Thursday, August 26, 2021

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck are an unlikely pair in Howard Hawks’s “Ball of Fire”

Ball of Fire (1941) is an American romantic comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. The screenplay was wirtten by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. The cinematography was by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), the music by Alfred Newman.

The plot concerns a group of professors developing and writing an encyclopedia who encounter a nightclub entertainer who is an expert on American slang. Cooper plays Professor Bertram Potts who is an expert on English and grammar. Seven other professors are experts in science, geography, physiology, law, philosophy, botany, and history. All of the professors are bachelors, with the exception of Professor Oddley who is a widower. 

When Professor Potts realizes that their entry on slang is terribly out of date, he goes out into the world to do some research. He encourages nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea to help him. She ignores him at first but when her boyfriend, gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is under scrutiny for murder, she decides to hide out with the professors.

The seven professors and Mrs. Bragg

Howard Hawks (1896 - 1977) was an American director, producer, and screenwriter. He is considered one of the great directors from the classic Hollywood era. Hawks excelled in directing films in all genres. His films were famous for featuring strong women characters. These tough-talking “Hawksian women” helped to define the director’s work. Some of Hawks’ popular films include Scarface (1932) Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Gary Cooper won a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Sergeant York (1941) under Hawks’ direction.

Gary Cooper (1901 - 1961) was an American film actor who was known for his down-to-earth, understated acting style. He was a major star for almost four decades until his untimely death at age 60. Cooper got his start in silent film but easily made the transition to sound. During the early 1930s, he became a major star in films like A Farewell to Arms (1932), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Other popular Cooper films include Meet John Doe (1941), Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1952). Cooper won two Best Actor Academy Awards: Sergeant York and High Noon (1952).

Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990) was an American film star who got her acting start with a supporting role on Broadway in a play called The Noose (1926). The next year she had the lead in another Broadway production, Burlesque which was a huge hit. She eventually made it to Hollywood where her success was not immediate. Director Frank Capra saw something in Stanwyck and he educated her in filmmaking and film acting and the rest is history. Stanwyck was nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar—Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1945), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)—and remains one of the most beloved movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Dana Andrews (1909 – 1992) was an American stage and film actor. During the 1940s, Andrews was a major star and leading man starring in Laura (1944), State Fair (1945), A Walk in the Sun (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Canyon Passage (1946), Boomerang! (1947), and Daisy Kenyon (1947) co-starring Joan Crawford and Henry Fonda. During the 1950s, film roles were harder to come by, but he had success in Elephant Walk (1954) co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Finch, While the City Sleeps (1956), and Curse of the Demon (1957). In 1958 he replaced Henry Fonda on Broadway in Two for the Seesaw.

Dana Andrews on “the Ameche”

The amazing supporting cast includes Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Aubrey Mather, Allen Jenkins, Dan Duryea, Kathleen Howard, Mary Field, and Charles Lane.

Ball of Fire trivia:
  • Ginger Rogers turned down the role of Sugarpuss, something she regretted.
  • Lucille Ball was going to play Sugarpuss but once producer Samuel Goldwyn found out that Gary Cooper had suggested Stanwyck and that she was available, he gave her the part instead.
  • Leonid Kinskey (Professor Quintana) and Richard Haydn (Professor Oddley) were both under 40 years old and younger than Gary Cooper.
  • Dana Andrews based his character (Joe Lilac) on real-life gangster Bugsy Siegel. Siegel owned the Formosa, a club across the street from Goldwyn Studios.
  • Gary Cooper was paid $150,000 for his role, while Barbara Stanwyck earned the odd salary of $68,133.
  • Don’t feel too sorry for Stanwyck though. By 1944, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States.
  • Barbara Stanwyck received her second Best Actress (out of a total of four) for this film.

To watch the film on YouTube, click on the link below.

To join the discussion on August 30, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. click here. Once you RSVP, you will receive an invitation and a link for the discussion on Zoom.

Why watch this film?
  • For the terrific script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.
  • The great performances and chemistry between Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.
  • The amazing group of character actors assembled for this film.
  • To see Dana Andrews as Joe Lilac, three years before his star turn in Laura.
  • This is a great example of director Howard Hawks’s versatility.
  • To hear the great American 1940s slang that your parents and grandparents spoke.

Gary Cooper shares a laugh with Robert Taylor while he visits his wife, Barbara Stanwyck on the set of Ball of Fire.

Discussion questions:
  1. What did you think of the pairing of Cooper and Stanwyck?
  2. Billy Wilder said this was a modern version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Do you agree with that comparison?
  3. Did you have a favorite professor/character actor?
  4. What do you think changed Sugarpuss’s opinion of Bertram? Do they have a chance at happiness?
  5. Did this film remind you of any other movies you have seen?
  6. Do you think this fits the category of screwball comedy?

1941 was a great year for both Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. 

Stanwyck films released in 1941:
The Lady Eve, directed by Preston Sturges
Meet John Doe, directed by Frank Capra
You Belong to Me, directed by Wesley Ruggles
Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks**

Four films, two costars. Henry Fonda starred with Stany in The Lady Eve and You Belong to Me.

Cooper films released in 1941:
Meet John Doe, directed by Frank Capra
Sergeant York, directed by Howard Hawks*
Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks

**Stanwyck was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress; she lost to Joan Fontaine (Suspicion).
*Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor. 

Henry Fonda, Preston Sturges, and Barbara (Stany) Stanwyck on 
the set of The Lady Eve


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