Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ball of Fire (1941) - A Fine Peek at Stanwyck ... and the Future of English

Ball of Fire 1941 film poster
"Ball of Fire" (1941).

Barbara Stanwyck, who was nominated for Best Actress for her role in "Ball of Fire" (1941), wasn't even the first choice to play the lead in this film directed superbly by Howard Hawks and written by . Ginger Rogers turned it down as beneath her (having just won an Academy Award for "Kitty Foyle"), and Lucille Ball was all set to play the part when Stanwyck became available. To say that Lucy wasn't the best actress for this film isn't to besmirch her, for Stanwyck fits this like a glove and nobody could have done it as well as her.

Ball of Fire 1941 Gary Cooper Barbara Stanwyck
There are seven professors (aside from Gary Cooper), just like dwarves in "Snow White." Then, Sugarpuss O'Shea enters their world. 

"Ball of Fire" is a somewhat ostentatious homage to Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" of a few years previous. The first hour or so of the film is perfection, with seven professors first seen marching through a forest as they work (just like the dwarves). Gary Cooper is basically leading this odd group of characters researching slang for the encyclopedia that he and some other professors (perhaps the best collection of character actors ever assembled) are writing, so he escapes from his cloistered environment to do research by listening to paperboys, gossiping girls and the like (which, apparently, was exactly what the screenwriters of this film actually did themselves). He drops by a nightclub (featuring Gene Krupa and his band!) for his research. It turns out the nightclub singer, Barbara Stanwyck, is on the run. On the spur of the moment, she comes up with the idea of hiding out at Cooper's home, as he conveniently left the address.

Ball of Fire 1941 Gary Cooper
"Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper
Tryin' hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper)" ("Puttin' On The Ritz," by Irving Berlin, from the motion picture "Blue Skies" (1946)).

Stanwyck hurries over straight from the nightclub, and when she shows up at Cooper's place, she still is dressed in her sexy stage outfit. In order to talk her way into staying at his home, she then engages in risque repartee with Cooper that is loaded with double entendres. Believe me, you won't have to think too hard about the "risque" part to appreciate it. But the bad guys are chasing her, and you know all about bad guys - they eventually show up.

Ball of Fire 1941 Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper facing down a thug in "Ball of Fire."

So, that's the setup. Barbara Stanwyck sparkles here as few screen sirens ever get the chance to do, playing the gangster's moll (Sugarpuss (!) O'Shea) forced to live at Cooper's home while "on the lam." Few entrances in film history are as vivid as Stanwyck's, with Babs wearing a sparkly and revealing nightclub outfit for what seems like the entire first half of the film (they milk this as long as they can). The contrast of the vibrant and sexy Stanwyck with a roomful of men who are mostly three times her age is striking. The juxtaposition makes her the undisputed center of attention, despite Gary Cooper's best efforts to steal back some of the limelight playing the youngest of the good professors. Stanwyck accomplishes every actress' dream, stealing a film from Gary Cooper.

Ball of Fire 1941 Gary Cooper Barbara Stanwyck
This is purely a publicity still, and not a scene from "Ball of Fire."

I think that, if director Howard Hawks could have figured out a way to extend Stanwyck's arrival at Cooper's place for about, oh, another hour or so, he would have. Stanwyck is simply stunning in her barely-there red dress, and she plays it for she can (though these are just publicity shots, the actual scenes in the film are just as hot). The pace of the film drops off dramatically in the second half, though it offers some derring-do and a satisfying climax.

Ball of Fire 1941 Gary Cooper Barbara Stanwyck
Too bad these scenes weren't in "Ball of Fire." Cooper is working overtime not to appear awkward as he figures out where to place his hands.

This film is good on so many levels that it is difficult to list them all. First and foremost, it's a brilliant comedy, with all sorts of sexy puns and wisecracks that will delight any fan of screwball snappy patter. The humor is usually very highbrow, but the use of cutting edge (for 1941) slang introduces elements that also successfully play to the lowest common denominator. It's also a fine romantic comedy, as leads, outstanding in their own particular fields of endeavor, are completely lost in the other's world. This leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and malapropisms. The film is also completely self-aware about what it's doing, giving knowing winks at every turn (Cooper diagrams the meaning of the word "corny" on a blackboard!) and thereby satirizing film conventions. The double entendres fly fast and furious ("You can start working on me right now," "I figured on working all night," "Feel that foot. It's cold, and it's wet," "Open your mouth. Wider!") and keep right on coming.  This is one of the sexiest films in the history of the Hayes Code if you peek just below the surface - but the surface is completely innocent. That's all the more subversive when you factor in that this is a modern re-telling of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," a children's film. It also may be a subtle commentary on the sexual subtext that some see just below the surface of "Snow White," too.

Ball of Fire 1941 Gary Cooper Barbara Stanwyck
The professors lurk in the background, like gnomes, as Gary Cooper remonstrates with Barbara Stanwyck. Barbara's legs stand out like beacons.

While all of these elements are wonderful, the intellectual element keeps your mind working. This is a brilliant examination of the development of the English language, almost like a research class in contemporary slang. All sorts of 1941 lingo is thrown out, some good, some bad, some plain awful. A certain very small fraction has survived, most petered out long ago, and a few died stillborn in this very film (calling a phone an "Ameche" because Don Ameche had recently played Alexander Graham Bell in a biography, that was a non-starter right there). Calling a boyfriend the girl's "daddy," well, that one is still kind of risqué to this day. This film shows that, once upon a time, phrases such as giving someone "the brush" and asking "what's the big idea" were considered exotic intrusions into normal English. As legend has it, Wilder walked over to a racetrack near the studio and listened to the bettors in order to get accurate slang.

This scene pretty much captures the tone of the film, with Stanwyck shamelessly stealing every scene that she can.

One of the delightful aspects of this is that Stanwyck keeps you guessing as to her real feelings.  One minute she is delighted to plan her escape from the professors' lodgings, the next she is delightfully seducing Cooper.  Which is for real?  She plays both scenes so well, it is impossible to tell.  She also pronounces some difficult words perfectly, which a suspicious Cooper later picks up, then she apparently deliberately mispronounces something simple for effect. Stanwyck delivers a delightfully wacky performance of the "caught between two diametrically opposed worlds" variety, with her character struggling to land definitively in either one. The mobster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) even points this out about Sugarpuss at one point, that "when it comes to leveling off, she gets chicken." But who is she chicken about?

Stanwyck looks radiant in her red outfit during the first half of "Ball of Fire," though of course you have to imagine the color in the black-and-white film.

No need to overthink this one, though. It is worth catching if for no other reason than to see Stanwyck working Cooper over as only a world-class flirt could do (watch her eyes while bantering with Cooper). Cooper's double-take when Stanwyck takes off her coat is priceless, holding his ground with her must have been a real struggle. Fabulous fun, a tour de force for Stanwyck and, ultimately, a sweet love story. Oh, and everyone should see how Babs explains what "yum yum" means to the good professor.


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