Billy Wilder had been in Hollywood for almost a decade, and he had had enough. Although he’d scribed a steady string of successful movies, often with writing partner Charles Brackett, directors still found it all too easy to tamper with his screenplays. His major nemesis in that regard was Mitchell Leisen, for whom he wrote three films between 1939 and 1941, as their relationship frayed ever further. Whilst making the last of these, Hold Back the Dawn, Leisen sided with star Charles Boyer over his refusal to perform a Wilder-Brackett scripted scene in which he talked to a cockroach. Wilder spoke of how irked he was by the incident for years after, and it was during that movie’s troubled production that he made a big decision: If he was going to continue writing screenplays, he needed to be in the director’s chair.
He’d get the chance the following year with The Major and The Minor, but he had one last project on his docket first: Ball of Fire, which he would co-write with Brackett and Thomas Monroe, and would be directed by Howard Hawks. Wilder’s bad experiences with some directors had not poisoned the well for him completely, and he found it easy to work with Hawks. With the next stage of his career in mind, Wilder even arranged a deal that let him shadow the director on set.
Ball of Fire follows Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), one of eight professors cohabiting while they collaborate on an encyclopedia. Bertram’s specialty is slang, but after conversing with a garbage collector one day, he realizes his knowledge is hopelessly out of date, and decides to conduct some on-the-ground research. It’s during a field expedition that he meets nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a veritable jargon repository. Unbeknownst to Bertram, Sugarpuss is also a gangster’s moll in dire need of a hide-out, so when she turns up at the professors’ house offering herself as a live-in research assistant, her motives are not exactly pure. Nevertheless, soon he has fallen under her streetwise spell, and it doesn’t take long for her to reciprocate his feelings—much to the displeasure of her dangerous boyfriend…
Bertram’s seven colleagues are just as enchanted with Sugarpuss as Bertram, and indeed a large part of Ball of Fire’s humor comes from the juxtaposition of the six foot three, forty-year-old Gary Cooper trooping around with seven men who appear a foot shorter and at least 20 years older. (The reality isn’t quite so drastic—Richard Haydn, who plays Professor Oddly, was actually Cooper’s junior.) The other professors form a cuddly backing group to the romance between Bertram and Sugarpuss: Thrilled by the romance, and excited to be close to such a dazzling dame.
Stanwyck spent 40 years dazzling in her Hollywood movies, but she was rarely as radiant as in her opening scenes in Ball of Fire, wearing a ludicrously sparkly dress and captivating the nightclub audience with her performance of “Drum Boogie.” Her filmic 1941 had largely involved running rings around sweetly naive men, first in The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda, then in Meet John Doe with Cooper. Ball of Fire is the pinnacle of that unofficial trilogy. Stanwyck and Cooper are both playing comfortably into their established personas—she earthy and knowing; he taciturn and bashful—and there’s a relaxed pleasure in watching these two pros do their thing, bathed in their iridescent movie legend glow. That pleasure is enhanced by the murderers’ row of supporting talent that fills out the rest of the story, headlined by a pre-leading man Dana Andrews as Sugarpuss’s gangster boyfriend, Dan Duryea as one of his goons, and Elisha Cook Jr. as a waiter.
The screenplay is the real star of the show, however. Ball of Fire is a film bewitched with offbeat linguistic lyricality, and you can hear it everywhere from the ridiculous character names (Sugarpuss O’Shea, Joe Lilac, Duke Pastrami) to the slang that captivates Bertram (during one of his research sessions, we see various synonyms for “meatball” on a chalkboard behind him: “drool,” “droop,” “sadapple”) to the language that draws Bertram to Sugarpuss in the first place. After his initial meeting with her, the other professors ask what she looked like: “Was she blonde or brunette?” Bertram genuinely cannot recall; he was too busy taking notes on her fascinating verbiage. A rare case of love at first listen. The little speech that Sugarpuss delivers when she realizes she loves him too is fittingly perfect:
“Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!”
With Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment still years in the future as of 1941, Wilder’s very best work was long ahead of him. And yet knowing where it falls in his filmography makes Ball of Fire feel like a celebratory swan song; a victory lap in the field that had bought him such success before the more diffuse job of directing would split his attention and yield even higher creative rewards. Even as he racked up plaudits for helming a host of all-time classics, Wilder always considered the screenplay paramount in moviemaking; in a 1960 New York Times profile, he opined, “Eighty per cent of a picture is in the writing, the other 20 per cent is in execution.” and a 1996 Paris Review interview notes his belief that, “much of a film’s direction ideally should take place in the writing.”
While it’s far from the most ingeniously plotted of Wilder’s works, and none of the individual lines ever reached the iconic status of “Nobody’s perfect!” or “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small!”, thanks to the manifold delights of the wonderful cast and his deliciously loquacious dialogue, 80 years after its initial release, Ball of Fire’s sparkle remains resolutely undimmed.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI Podcast Review and Paste.