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Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire(1942)

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)


When Prof. Bertram Potts decides he needs some first-hand research for an encyclopedia on slang he's co-writing with seven scholars, he takes to the streets where he recruits various characters for further research, inviting them to the professors' residence. One of his subjects, stripper Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), takes him up on his offer when her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), decides to force her into marriage so she can't testify against him. Moving in with the academics, Sugarpuss soon charms the older men and wins Potts' love but it's only a matter of time until Lilac and his henchmen track her down.

Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Based on the story "From A to Z" by Thomas Monroe and WilderCinematography: Gregg Toland
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gary Cooper (Prof. Bertram Potts), Barbara Stanwyck (Sugarpuss O'Shea), Oskar Homolka (Prof. Gurkakoff), Henry Travers (Prof. Jerome), S.Z. Sakall (Prof. Magenbruch), Tully Marshall (Prof. Robinson), Leonid Kinskey (Prof. Quintana), Richard Haydn (Prof. Oddly), Aubrey Mather (Prof. Peagram), Allen Jenkins (Garbage Man), Dana Andrews (Joe Lilac), Dan Duryea (Duke Pastrami), Charles Lane (Larson), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Waiter), Gene Krupa (Himself).

Why BALL OF FIRE Is Essential

Historians have called Ball of Fire the last great screwball comedy released before World War II. Technically, the film only previewed before the U.S. entry into the war, not having its official premiere until January 1942, but it was still the last appearance of this brand of Hollywood comedy before the U.S. was plunged into battle against the Axis.

Although less frenetic than Howard Hawks' other comedies, most notably Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire fits well into the director's canon in its depiction of one of his most prominent themes, the way characters in conflict can change each other for the better.

Ball of Fire was the film that introduced writer-director Billy Wilder to Barbara Stanwyck. Impressed with her work, he would later offer her the role of Phyllis Dietrichson in the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944).

Ball of Fire was the last time Wilder received credit for a screenplay that he did not direct himself. He had been increasingly unhappy with the way some directors were treating his work, and moved into the director's chair with his next film, The Major and the Minor (1942), starring Ginger Rogers.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)

The fairy tale "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was used as the inspiration for Sugarpuss and the seven professors who become her pupils.

Stanwyck joined Fred MacMurray for a radio version of the film broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre in 1942.

In 1948, Goldwyn produced a musical remake with Hawks directing under the title A Song Is Born. Danny Kaye took over the Gary Cooper role, with Virginia Mayo as Sugarpuss. Mary Field, who played Kaye's fiance, was the only member of the original cast to return for the re-make. The film had problems from the start. Kaye was temporarily separated from his wife and seeing a psychiatrist twice a day which left him, according to Hawks, "as funny as a crutch." Mayo was hampered by the fact that Goldwyn forced her to view the original repeatedly and play her role exactly as Stanwyck had. A Song Is Born got some of the worst reviews of Goldwyn's career.

A 1951 television version of Ball of Fire was shown as part of the Hallmark Playhouse starring Franchot Tone and Wendy Barrie.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)

Ball of Fire was the 25th highest-grossing film of 1942, taking in $2.2 million at the box office.

With the success of Ball of Fire and Sergeant York (1941), Gary Cooper ranked seventh at the box office for 1941.

Among actors announced for the cast who did not end up in Ball of Fire were Phil Silvers and Miss America 1941 Rosemary La Planche.

Had Carole Lombard agreed to star in Ball of Fire it might have saved her life. The film's New York premiere, attended by its stars, coincided with the bond tour during which Lombard's plane crashed, killing all on board.

To help audience members connect the seven elderly professors with the seven dwarfs from Walt Disney's movie, the publicity department posed a portrait of the seven actors seated in front of a poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with each in the same position as the dwarf he represented: S.Z. Sakall - Dopey; Leonid Kinskey - Sneezy; Richard Haydn - Bashful; Henry Travers - Sleepy; Aubrey Mather - Happy; Tully Marshall - Grumpy; and Oskar Homolka - Doc.

During the shootout with the police, Dan Duryea licks his thumb and rubs it on his gun sight before shooting, saying, "I saw this in a movie." The movie in question was Sergeant York, in which Gary Cooper's Alvin York uses the same trick.

