Ball of Fire

USA 1941, 112 mins
Director: Howard Hawks

Snow White trades purity for one-liners and innuendo in this madcap comedic update. While hiding from the police, Sugarpuss O’Shea educates a group of stuffy professors on the ways of the world while assisting on their encyclopaedia of slang. Barbara Stanwyck’s vibrancy lights up the screen as she runs rings around her co-stars, investing warmth and humour in every knowing glance.

Ball of Fire roots its comic impetus more firmly in the richer, older, more affectionate territory of Manhattan folklore. The story, a tightly-knit amalgam of toughness, crackle and exclusively American sentimentality, tells of the impact of a boogie-woogie singer (Barbara Stanwyck) and her gangster lover on eight learned professors – seven likeable character actors and Gary Cooper – engaged in compiling an encyclopaedia. Having dealt with Saltpetre and Sex, they break their record of nine years’ cloistered research by undertaking a first-hand investigation into Slang. The contrast between a confident, cynical, violent underworld and the deferential society of the common-room was never new; but the execution here is sparkling. Inspired by what must have seemed a piquant variation on his theme of the all-male community, Hawks directs with a faultless sense of timing and surprise. The robust, picturesque script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder assimilates a number of intramural jokes into the plot fabric, notably the roaring machine-gun intervention in Stanwyck’s unwilling wedding to her gangster, identical to a shoot-up scene in Scarface and here given an extra twist by having the finger of the meekest of the professors on the trigger. The sets, including the Magnificent Ambersons-type house where the professors work, are impeccably detailed; the groupings beautifully composed, lit, and shot in depth by Gregg Toland; indeed the whole thing has all the density necessary to carry its superstructure of fantasy.
Peter John Dyer, Sight and Sound, Summer 1962

How Joe Lilac is outwitted by the academic team makes a magnificent climax to a film which is amusing for two hours on end. The plot is ordinary but not the direction, the dialogue or the acting, all of which are in the first rank. The professors are a joy and Gary Cooper makes Potts as attractive as he is inarticulate, while Barbara Stanwyck scintillates as Sugarpuss. The situations are farcical but the result is great comedy.
Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1942

Directed by: Howard Hawks
©: Samuel Goldwyn
Presented by: Samuel Goldwyn
Released through: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Produced by: Samuel Goldwyn
Assistant Director: William Tummel
Screen Play by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
From an original story by: Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe
Photography: Gregg Toland
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Associate Art Director: McClure Capps
Set Decorations: Howard Bristol
Miss Barbara Stanwyck’s Costumes: Edith Head
Music: Alfred Newman
Sound Technician: Frank Maher
Sound System: Western Electric Mirrophonic

Gary Cooper (Professor Bertram Potts)
Barbara Stanwyck (Sugarpuss O’Shea)
Oscar Homolka (Professor Gurkakoff)
Dana Andrews (Joe Lilac)
Dan Duryea (Duke Pastrami)
Henry Travers (Professor Jerome)
S.Z. Sakall (Profesor Magenbruch)
Tully Marshall (Professor Robinson)
Leonid Kinskey (Professor Quintana)
Richard Haydn (Professor Oddly)
Aubrey Mather (Professor Peagram)
Allen Jenkins (garbage man)
Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (themselves)
Ralph Peters (Asthma Anderson)
Kathleen Howard (Miss Bragg)
Mary Field (Miss Totten)
Charles Lane (Larsen)
Charles Arnt (McNeary)
Elisha Cook Jr (waiter)
Alan Rhein (‘Horseface’)
Eddie Foster (pinstripe)
Aldrich Bowker (justice of the peace)
Addison Richards (district attorney)
Pat West (bum)
Kenneth Howell (college boy)
Tommy Ryan (newsboy)
Tim Ryan (motor cop)
Will Lee (‘Benny, the Creep’)

Otto Hoffman (stage doorman)
Ed Mundy (spieler)
Geraldine Fissette (hula dancer)
June Horne, Ethelreda Leopold (nursemaids in park)
Walter Shumway, George Barton (garbagemen)
Merrilee Lannon, Doria Caron (girls in subway)
Helen Seamon, Catherine Henderson (college girls)
Jack Perry (fighting bum)
Lorraine Miller (girl in cafe)
Mildred Morris (chorus girl)
Francis Sayles (taxi driver)
Gerald Pierce (delivery boy)
Chet De Vito (toll keeper)
Pat Flaherty, George Sherwood (deputies)
Del Lawrence (Irish gardener)
Eddy Chandler, Lee Phelps, Kenneth Christy,Dick Rush, Oscar Chalkee Williams (cops)
Johnnie Morris (clerk for justice of peace)
Edward Clark (motor court proprietor)

USA 1941©
112 mins

A BFI National Archive print

Razor Sharp: The Hawksian Woman Revisited
Thu 1 Jun 18:15
Twentieth Century Thu 1 Jun 20:40; Fri 16 Jun 18:30; Thu 22 Jun 21:00
Barbary Coast
Fri 2 Jun 18:20; Thu 15 Jun 20:40
Bringing Up Baby
Sat 3 Jun 12:00; Mon 19 Jun 20:40; Fri 23 Jun 18:20
Only Angels Have Wings
Sat 3 Jun 15:45; Thu 15 Jun 14:30; Tue 27 Jun 17:50
Ball of Fire
Sat 3 Jun 17:55; Tue 20 Jun 20:30
To Have and Have Not
Sun 4 Jun 19:00; Fri 23 Jun 20:40
I Was a Male War Bride (aka You Can’t Sleep Here)
Wed 7 Jun 20:35; Sun 25 Jun 18:30
Rio Bravo
Mon 12 Jun 17:50; Sun 18 Jun 14:30; Fri 30 Jun 20:20
His Girl Friday
Wed 14 Jun 20:50; Sat 17 Jun 13:30; Thu 29 Jun 18:20 (+ intro by Catherine Wheatley, King’s College London)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Thu 15 Jun 18:15: Thu 29 Jun 21:00
The Big Sleep
Wed 21 Jun 18:25; Wed 28 Jun 20:45
The Thing from Another World
Sat 24 Jun 18:30; Fri 30 Jun 18:15
Philosophical Screens: The Philosophy of Marriage: His Girl Friday
Thu 29 Jun 20:15 BFI Reuben Library

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