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Ball of Fire

To make one masterwork guarantees a place in the director's pantheon. Some artists really only have one story to tell, and sometimes they get a chance to do that story justice but once. When you're an artist of the caliber of Howard Hawks… well, then you might make a masterpiece people don't ever talk about. And when you're competing with the likes of Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby , His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rio Bravo, it's hard to fit in. And yet, 1941's Ball of Fire is just as entertaining as the best of Hawks, but like a number of great films by master directors (think John Ford's 3 Godfathers), it has never received its due because of the adverse effects of auteurship. Gary Cooper leads a pack of academics engaged in writing an encyclopedia. The men are all bachelors, and with the exception of Cooper's Prof. Bertram Potts, elderly. Though their grant stands on shaky ground, Potts is moved to action when a chance encounter with a garbage-man (Allen Jenkins) shows him that his knowledge of slang is woefully antiquated. He decides he needs to understand more about the etymology of slang, and thus contacts everyday folk and hipsters, which leads him to a club where "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) does some singing in front of the Gene Krupa Orchestra (Krupa plays himself). Sugarpuss is dating Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), who just got pinched and needs an alibi for the robes Sugarpuss bought him and gave out to his men. So when Bertram comes knocking, she sees him as the perfect place to hide. She helps Potts with his slang, but she also proves a disruptive influence on the other professors, to whom she is a fountain of youth. But when Bertram's investigation hits its end, she still needs a place to hide, and so she tells him that she's fallen for him. Potts — who, to describe as virginal seems modest — is quickly won over, and shortly thereafter proposes marriage. But Joe also wants to marry her, since it will provide him legal cover. And though Sugarpuss has dreamed of marrying Joe, a funny thing happens to her — she realizes that she loves Potts too.

*          *          *

Ball of Fire is, along with The Adventures of Robin Hood one of those great Hollywood pieces of fission where everything comes together to create superior entertainment. It was such a successful endeavor that it was remade by the returning Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland in 1948 as A Song is Born (which ranks as the absolute worst film in Hawks's filmography). But regardless of the movie's later tainting, this is a picture where everything aligns. Cooper is delicious as the repressed but expressive Potts (playing his "aw, shucks" persona brilliantly), while Stanwyck makes a marvelous foil as O'Shea. She has no trouble melting Potts — the problems come when she realizes that she's melted as well. Hawks directs in a manner that would be called effortless if it wasn't apparent how perfect everything is; this is a textbook on knowing where to put a camera. But all due credit belongs to scribes Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, whose smart and literate script makes the eight professors (slightly modeled on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) so lovable. Rarely are intelligentsia so endearingly portrayed, and as heroes. Often when characters are meant to appear smart, the writing betrays them, but here, we never doubt the professors' veracity (at least when it comes to book-learning). This was Cooper and Hawks's follow-up to Sergeant York, which was an Academy favorite, but Ball of Fire manages to be all the more perfect an entertainment. For film buffs who love anyone involved in this project, or just fans of movies, it should not be missed. MGM double-dips the title on DVD, which was released under the Samuel Goldwyn folio when HBO Video held the rights, and the differences are negligible. The transfer is in the original full-frame ratio (1.33:1) while the audio is DD 2.0 mono. Alas, there are no extras. Keep-case.
—DSH



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