When Howard Hawks was later asked about the slower pace of Ball of Fire compared to his earlier comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940), he said, "Well, it was about pedantic people. When you've got professors saying lines, they can't speak 'em like crime reporters. So we naturally slowed up - couldn't do anything about it. Also, it was a little bit further from truth and a little more allegorical. It actually was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - with the striptease dancer as Snow White. It didn't have the same reality as the other comedies and we couldn't make it go with the same speed." (from Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich.

Director Howard Hawks had a habit of taking credit for other people's ideas. When Leonid Kinskey suggested the professors should sing the old college hymn "Gaudeamus Igitur," Hawks presented it to the company as his own idea. In later years, he would claim that he had suggested to Brackett and Wilder that the film was really a variation on the story of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

The lines Cooper speaks to Stanwyck at the end of Ball of Fire, beginning with "Look how this ring emcompasseth thy finger," are from Shakespeare's Richard III.

After a week's engagement in Los Angeles in late 1941 to qualify for the Academy Awards®, Ball of Fire opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York.

When Goldwyn had first bought the story from Wilder, he had promised him a $2,500 bonus if the film were ever made. Once Ball of Fire became a hit, Wilder called Goldwyn to ask for the bonus. At first Goldwyn denied having promised him the money. After all, there was nothing about it in Wilder's contract. As Wilder got more and more angry with Goldwyn, the producer finally relented and told him he could come by and pick up his check...for $1,500. Although Wilder and Goldwyn became friends in later years, they never worked together again.


"Once upon a time - in 1941 to be exact - there lived in a great, tall forest - called New York - eight men who were writing an encyclopedia. They were so wise they knew everything. The depth of the oceans, and what makes a glowworm glow, and what tune Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. But there was one thing about which they new very little - as we shall see..." -Opening title to Ball of Fire

"You see, the word 'puss' means face, as for instance 'sourpuss.'...'Sugarpuss' implies a certain sweetness in her appearance." -- Gary Cooper, as Bertram Potts, explains to his fellow professors the nickname given Barbara Stanwyck, as Sugarpuss O'Shea

"Well, I got thinking it over, and pooh, I said to myself, who am I to give science the brush?" -- Stanwyck, as Sugarpuss O'Shea, explaining her reasons for helping Cooper, as Bertram Potts

"That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple," -- Kathleen Howard, as Miss Bragg, describing Stanwyck, as Sugarpuss

"Do you know what this means -- 'I'll get you on the Ameche?''
"No.""'Course you don't. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it."
"Oh, no, he didn't."
"Like, you know, in the movies." -- Stanwyck, teaching Cooper, as Potts, about slang

"Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body." -- Cooper, trying to give Stanwyck the kiss off

"I'm gonna show you what yum-yum is. Here's yum. Here's the other yum. And here's yum-yum." -- Stanwyck, teaching Cooper how to kiss

"Would you 'yum' me just once more?" -Cooper

"People like that just -- Well, you see, dust piles up on their hearts, and it took you to blow it away." -- Cooper, explaining Stanwyck's effect on the professors

"You've given us all a fine course in the theory and practice of being a sucker." -- Cooper, feeling betrayed by Stanwyck

"He can get drunk on buttermilk, blushes up to his ears and doesn't even know how to kiss, the jerk....He looks like a giraffe, and I love him." - Stanwyck, about Cooper

"I feel like yodeling." -- Cooper, when he realizes that Stanwyck loves him

"I think it is known as an upstick." -- Richard Haydn, as Professor Oddly

Compiled by Frank Miller

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)

Ball of Fire was a product of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn's bruised ego. Goldwyn had Gary Cooper under contract but was embarrassed that all of the star's best films had been made on loan-out to other studios. To save face, he decided to hire one of Hollywood's hottest screenwriting teams, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

Wilder and Brackett were under contract to Paramount Pictures, which had a strict policy against loaning out writers. But Paramount executives were also desperate to borrow Cooper to star in their film version of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), so Goldwyn held out on lending them Cooper's services until he could get the writers he wanted. Paramount was so eager to work with Cooper they agreed to loan Goldwyn Bob Hope as well.

