Ball of Fire
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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