Review: Howard Hawks’ “Ball of Fire,” Starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck

Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and all the crazy professors (Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Aubrey Mather) in "Ball of Fire"

In 1936, writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were paired together at Paramount to write a screenplay for a new film to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch. That film, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, launched a writing partnership that led to iconic films like The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard. These two were also directed by Wilder, who decided he had to start directing to protect their work after their screenplay for Hold Back the Dawn was ruined in 1941. Before making his directorial debut with The Major and the Minor in 1942, the duo had one last screenplay to finish, a Gary Cooper vehicle to be directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

Somewhat of a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Ball of Fire centers on linguist Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), one of eight professors who have been holed up for years in a New York townhouse working away on their own encyclopedia. When Potts realizes his research on American slang is completely out of date, he ventures out into the world to study people on the street. In a club, he meets the perfect subject—fast-talking dancer and girlfriend of a mobster, Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). When she comes back to the townhouse to help with his research, everything is thrown into chaos, and some wildly entertaining screwball fun ensues.

Wilder observed the filming to prepare to direct his first film, though he told Cameron Crowe in the interview book Conversations with Wilder that he didn’t learn much from Hawks, a veteran director. “I just listened how to say ‘Action,’ how to say ‘Cut,’ how to say ‘Print number seven.’”1 Also working on the film was cinematographer Gregg Toland, who had recently worked for Goldwyn on The Little Foxes. Perhaps most valuable to Wilder was meeting the cast members, particularly Stanwyck. She and Wilder would collaborate on arguably the most popular film either of them ever made: Double Indemnity.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in "Ball of Fire"
Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire”

It would be hard not to be impressed by Stanwyck, the titular ball of fire. She rips through the film with the same high energy, and amusement at everything around her, that she brought the same year to The Lady Eve, or her other film with Gary Cooper, Meet John Doe. Casting western star Cooper as a professor is somewhat laughable, but he brings a delightful awkwardness to his performance that makes it work.

The real star of the film, however, is the group of professors—one can almost consider them to be one collective character, as they move through scenes together in a mass. It’s also a joy to see this eclectic group of elderly character actors (Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Aubrey Mather) let loose and be so goofy.

Wilder wasn’t a fan of how it turned out: “It was not a very good picture. I did not like it.”2 The film is certainly a lot sillier than his later comedies, like The Apartment or Sabrina, which featured much stronger romances, but Ball of Fire is still a riotous blast of energy that remains some of Wilder and Brackett’s very best work.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on Ball of Fire

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Crowe, Cameron, Conversations with Wilder (New York: Knopf, 1999), p. 193.