Wilder was anxious to take more control of his scripts by moving into directing. He only agreed to work with Goldwyn because of the high fee he was offered -- $7,500 for the story and $79,800 for the screenplay - and the promise that he could observe every day of the shoot. In later years, Wilder would say that all he really learned from Hawks was how to say "Action," "Cut" and "Print it." He also would say the only real dividend he got out of doing the picture was the chance to meet Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom would star in his films when he became a director.

Wilder didn't like any of the stories in Goldwyn's files, so he drew his plot from a story he had written in Germany, "From A to Z," about the romance between a linguistics professor and a stripper. When he arrived in the states he had Americanized it with the help of Thomas Monroe.

To pick up authentic slang for the film script, Wilder and Brackett visited the drugstore across the street from Hollywood High School, a burlesque house and the Hollywood Park racetrack.

When he couldn't come up with the perfect director on his own, Goldwyn asked Cooper to name the director he would most like to work with. Cooper asked for Howard Hawks, with whom he was then working on Sergeant York (1941). This was a problem for Goldwyn, who had not worked with Hawks since firing him from Come and Get It in 1936, but he also wanted the best director for his star.

Hawks' agent, Charles Feldman, put off Goldwyn's offers until Sergeant York went into previews. The film was so well-received, that he was able to get Goldwyn to pay Hawks $100,000 for the film. It helped that Hawks already was entertaining a generous offer from Warner Bros. to direct Orson Welles in a screen version of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). The film would be made without Hawks or Welles.

The first actress announced for the role of Sugarpuss O'Shea was Virginia Gilmore, who had been under contract to Goldwyn for two years without making a film.

Hawks insisted on offering the female lead to Ginger Rogers, but the actress, who had just won an Oscar® for her dramatic performance in Kitty Foyle (1940) felt the role of a stripper was beneath her. Carole Lombard didn't care for the script, and Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn refused to lend Goldwyn Jean Arthur. He then tested Betty Field, who had just starred in Of Mice and Men (1939) and Lucille Ball.

Cooper suggested they consider Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he had most recently co-starred in Meet John Doe (1941). As soon as he mentioned her, Hawks and Goldwyn realized she was the perfect choice.

Before settling on Ball of Fire, Goldwyn considered calling the film From A to Z (the title of Wilder's original story), Blonde Blitzkrieg and The Professor and the Burlesque Queen.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)

Filming on Ball of Fire began on August 6, 1941.

After filming Gene Krupa's "Drum Boogie" in the nightclub sequence of the film, Hawks saw the drummer playing around by using a pair of matches as drum sticks. That gave him the idea to add a reprise called "Match Boogie." It only took him two hours to film it.

To make sure that only Barbara Stanwyck's eyes would be seen in a bedroom scene with Gary Cooper, cinematographer Gregg Toland had her wear blackface.

Location footage in New York, including shots of Yankee Stadium during the World Series, were done by a second-unit crew.

Tommy Dorsey's lead singer, Martha Tilton, dubbed Barbara Stanwyck's performance of "Drum Boogie." Stanwyck would sing for herself in another stripper role in Lady of Burlesque (1943).

While shooting a fight scene with Kathleen Howard, who played the housekeeper, Barbara Stanwyck accidentally connected with a punch and broke her jaw.

When re-writes put Ball of Fire nine days behind schedule, Goldwyn accommodated by expanding the original schedule from 48 to 58 days. With further delays, however, Cooper, Stanwyck and Hawks picked up the pace so they would be free to join Ernest Hemingway on a hunting trip to Sun Valley.

Production on Ball of Fire ended on October 16, 1941, one day ahead of the revised schedule. The final cost was $1,152, 538. Cooper's salary was $150,000, Stanwyck's $68,333.

Wanting to capitalize on the success of Sergeant York (1941), Goldwyn drove the post-production team to get a preview print ready by the start of November.

At the time, the Hollywood trade papers agreed not to review previews held outside the immediate Los Angeles vicinity. Goldwyn made the mistake of booking an early preview in Glendale, a suburb of the city, and a reviewer from Variety showed up. When Goldwyn tried to cancel the preview, it almost led to a riot. Finally, he moved the preview and the audience to Pasadena, where it was out of range of the trade papers.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)

Opposites distract in the 1941 romantic comedy Ball of Fire from screwball king Howard Hawks. Blessed with one of the screen's most perfect meldings of talent on both sides of the camera, Ball of Fire has developed a devoted following through the years, as much for its unique modernization of the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as for its historical position as the last of the Golden Age screwball comedies. If any one person can be singled out for the film's success, it's the independent producer, who made Ball of Fire into a classic almost in spite of himself.

