Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Aubrey Mather, Allen Jenkins, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Ralph Peters, Kathleen Howard, Mary Field
Written by: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, based on a story by Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 112
Date: 12/02/1941

Ball of Fire (1941)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This Howard Hawks comedy has never enjoyed the reputation of Hawks' classics Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940), perhaps because it's longer and slower. But it's certainly no less funny or entertaining. Operating from a punchy, literate script by Billy Wilder (only a year away from his own directorial debut) and Charles Brackett, Ball of Fire spins off from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with its seven bachelor professors, each working on a section of a new encyclopedia. Linguist Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) realizes that his study of slang is outdated and goes out on the town to pick up new words and phrases. He meets showgirl 'Sugarpuss' O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) and invites her back to their bachelor pad for further study. Since mobsters are after her, she figures it'll be a swell hiding place. Sugarpuss keeps revamping her excuses to stay put while the stiff Potts becomes increasingly flustered by her flirting (and her incredible legs). The pace may be a bit slower, but the film is very well packed with goodies. Stanwyck chews up her dialogue like candy, and a range of wonderful old character actors, including Henry Travers, from It's a Wonderful Life, play the remaining professors. Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea co-star as the gangsters. Legendary drummer Gene Krupa even has a musical number ("Drum Boogie") with Stanwyck. If that's not enough, the master cinematographer Gregg Toland -- who worked on Citizen Kane the same year -- provides the ravishing, deep-focused, black-and-white cinematography, emphasizing the cavernlike qualities of the men's library/workroom. Cooper also worked with Hawks on Sergeant York, which garnered a lot more attention at the time, but doesn't hold up nearly as well as this delightful treasure. Ball of Fire was nominated for four Oscars (including Stanwyck as Best Actress and Wilder for Best Story).

DVD Details: Ball of Fire was issued on an early DVD that quickly went out of print, so MGM's new 2007 re-issue is most welcome, even if it doesn't have any extras.

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