gene Krupa and his orchestra, accentuated by the bandleader’s killing drum solo and an ingenious miniature encore with matches. They are two different kettles of fish, a stuffy bachelor vs. a pragmatic siren, a mismatch rarely can make their way out in real life, and that’s what enthralls even today’s audience, to watch something profoundly absurd but innocuously entertaining without its story being dumbed down or defamed by crass jokes pandering to the lowest common denominator is almost too good to be true.
Also, the star appeal is in high voltage, Cooper is not just a too handsome specimen in a button-down suit, he also makes the schtick of doing everything with proprieties look effortless and goofy; an Oscar-nominated Stanwyck benefits from an earthier temperament and layers of inner conflicts deviled by her sapio-sexual conversion, is at her best when she retains her phlegm before impishly doling out her “yum yum” to a gawky virgin, which catches him unawares.
Another fount of joy comes from the riff on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as the other 7 professors grows an unanimous affinity to Sugarpuss, to the dismay of the stern housemaid Miss Bragg (Howard), and among them, the only widower is the botanist Prof. Oddly, Richard Haydn brings about a loveably prissy mannerism that steals the limelight in the well-orchestrated crunch when the group has to outmaneuver Joe’s two pistol-wielding henchmen.
In short, considerably more accessible and more laid-back than BRINGING UP BABY, BALL OF FIRE excels in conflating different genre fodder (comedy, musical, gangster) into a helluva ride of a modern fairytale, and runs away with our affection on a moment’s notice.