Ego was at the root of the film's success. In the early '40s, Samuel Goldwyn was embarrassed by the fact that although he had Gary Cooper under personal contract, the star had scored his biggest critical and box-office successes on loan to other studios. Although the arrangement had made Goldwyn a lot of money, he was driven to find the perfect vehicle for Cooper. To that end, he approached Paramount Pictures about borrowing their top writing team, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Paramount had a policy against loaning out writers, but they also wanted something from Goldwyn -- Cooper. They were planning a film version of Ernest Hemingway's modern classic For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and knew he was the only choice for the male lead.

Wilder wasn't too excited about the deal at first. He was eager to start his directing career and didn't want to undertake any assignments as just a writer, but when he saw how much Goldwyn was offering for the script -- over $80,000 -- he agreed on condition that he be allowed to observe the film's director at work. He and Brackett rejected all of the story ideas Goldwyn had in development for Cooper, suggesting instead a story Wilder had started eight years earlier, while still living in his native Germany. "From A to Z" was the tale of a professor who hires a burlesque queen to teach him slang. On his arrival in the U.S., Wilder had Americanized the story with the help of writer Thomas Monroe and sold it to MGM. Goldwyn liked the idea of Cooper as a shy romantic lead, so he put them to work on the screenplay, which sent Wilder and Brackett to various places around Los Angeles -- the drugstore across from Hollywood High School, a burlesque house, a pool room and a racetrack -- to research slang. They also had great fun shaping the characters of Cooper's academic colleagues around the seven dwarfs as presented in the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

With no director under contract he felt right for the property, Goldwyn accepted Cooper's suggestion that the man currently directing him in Sergeant York (1941), Howard Hawks, was the only logical choice, even though Goldwyn had never liked working with him. The producer questioned Hawks' character because of his heavy drinking and serious gambling problem. He'd also fired him from Come and Get It (1936), which had marked the last time the two men had spoken. Hawks' agent wisely fielded Goldwyn's calls until the day of Sergeant York's successful preview, at which time they negotiated a $100,000 fee for the director.

Finding a leading lady proved a much more challenging task. Although all who read Wilder and Brackett's script thought it was a gem, Goldwyn struck out with his first choice for the role, Ginger Rogers. Having just won an Oscar® for her dramatic turn in Kitty Foyle (1940), she decided the role of a stripper was beneath her. Jean Arthur was the second choice, but Goldwyn couldn't negotiate a loan from Columbia Pictures. After testing Betty Field and Lucille Ball for the role, he sent a script to Carole Lombard, but she didn't like the role either. Refusing the film would ultimately cost her more than a hit. Had she taken the film and attended its premiere, she would have been unavailable for the war bond tour on which she lost her life in a plane crash.

Finally, Cooper suggested one of his favorite leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he had just starred in Meet John Doe (1941). Goldwyn had fond memories of working with her on Stella Dallas (1937), another film role she won after numerous other actresses proved unavailable, and quickly agreed to the deal. It turned out to be a great break for the actress, whose starring performances in Ball of Fire, Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve (also 1941) made her one of the year's top box office stars and a leading contender for the Oscar® (she was nominated for Ball of Fire but lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion). She also benefited greatly from Gregg Toland's cinematography. His use of deep focus made this one of her most beautiful performances. The chance to meet Wilder proved another career plus. Watching her work on Ball of Fire inspired him to offer her the role of the cold-hearted killer in Double Indemnity (1944).

Hawks was not particularly thrilled by Toland's work. He rarely had time for deep focus, nor did he think it contributed much to a picture. But he did call on the cameraman to help him capture the romance of the scene in which Cooper admits he loves Stanwyck. Hawks wanted just her eyes to show in the scene, played in a darkened bedroom, and Toland told him the way to do it was by having Stanwyck perform the scene in blackface. The star was a little surprised at the suggestion, but was too professional to refuse, resulting in a great scene.

