Ball of Fire (1941):  The Last Great Screwball Comedy

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

After the success of Meet John Doe, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up later that same year to make Ball of Fire.

Ball of Fire had some superficial similarities to Doe—in both, Cooper plays a good-hearted naïve man taken for a ride by the more cynical and street smart Stanwyck.

In Doe, Stanwyck goes looking for a man to embody the words she wrote in an anonymous newspaper column.

In Ball of Fire, Cooper goes looking for a woman of the world to explain slang to him.

But if they are mirror images in terms of subject matter, they’re miles apart in tone.

Doe explored some of director Frank Capra’s favorite themes—political corruption, patriotism, and a sentimental side that advocates loving thy neighbor.

Doe gave you a few smiles, but Capra wanted the audience to think.

Ball of Fire was written solely for laughs by screenwriting duo Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed with exuberant irreverence by Howard Hawks.

The story is a playful retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, refashioning the dwarfs as a group of old bachelor professors who’ve been living together for years to write an encyclopedia.  The only one not ready for the retirement home is young and handsome linguistics Professor Bertram Potts, but he’s as cut off from the world as the rest.

And Snow White?

She’s the gangster’s moll Sugarpuss O’Shea, who agrees to help with the project so that she can hide out from the cops who want her to testify against her mobster boyfriend.

Gary Cooper was the titular John Doe, but Stanwyck was the Ball of Fire.

Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

As her biographer Axel Madsen wrote:

“The way slangy Stanwyck manhandles the English language fascinates linguistics professor Cooper.  He got the kudos in Meet John Doe, she ran away with Ball of Fire reviews.  Cooper’s absent-minded professor was a nice piece of light acting, but Barbara as Sugarpuss O’Shea was sensational.”

Sugarpuss O’Shea is one of Stanwyck’s signature parts—and she nearly didn’t get it.

As she told Paul Rosenfield, “They didn’t want me for the picture. They cast it with Ginger Rogers. The gossip then was that she wouldn’t do it because the part was, well, a hooker really. And Ginger’s morals and beliefs wouldn’t let her play it. Me, I didn’t give a damn.”

No one could’ve done more with the part than Stanwyck—not Ginger Rogers, or Carole Lombard, who also turned down what would have been one of her final roles.

The screen crackles when Stanwyck’s O’Shea is charming Potts and the other professors, all of whom are thrilled to have a woman (not counting their housekeeper Miss Bragg, which they don’t) in their midst.

O’Shea convinces them to let her stay in the house with them as she teaches Potts everything he needs to know for his encyclopedia article on slang.  Along the way she teaches the professors to dance and steals all their hearts.

When her gangster boyfriend (an early role for Dana Andrews) decides to marry O’Shea so she can’t testify against him, she has second thoughts.

She’s fallen in love with the professors’ naïve goodness, and doesn’t want to take them for a ride.  And when Potts proposes to her (with a much smaller ring), she realizes he’s the man she wants.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her role—though in hindsight it’s baffling that she wasn’t nominated instead for her work in The Lady Eve.

And now we’ve come directly to the problem with Ball of Fire.  It’s true ancestor is not Meet John Doe, but The Lady Eve, made earlier the same year with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

The Lady Eve is a perfect film with a script that sings, two equally charming leads, and not a moment of wasted time.

Ball of Fire uses much of the same conceit—Stanwyck plays a con artist who falls in love with her mark, another egghead who’s book smart but clueless about women.

Ball of Fire replicates the great erotic scene in The Lady Eve when the hero ends up holding the heroine’s bare foot.  And Stanwyck even calls Professor Potts “Pottsie,” in the same way she called Fonda’s character “Hopsie.”

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Unlike The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire goes on a bit too long in parts.  The antics of the professors grate a bit, and the film is like an airless balloon whenever Stanwyck is not onscreen.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Ball of Fire to compare it so much to The Lady Eve—but it’s never a good idea to remind those watching of another film—especially a superior one.

Audiences of 1941 didn’t mind, though.  Five days after Ball of Fire was released, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  The film was a huge box office success, as it’s silliness and sexiness was exactly what Americans were looking for to distract themselves from the unthinkable nightly reports on the wireless.

It’s the last great American screwball comedy (except, perhaps for 1942’s Palm Beach Story), as the genre vanished overnight when the Americans entered World War II and films veered away from zany screwballs toward patriotic propaganda.

Ball of Fire (1941) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.  1994.
  • Paul Rosenfield, “Saluting Stanwyck: A Life on Film”, “Los Angeles Times” (1987).

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

2 thoughts on “Ball of Fire (1941):  The Last Great Screwball Comedy

  1. Pingback: Blowing Wild (1953): The Forgotten Finale of Stanwyck and Cooper - Melanie Novak

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