Ball of Fire is not Howard Hawks’ best comedy. Compared with the director’s greatest achievements within the genre, Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), and Monkey Business (1952), it lacks many of the elements that have become synonymous with the Hawks comedy such as frantic pacing and rapid-fire dialogue. Critic Robin Wood notes that the film lacks the “qualities of excess” of most of Hawks’ comedies, containing instead an “unusual gentleness” (1). Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy agrees that it “doesn’t rate with Hawks’s best comedies of the period, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, although it remains utterly charming for the brash cleverness of the dialogue, the heartwarming geniality of the professors, and the expert comic playing of Cooper and Stanwyck” (2). But Hawks defended the atypical pacing of the film by saying, “when you’ve got professors speaking lines, they can’t speak ’em like crime reporters”, and added that “it didn’t have the same reality as the other comedies, and we couldn’t make it go with the same speed” (3). Despite its status as a different type of Hawks comedy, Ball of Fire remains a solid work with signs of the director’s growing maturity as an artist.
Ball of Fire was written by the popular writing team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, on loan from Paramount, and marked the last time Wilder would serve as screenwriter-only on a film before going on to make his name as the writer-director of such films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Blvd. (1950). It also marked the third time Hawks would work with producer Samuel Goldwyn. The pair had worked together on Barbary Coast in 1935 and Come and Get it (co-directed by William Wyler) in 1936 before having a falling out on the latter film due to Hawks’ decision to alter the script without Goldwyn’s approval. Ball of Fire also reunited Hawks with cinematographer Gregg Toland, with whom he had worked on The Road to Glory (1936) and Come and Get it. Toland had just collaborated with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), where he enlisted several innovative visual techniques (many of which were developed by him for John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home a year earlier), including low-angle cinematography, high-contrast lighting, and deep focus. Hawks felt that deep focus photography would be appropriate for Ball of Fire, but admitted that “it was kind of a stylized thing, and you had to adapt your style to it. I never tried for a depth of focus on a picture where it would intrude.” (4)
Both Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Sugarpuss O’Shea, and Hawks considered several other actresses, including Jean Arthur, Betty Field, and Lucille Ball, before deciding on Barbara Stanwyck. While Hawks was pleased with Stanwyck’s professionalism, McCarthy notes that the actress “felt the picture lacked a certain spark of inspiration, and she secretly regretted that Billy Wilder, present at all times on the set, hadn’t directed it instead” (5).
Ball of Fire’s narrative has obvious parallels to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand), and it has now become common to view Hawks’ film as a modernisation of Walt Disney 1937 picture (itself based on a story by the Brothers Grimm). McCarthy notes that
Hawks had to find a way to somehow claim the material as his own, insisting that when the writers were stuck, he clarified everything for them by pointing out that their story was really Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with Babe, now Sugarpuss, as Snow White and her gangster boyfriend as the evil queen. Wilder, however, pooh-poohed Hawks’s credit grab. (6)
Regardless of who initially noted the similarity between the two works, it is true that Ball of Fire contains some fairytale qualities. For instance, Disney’s film version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens with a “One upon a time…” storybook prologue. Ball of Fire does the same, although it is infused with a sense of humour that is typical of Hawks’ comedies:
Once upon a time – in 1941 to be exact –
There lived in a great, tall forest –
Called New York –
Eight men who were writing an encyclopedia.
They were so wise they knew everything:
The depth of the oceans,
And what makes a glowworm glow,
And what tune Nero fiddled
While Rome was burning.
But there was one thing
About which they knew very little –
As you shall see…
The “one thing about which they knew very little” is sex. The professors demonstrate little to no real knowledge of sex, even though Professor Oddly had previously been married. Wood notes the “ludicrous timidity” of Oddly’s attitude toward to the subject when the character claims “I kissed her hand each night, astonished at my own boldness” (7). This is one example of the childish behaviour of the professors when called upon to engage in areas of life outside of their work, leading Wood to deem them “absurd children” (8). He notes that “separately, each is absurd; united in a group activity, they take on dignity” (9).
Wood also notes the connection Ball of Fire has to Bringing Up Baby (10). Although very different in terms of style, the films share an important relationship. Wood says Ball of Fire
could almost have been made to right the imbalances of the earlier film. Again the favourite Hawksian clash of opposite worlds: on the one hand a world of serious (even when absurd) dedication to learning, on the other a world of total irresponsibility. Only this time the film comes down firmly – though not without qualifications – on the side of culture and dedication, with the barbarians unequivocally routed. (11)
Hawks was never an overtly anti-intellectual filmmaker (although, like Ford, he did enjoy toying with interviewers who attempted to read too deeply into his work), but the majority of his films deal with outdoorsmen and sportsmen such as pilots, racecar drivers, and cowboys as opposed to men of science and learning. There are exceptions, of course, including The Thing from Another World (officially credited to Christian Nyby, 1951) and Monkey Business. But Ball of Fire is among the very few Hawks films in which the intellectual, although treated at times as an absurd figure, achieves a level of heroism.
In 1948, Hawks remade Ball of Fire as musical entitled A Song is Born. The final project on which Hawks would work with producer Samuel Goldwyn, A Song is Born uses the same basic premise as the earlier film but alters certain details (such as changing the general encyclopedia to one focused on music – they are compiling the chapter on jazz – and deploying Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in the Cooper/Stanwyck roles). Wood calls it a “vastly inferior remake” (12), and even Hawks seems to have regretted working on the picture. When asked by Joseph McBride and Gerald Peary why he made the picture at all, Hawks responded in classic fashion: “Because I got $25,000 a week, that’s why” (13). Fair enough.
- Robin Wood, Howard Hawks, British Film Institute, London, 1981, p. 102.
- Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Grove Press, New York, 1997, p. 327.
- McCarthy, p. 327.
- McCarthy, p. 326.
- McCarthy, p. 326.
- McCarthy, p. 324.
- Wood, p. 106.
- Wood, p. 103.
- Wood, p. 102.
- Wood, p. 102.
- Wood, p. 102.
- Wood, p. 105.
- Interview with Joseph McBride and Gerald Peary, “Hawks Talks: New Anecdotes from the Old Master”, Film Comment vol. 10, no. 2, May-June 1974; reprinted in Scott Breivold (ed.), Howard Hawks Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2006, p. 98.
Ball of Fire (1941 USA 111 mins)
Prod Co: The Samuel Goldwyn Company Prod: Samuel Goldwyn Dir: Howard Hawks Scr: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, from the story “From A to Z” by Wilder and Thomas Monroe Phot: Gregg Toland Ed: Daniel Mandell Art Dir: Perry Ferguson Mus: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, S. Z, Sakall, Tully Marshall, Gene Krupa and His Orchestra