Ball of Fire (1941)

Despite my love for film, up until this point, I have only dipped my toe into the screwball comedy genre. While I plan to improve this blind spot in my film consciousness, I seemed to be hampered by a lack of availability of these films.  Sure, I have seen all of the classics, Bringing Up BabyThe Philadelphia Story, and The Awful Truth; but in the end, I think I have seen more of the “neo” screwball comedies (such asThe Sure Thing or Down with Love) than the real thing.

Ball of Fire came to my attention for three reasons:

  1. Barbara Stanwyck*, who I would venture to guess is my second favorite actress of all time behind Ingrid Bergman.  Equally brilliant at comedy and drama, her work always strikes me as remarkably modern – she was tough as nails, and could take down her opposition with a few carefully chosen remarks, all without sacrificing her sexuality or vulnerability. The career of Angelina Jolie is heavily indebted to her
  2. The script is co-written by Billy Wilder from a short story that he penned during his time in Europe, based on the Snow White fairy tale. Given Wilder’s historically prickly nature about allowing others to direct his screenplays (thus eliminating as much studio and other director’s interference as he could), I was curious to see if Howard Hawks would keep intact the satire that Wilder was known for. As there are more than a couple well timed political jabs (as was Wilder’s style, he hated it when people took politics to seriously), it would seem his voice came through
  3. Gene Krupa, an astounding drummer and band leader during the swing era, not only performs with his band in the film; he also plays a solo with matches! As a former drummer, I couldn’t pass this up.

Gary Cooper plays Professor Bertram Potts, the youngest of eight colleagues who have formed a brain trust. Their goal? To write an encyclopedia that contains all of human knowledge. Since he is a scholar of philology, Potts is in charge of researching modern slang, and during an independent research outing, he meets a nightclub performer, “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Stanwyck), who seems to be the perfect person to assist him in his studies. The rub is that O’shea accepts his offer only to hide from the police who want to question her about who boyfriend, who happens to be a mob boss. Hijinks ensue.

While Ball of Fire is a highly enjoyable entry in the screwball comedy genre, it does come with one minor caveat: it helps to be an expert in 1930s and 1940s vernacular. When combined with the lightning fast, back and forth dialogue that accompanies the screwball comedy, it can be hard to keep up with certain plot devices. Luckily, the chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck transcend any issues you may have with the dialogue.

Since the trailer isn’t on YouTube**, I have embedded the Gene Krupa scene in which he plays “Drum Boogie” for your enjoyment.

-David

*Nominated for an Academy Award for her performance here

**Shakes fist at sky

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