Ball of Fire wrapped one day ahead of schedule at a final cost of $1.15 million. It premiered on December 24, 1941, in time to qualify for that year's Oscars®, and ended up becoming one of Goldwyn's biggest hits, generating over $1 million in profits. Later critics, though charmed by the film's romantic comedy, would complain that it runs a little slow (at 111 minutes) and is less anarchic than Hawks' other classic comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938, ironically a box-office flop because of its anarchic character) and His Girl Friday (1940). Yet it also perfectly captures one of his key themes, the way conflicting characters can change each other for the better. The story of the stripper who brings pizzazz to a stuffy academic, who in turn helps her find a sense of inner peace, would be revived for a 1942 radio version starring Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and a 1951 television adaptation with Wendy Barrie and Franchot Tone. It also inspired a 1948 musical remake, A Song Is Born, produced by Goldwyn and directed by Hawks, with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in the leads.

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Based on the story "From A to Z" by Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gary Cooper (Prof. Bertram Potts), Barbara Stanwyck (Sugarpuss O'Shea), Oskar Homolka (Prof. Gurkakoff), Henry Travers (Prof. Jerome), S.Z. Sakall (Prof. Magenbruch), Tully Marshall (Prof. Robinson), Leonid Kinskey (Prof. Quintana), Richard Haydn (Prof. Oddly), Aubrey Mather (Prof. Peagram), Allen Jenkins (Garbage Man), Dana Andrews (Joe Lilac), Dan Duryea (Duke Pastrami), Charles Lane (Larson), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Waiter), Gene Krupa (Himself).
BW-112m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Ball of Fire (1942)

Ball of Fire won Oscar® nominations for Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Original Screenplay, Best Score and Best Sound. Stanwyck lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.

The film is listed as number 92 on the American Film Institute's poll of 100 Funniest Movies.


"According to legend, Samuel Goldwyn has made some beautiful lapsi linguae in his time and has done things with the King's English that stand as a monument to his name. Maybe. But still Mr. Goldwyn can't be too touchy on that score, for now he has produced a picture which deliberately kicks the language around in a manner so colorful and lively that you can almost sense his tongue stuck in his cheek. Ball of Fire is the title of this wholly ingratiating lark, and so pleasant is its spoofing of the professorial pose, so comprehensive is its handling of the modern vernacular, and so altogether winning are Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in it that it had the customers jumping with enjoyment at the Music Hall yesterday." - Bosley Crowther, The New York Times.

"The romantic collision of Sugarpuss O'Shea, a burlesque dancer (Barbara Stanwyck), and Bertram Potts, a fuddy-duddy professor (Gary Cooper), is played as if it were terribly bright, but it's rather shrill and tiresome....The professor's colleagues have corny cute names and carry on like people left over from a stock-company Viennese operetta." -- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies.

"Marvelous performance from Stanwyck, all snap, crackle and pop as the brassy nightclub entertainer..." -- Tom Milne, Time Out.

"A simple gag is hardly enough on which to string 110 minutes of film. And that's all - one funny situation - that Samuel Goldwyn's director and writers have to support Ball of Fire. It's sufficient, however, to provide quite a few chuckles." - Variety Movie Guide.

"There's a veritable corps de comedy in the character actors here; one look at the cast list will convince anyone that scene-stealing would have been rampant without the firm Hawks hand." -- TV Guide.

"Rather overstretched but fitfully amusing romp inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"Delightful" - Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.

"...hilarious, essential comedy..." -

"...This film is a blast, for several reasons, including the colorful supporting characters and warmth of personality. But the foremost is the fun it has with language. Every line of dialogue was written with the utmost care, suiting the character who speaks it and radiant in its own right...Because the film features so much forties slang, however, it is fairly dated; though the strength of its characters overcome this, those unfamiliar with past times may be put off by the rapid fire dialogue. Their loss." - At-A-Glance Film Reviews,

"...Hawks' consistently funny romantic comedy that owes more than a little debt to Pygmalion...Opposites have rarely attracted more sweetly than here, with the leads drumming up plenty of chemistry, while it's equally fascinating to watch Cooper, an actor who cultivated his tough screen persona in action movies, playing totally against type." - Channel 4 Film,

Compiled by Frank Miller & Jeff Stafford

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