Screwball comedies from yesteryear employed fast and witty dialogue, farcical situations, physical humor, and tempted audiences by dancing around issues of sex and marriage. Nowadays screwball comedy doesn’t really exist, at least not in the pure format found during the Golden Age of Cinema—there’s no need to avoid discussing sex today, as there’s no Hays Code to prevent films from doing so. Indeed, when a critic from L.A. Weekly calls The Ex
a “great modern screwball comedy,” we’ve lost touch with what made this subgenre grand in the first place.
Luckily, Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire
, starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in (eventually) romantic lead roles, was recently released on DVD—just in time to save us from pathetic attempts at modern screwball (the modern version of which doesn’t have the same appeal as say, neo-noir). Hawks’ picture outlines characteristics of this genre-within-a-genre so perfectly, you’ll be scratching your head as to why IMDB.com says How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days
fits screwball specifications…
Following a group of eight professors working on a massive encyclopedia project, the film centers on Bertram Potts (Cooper), a language and grammar specialist. Potts realizes his pages on slang are outdated and sets out into the city to gather research on colloquial speech. Filling his notepad with phrases like “yum yum” and “shove in your clutch”, Potts hands out his card to a select few he discovers have a mastery of sharp-tongued jargon. He eventually finds himself in a night club where singer ‘Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Stanwyck) sings a tune called “Drum Boogie” that gets Potts’ scholarly fires burning (O’Shea isn’t bad either).
As girlfriend to crime lord Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), O’Shea is sought after by authorities for subpoena to testify against her ganster boyfriend. Needing a place to hide, she settles in with Potts and his seven colleagues. (The professors were reportedly based on Walt Disney’s seven dwarves, which is played to great effect, given their casting. What’s more, the entire film could be a spoof of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
with Stanwyck as a hyper-sexualized Snow White and Cooper as the Prince.) Their stubborn caretaker Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard) doesn’t approve, but O’Shea insists on staying—you know, to help the scientific process. When Potts’ research concludes, O’Shea tells him that she loves him, only so she may remain hidden. Except, faking love with Potts makes her realize that perhaps she does love him. In the end, she must decide between her loyalty to Lilac and the tender innocence of Potts.
Just before shooting Ball of Fire
, Gary Cooper had received an Oscar for playing the title role in Hawks’ Sergeant York
, wherein he gave a relatively one-note character depth and humanity. He does the same for Professor Potts. In a likewise socially inept, stiff-as-a-board character (only this time the character is a genius), Cooper gives an endearing, honest portrayal—just the role Cooper was best known for. Potts' childlike singularity makes certain comedic scenes are almost funnier than they should be. A long, drawn-out discussion of the word “corny” and its many meanings as well as Potts’ fascination with the film’s never-ending supply of 1940’s slang are just a couple of the many highlighted moments in Cooper's performance.
Cooper’s costar Barbara Stanwyck was more than familiar with screwball comedy, especially in roles where her lavish sexuality is put to comic use. Just as in Preston Sturges’ brilliant The Lady Eve
, possibly the greatest of all screwball comedies, released a year earlier, Stanwyck plays a vixen whose man fears her sexual presence. In both, the stiff, stuffy male personality is contrasted with Stanwyck’s relaxed and confident femininity. This is, of course, used hilariously to her advantage. Her female strength brought her some of the most memorable screen performances by an actress, including those in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity
and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns
. Unfortunately for her costar Kathleen Howard, Stanwyck’s strength, in the just-plain physical sense, was too much. During a scene in Ball of Fire
where Sugarpuss socks Miss Bragg, Stanwyck forgot to pull her punch, thus leaving Howard with a fractured jaw.
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the screenplay is filled with subtle innuendo typical of Wilder, who at that point had been primarily a writer for Hollywood classics such as Ernst Lubitsch's wonderful Ninotchka
. Here, Wilder’s fast-talking, suggestion-filled script perfectly matches Hawks’ comedic style and affinity for strong female characters. Wilder would go on to write and direct his own features of wide-ranged subject matter and genres, including Sunset Blvd.
, Ace in the Hole
, and the aforementioned film noir Double Indemnity
, becoming one of the most celebrated directors in film history.
Howard Hawks, next to Preston Sturges, may have contributed the most to screwball comedy. Not only with Ball of Fire
, but Hawks also directed such classics of the genre as His Girl Friday
, Bringing Up Baby
, The Philadelphia Story
, and Twentieth Century
. Like Wilder, Hawks was not pegged to a specific type of film. Rather, he was one of the most versatile filmmakers from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Westerns, comedy, sci-fi, war, romance, action—Hawks did it all, and with an ineffaceable talent.
Ball of Fire
is an unendingly fun film, filled with peak talent all around. It’s a benchmark of screwball comedy from when that genre was in its prime—and one of my personal favorites. It is easy, light entertainment as only Hollywood’s Golden Age could bring. Rarely did talent such as Hawks, Wilder, Stanwyck, and Cooper assemble for a film like this, but when it happened, the product is undeniably magical.