Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood auteur Billy Wilder (1906-2002).
Much like Preston Sturges, some of Wilder’s best work as a screenwriter was written previous to his ascension to the director’s chair. Such I feel is one of his lesser known gems 1941’s Ball Of Fire. (oh, film buffs know it well enough, but I imagine its far less well known among the general populace than the likes of Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Some like it Hot and The Apartment. )
Ball of Fire is a screwball comedy, helmed by Howard Hawks and co-written by Wilder’s frequent writing partner Charles Brackett. That’s already a magical and interesting combination of ingredients, but then throw on Gary Cooper in full Frank Capra mode (with a character which recalls Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe) and Barbara Stanwyck in a part that builds on the one she’d played in Sturges’s The Lady Eve and anticipates the one she would play in Lady of Burlesque.
The scenario is a sort of updated reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Stanwyck is the titular Ball of Fire, a burlesque/ night club performer named Sugarpuss who needs a place to lay low to avoid a police interrogation. Fortunately, she is approached by lexicographer Gary Cooper who is investigating modern slang — and she is full of it, to a hilarious baroque degree. Cooper and his six bachelor cohorts work full time in a secluded house on a grant funded project to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. (The very idea of printed encyclopedias seems positively medieval nowadays.) Stanwyck decides to stay with the gents for a few days to avoid the authorities, but since one of them is Gary Cooper (and the other ones are sexless, aging character actors like Cuddles Sakall, Henry Travers and Oskar Omalka), sparks soon begin to fly.
Intellectual nerd Cooper has no idea he’s any different from the Ewoks around him. But Stanwyck soon sets his engines revving. This won’t sit any too well with her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) or his henchman Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea). Now THAT is a good cast and they really toe the mark. (Add to it, the inevitable Charles Lane as a numbers crunching accountant for the foundation who is eager to pull their funding) and this is a dream screwball cast.
Much like certain other Hawks films like The Thing from Another World and Rio Bravo, this one is oddly stagebound, claustrophobic and talkie, but not enough to be a deal-breaker — not with this script and this cast. And as always, Wilder’s way with words, in a second language no less, is dazzling.
For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc