Review in tribute to Gary Cooper’s Birthday Today!
BALL OF FIRE, 1941
A group of ivory-tower lexicographers realize they need to hear how real people talk, and end up helping a beautiful singer escape from the Mob.
In 1941, Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper were paired up for two films. The first was Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, a huge commercial and critical success. The second was Ball of Fire, which is not as well known or as good, but still better than the remake done in 1948.
Howard Hawks directed the movie, but it was written by Billy Wilder. Wilder had thought of the original idea when he was still living in Europe. He said that the movie would have been funnier if Germans had been the professors instead of Americans, as German professors have a tendency to be stuffy.
Instead, we have seven professors living in a building in New York who are commissioned to write an encyclopedia by the daughter of a wealthy man who left in his will that such a task be undertaken because he felt his life work deserved more credit than it got.
Cooper plays the youngest of the seven and leader of the group, Bertram Potts. Potts is a linguistics professor. The rest of the professors have their own specialty such as mathematics or geography, but more importantly they are played be great character actors. Oskar Homolka, S.Z. Sakall and Henry Travers are all great in their parts as professors.
Potts decides it is time for him to leave the world of books for the world of reality so that he can research slang. Now this portion of the movie with everyone talking 1940s slang is definitely outdated. In the remake, also done by Howard Hawks, Danny Kaye plays Potts and sets out to learn all about jazz music. That portion of the remake has not aged as much, but Kaye is certainly no Cooper. And Virginia Mayo is no Stanwyck.
During Potts’ research he appears in a nightclub where Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Stanwyck, is working. Potts is smitten by her and goes backstage to see if she would mind stopping by the encyclopedia building so she can help with his research. At first she rebuffs him, but when her gangster boyfriend is picked up by the cops, his henchmen decide it is good if she lay low.So she decides the safest place to stay is with Potts and the rest of the professors. Sugarpuss arrives and immediately her beauty wins over the professors. Everything seems to be going well for a period of time. Sugarpuss doesn’t exactly like being where she is, but she knows she could easily be in jail. At the same time, the professors know that they should not like a tramp like Sugarpuss, but she knows how to have a good time.
As things progress Potts decides to propose to Sugarpuss. At the same time Sugarpuss’ boyfriend has been released by the police. He is hiding out and wants Sugarpuss to come to him so that they can be married. Under the law she would not have to testify against her husband. As a way to get Sugarpuss out of New York and into New Jersey, the gangster boyfriend posses as Sugarpuss’ father over the phone. He congratulates Potts on the engagement to Sugarpuss and says that he would like to see the happy couple before they are married.
It looks like it is over for Potts and Sugarpuss, but some poor driving by Homolka on the trip to New Jersey gives them a reprieve as he crashes their car. Sugarpuss puts in a call from the hotel they are going to be spending the night at. She tells her boyfriend what happened and they will be there the next day. This isn’t good enough for him though. He wants to get married now. So he goes to the hotel to take Sugarpuss.
Potts and the professors are heartbroken. They return to their dreary lives of books once again. But things change as Sugarpuss refuses to marry the gangster. She has fallen in love with Potts, despite the fact that he is poor. This does not sit well with the gangster and he sends some of his men to rough up the professors. This does not work though. Instead, the professors outwit the hoodlums and Potts learns how to box on the way to New Jersey. There he uses his new skills to win Sugarpuss back.
Ball of Fire is a nice comedy. It doesn’t break new ground, but it doesn’t have to. It is Cooper and it is Stanwyck. It is Hawks and Wilder behind the camera. It is enough that it is surprising to know that the same movie was remade by the same director seven years later. It did not have to be. This movie is solid enough that it did not need to be reworked.