Ball of Fire (1941)

Dir. Howard Hawks. Starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Haydn

Watching Ball of Fire, you get the sense that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were just more interested in telling a story about eight men writing an encyclopedia than they were in telling the story of an unlikely romance between a gangster’s moll, Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) and a cloistered grammarian, Bertram Potts (Cooper). (This has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, but I feel like I’d be remiss in saying that this movie has more positive things to say about descriptive grammar in its first fifteen minutes than I think I heard of my entire time in public schools as a kid. Could it be that after introducing the word “doodle” to the American people in 1936 and then describing spoken language as a living, useful thing in Ball of Fire that Gary Cooper is our most grammar-positive star of Old Hollywood? I like to think so!) I don’t know that there’s a better movie to be made about these guys than there is about the strange weeklong affair between Sugarpuss and Bertram, but again and again the best moments have more to do with the army of supporting actors than they do with the name-brand leads. Dana Andrews plays Joe Lilac, the top gangster who’s trying to recover Sugarpuss for himself; it’s not effective casting. Stanwyck appears to be giving her all to fire off the slangy speech that caught Potts’ attention in the first place, and she is funniest when she’s got the encyclopedians in tow as they try to figure out how to do a dance they saw her doing. Cooper is better with them too as the sternest dad type among a group that seems to be made entirely from grandpas. (If Cooper and Oscar Homolka had gone to the same high school, they would have walked the same halls at the same time; Cooper was not just older than Kinskey, but older than Richard Haydn, too, whose Oddley is meant to be decades older than Potts.) In fact, Square Cooper and Frantic Stanwyck seem to have little chemistry at all, and it’s up to dialogue about putting wet handkerchiefs on the back of necks and getting drunk on buttermilk to do a lot of the work for them, or sequences where Potts must ardently declaim the sincerity of his feelings for Sugarpuss to her, but accidentally, for it is dark and he thinks he’s speaking to somebody else; suffice it to say that it doesn’t measure up to the kind of wordless chemistry that people like Cary Grant and Jean Arthur seemed to have with everyone. The ensemble, living bachelor lives, holstered in a beautiful but dark building in the effort to bring the late inventor Totten’s encyclopedia to publication, have more chemistry with the leads and with each other than the stars can summon up.

Still blissfully unaware of his “fiancee’s” sordid past (and present, for that matter), Potts and his fellows drive to New Jersey for what they believe is his wedding. The only one of them with a driver’s license is Gurkakoff (Homolka), although it does not appear to be worth very much. Aside from rearending a truck on the bridge and driving the enormous rental off the road once they’re actually in New Jersey, it turns out that Gurkakoff’s license expired nearly forty years earlier. Thus they are held up en route to meeting Lilac and his gang, and the company stays at a hotel, where Oddley, the only man among the group who has been married, insists on giving some advice to his younger colleague. A woman is like a flower, he suggests to Potts, although being a botanist he extends the analogy a little bit further than poetry would call for. He speaks wistfully of his marriage, of the joy of it, of the beauty of his wife’s hair (he still carries a lock of it with him), and of her name, Genevieve. That last reminds him of something: “And there was a song at that time everyone sang.” Gurkakoff begins to hum it, and Oddley, who by his own admission has no musical ability, implores him to sing it. The rest of the men know it, too—why shouldn’t they? between the eight of them they probably know everything, except perhaps that they are more or less performing the stereotype of other tipsy men in group song at the bar—and they join in, singing the chorus three times.

It’s right up against the edge of maudlin, but everyone in the scene is too good to let it slip. The Wilder-Brackett pairing always had a knack for knowing how to avoid outright sappiness in sentimental scenes. Hawks, after showing us all of the men around the table in a single shot, finds ways to put us at the table like we’re part of that song; on the second go-round, we know that we’re sitting between Homolka and Kinskey. And the performance of the song, which I sort of refuse to acknowledge on general principle had to do with the voices of these actors but which I also can’t believe isn’t them, is rustically effective, with harmonies thrown in on the second go-round for good measure. The cut to Sugarpuss struggling to write her Dear John letter is whatever. The movie needs to sling it back to her, of course, because it’s about her and not about the men downstairs. By the time the men have finished their third run-through, Oddley has left the table, too moved to stay any longer with these men who he’s lived with for years. The men are themselves a little lost for words at the end. All of them, with sad eyes and thick, pensive eyebrows, look down at the table or floor. No one can stand to look in anyone else’s eyes, and it’s not difficult to imagine why. For nine years they have worked together, and they are now, per Potts, in the “home stretch” with three years left to go and the letter ‘S’ halfway done. It is impossible to believe that they have ever touched this third rail together, or have ever crossed the line from colleagues to comrades.

More than that, this table of six bachelors, one engaged man, and one man widowered for nearly a quarter of a century must wonder at what they have missed out on. Earlier in the movie, it was funny when Potts realized that his essay on slang, which he got entirely from books, was by now hopelessly outdated. There’s a good scene where a round table of people from different walks of life (nightclub singer, garbage man, newspaper boy) try to help this erudite grammarian figure out what “corny” means. There’s another good set of punchlines when Sugarpuss learns that “ameche” means “telephone” from one of the gangsters, and then uses it for effect on Potts when it looks like he’s going to kick her out. (It’s the guy who invented the telephone, she says to him, to which Potts indignantly replies that Bell invented it; no, in the movies, she says, as if it’s the most obvious evolution in etymology in the whole world.) It is not funny at all to watch these brilliant men have the same epiphany at the same time: whatever they learned from their books is not a replacement for the years without wives or families or companionship that they sacrificed at the altar of scholarship. No scene with Cooper and Stanwyck bouncing against each other has this kind of gravity, and I suppose that in a screwball comedy there’s no reason to expect that we should hope for that pull. What ridiculous thing is happening now is the second-most important thing, and the even more ridiculous consequence for it that we know is waiting around the corner is the most important. Ball of Fire could not have made the whole movie from the black box of “Genevieve,” but it incorporates a feeling that is not common and thus quite fascinating within the genre. This is a scene about regret, not that kind that comes from “Why did I let this daffy woman rope me into tracking a baby leopard around Connecticut?” but “Why did I choose this fundamentally unfulfilling life?” In the faces of Homolka and Kinskey, Henry Travers and S.Z. Sakall, we can understand that sadness, and it’s a sadness that helps the movie cohere around a nut more interesting than any of the goofballs hanging around.

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