#10 — Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
Back when I was writing and editing for Spectrum Culture, I had a few little victories that I treasured whenever I was a participant in building one of our semi-regular lists. None of these was more satisfying than leading the campaign to anoint Barbara Stanwyck’s turn as Sugarpuss O’Shea as the Best Comedic Performance of 1941. Despite my booming pride, I don’t think it was all that tough of a fight. Arguably, Stanwyck’s stiffest competition came from her other justly loved comedic acting turns from the same year: as Ann Mitchell in Meet John Doe and especially as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve. But there’s something special happening in Ball of Fire. Stanwyck, just into her thirties but already a well-seasoned veteran, brings a brassy sharpness to the role, interlacing it with a breezy charisma and some stealthy smarts to create a character who properly lives up to the description of the title. She’s cunningly boisterous and endearingly cunning. It’s a performance that feels marvelously modern to me, or at least predictive of the more easily naturalistic style of acting that was still better than a decade away. I’m tempted to throw this into the mix in any discussion of the best screen acting performances in the history of Hollywood cinema. Yes, I adore it that much.
The film operates with a fully field-tested comic premise: swells being disarmed and undone by a scruffy, streetwise, soft-hearted soul from the wrong side of the tracks. Sugarpuss is a gangster’s moll who needs a place to hide away from the law after her boyfriend is pinched. At about the same time, a group of sheltered college professors, squirreled away together in a rambling mansion together working on a massive, comprehensive encyclopedia, need a ready human resource to help them flesh out the volume on American slang. Sugarpuss agrees to be their walking, talking, on-premises research tool, certain that no one will sniff her out amidst these fuddy-duddies. Naturally, her charms wins them over and the crusty academics begin to loosen up. Naturally, there’s a romance that bubbles to life, in this case with Professor Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper in his familiar, winning mode of handsome granite statue brought to sweetly stammering, gently self-effacing life. The steps might seem familiar — though it surely sparked with more originality at the time — but the stride is jovially confident enough to imbue the whole film with the satisfaction of inspired invention.
The originally screenplay is co-credited to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and it has the expected sparkle of a couple veterans of filmmaking imbued with “the Lubitsch touch.” There’s a boundless joy to the jolting engines of human spirit and the restless playfulness with language. Like a lot of the films of the era, it can sometimes feel like a filmed stage play. In this instance, that’s a sterling attribute. The film comes across as immediately classic, honed to perfection by the happy trail and error that comes with bringing a work meant for the boards into shape for an opening night audience. Howard Hawks brings his own indelible touch to the film, clicking together the cogs of the narrative like a master mechanic. He demonstrates an unerring instinct for getting the very best out of what he has before him. Of course, circling back to my original point, when it’s Stanwyck before him, determining which element of the film is worth the most loving attention might be a little more clear than in other circumstances. Ball of Fire is a showcase for her talents. Hawks and his cohorts knew, however, that there was a duty to make it even more. To be worthy of Stanwyck, the film needed to match up to her. It does so, grandly.