Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire is a delightful romantic comedy in the "opposites attract" tradition, throwing together the stuffy, intellectual professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and the smart-mouthed burlesque girl and gangster's moll Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). Potts is part of a group of eight professors putting together an encyclopedia, but the project stalls when they reach the entry for "slang" and Potts realizes that using out-of-date reference books just doesn't cut it: he needs first-hand knowledge of "the living language." To this end, he enlists Sugarpuss to give him some linguistic tutelage after witnessing her va-va-voom nightclub act. Sugarpuss agrees for her own reasons: her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is under pressure from the cops and needs Sugarpuss to go into hiding because she could be forced to testify against him. The professors' research institute is naturally the last place anyone would look for her, and so Sugarpuss settles in, shaking things up with her vivacious manner and colorful language.

Director Howard Hawks makes interesting use of his two stars, casting them not exactly against type, but in notable variations on their types. Certainly, Cooper is not the most obvious choice for a stuffy intellectual with no knowledge of worldly matters, but his taciturn, stone-faced chilliness turns out to be perfectly suited to a man who suppresses any hint of emotional excitement in himself. It's a matter of context: when Cooper's playing a Western hero, his stoicism is seen as courage and determination, but here he employs essentially the same demeanor, the same basic set of expressions and body language, to indicate his dopey, nerdy cluelessness. It's a clever bit of counter-intuitive casting. Likewise, Stanwyck's world-wise, tough gangland babe is familiar territory for her, but with a softer, cheerier edge to it. She isn't a femme fatale or a hard frontier woman here, though there are touches of both in her character. She's too fun-loving, too exuberant and lively, for the darker corners of her personality to define her completely. In one scene, she teaches the professors how to dance, leading them in a conga line, bumping her hips and swaying her fists in time with the music, a wide and toothy smile spread appealingly across her face.

Stanwyck's introduction is one of the film's finest scenes, demonstrating Hawks' intuitive grasp of her strengths. When Potts first arrives at the nightclub to see Sugarpuss perform, she comes on singing and dancing as part of a loose jazz number. Stanwyck looks out of her element here, playing the leggy chorus girl in a sequined, barely-there outfit; she's not cut out for this kind of glamour. Her sexiness is too casual, too intimate, to come across on stage, and she only winds up looking uncomfortable, unsure of what to do with her hands or how to move. She looks at her most relaxed during the instrumental break, when she lounges sedately on the stage, her legs uncrossed and sticking defiantly out of her flimsy little dress, leaning her head back and smiling while she listens to the band play. It's obvious that Hawks recognizes that intimacy and relaxation bring out the best in his star, and the next scene is a typical Hawks moment that requires a huge crowd to gather around Stanwyck and listen to the music. She calls everyone in around a single table, where her drummer casts aside his sticks and picks up a pair of matches instead. Together, they deliver a hushed performance, the scrape and tick of the matches keeping the rhythm while Stanwyck leads the crowd in whispered chants of the chorus, "drum boogie." Hawks loves these kinds of communal music scenes, which are more often clustered around a piano or a guitar in his films, though a matchbox suffices just as well. The image switches back and forth throughout the scene between a Hawksian crowded frame with the whole audience peering in at the performance from behind, and a shot of the black, polished table, with the matchsticks tapping out their rhythm while Stanwyck's smiling face is reflected, blurred, in the table's surface.

This brief scene is the film's most obvious visual touch from cinematographer Gregg Toland, who nevertheless peppers the film with moments of grace and elegance to offset its often farcical tone. Toland's moody, shadow-strewn images — like a lushly romantic kiss between the leads, shown only with black profiles in a darkened room — crop up periodically and do a lot of heavy lifting for the love story, which is otherwise a bit briskly developed amidst all the humor. Visually, though, Hawks' imprint comes through much more clearly, perhaps because he's blessed with a central cast of ten characters all living in the same house. Hawks' love of crowded compositions is especially apparent in the antics of the seven professors besides Cooper, who all warm up to Sugarpuss much more quickly than he does.

There's a shot of the old men all leaning eagerly over a railing to look down at the girl's arrival, their heads poking over the top like a row of wrinkled cabbages, that perfectly captures the boyish spirit of these old bachelors. The film's obvious starting point is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a reference that comes up explicitly just once in the dialogue, but which is tipped off much earlier, in the opening scene of the old professors marching in tight rows of two through a park. They might as well be humming, "heigh ho, heigh ho..." Hawks gets a lot of comic mileage out of this group, clustering their expressive faces around Stanwyck and Cooper and giving them plenty of choice lines. Fittingly for a bunch of dwarfs, they're like children in old men's bodies, turning into unruly schoolboys once Sugarpuss arrives on the scene.

This is a fun, vibrant film that unites the talents of Hawks, Toland, and even Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the amusing, pun-laden script, which comes up with an at times dizzying array of post-Code workarounds for joking about sex without ever really talking about it directly. The film is breezily paced, and shifts nimbly between silly comedy, romance, and even a violent gangster yarn without ever seeming schizophrenic. It handles all these modes with a light touch and a game cast who are just consistently fun to watch.


Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Great stuff, as usual. I haven't seen this, but I loved the description of how Cooper's standard stoicism provides a new translation given the context. Well done.

Bob Turnbull said...

Stanwyck positively glows in this film at times. You're right Ed about the nightclub scene - she doesn't quite pull off the big band fronting singer - but otherwise she's top form all the way. And you can tell she just relishes that dialogue.

Terrific film all the way around.

nem baj said...

Thanks for the remarkable points about the cinematography and Barbara Stanwyck ! And now, just my two smackaroos (I mean, my two bangers, fishes, rugs...)

'Ball of fire' is an example of the classic Hawks parallelogram, a gender structure which involves a woman, a man who has to prove his masculinity, a masculinity poster (enemy of the former), and a 'sexless' ally of the first man (here, there are seven allies). Basically, this is the same configuration as in, for instance, 'Rio Bravo' or even 'Bringing up Baby'. Joe Lilac is the masculinity poster : violent, conceited, a man of action in many ways. The seven professors are the sexless allies of Bertram Potts, the bookworm who has to prove he is a man (in the Hawksian sense of the word) in order to seduce the woman.

Now, since this is Hawks, there is a lot of gender ambiguity going on... At the beginning, Bertram Potts seem to be on the feminine side of the tracks, while Sugarpuss O'Shea has the male part : this will be inverted through the movie, while Joe Lilac becomes more and more effeminate, as the cowardice of his refined sadistic persona is revealed. And bit by bit, the professors will go from shy to bold, from sexless to not-entirely-sexual-but-they-have-memories...

Moreover, the best way for Bertram Potts to prove he is a man appears not to be by means of gratuitous violence, but instead by being good at, and proud of, what he does - thus proving the vanity of the masculinity poster exercise, which is a trademark of the auteur. 'Ball of Fire' may be indeed a comedy in the 'opposites attract' tradition... but it is also definitely a film by Howard Hawks.

Ed Howard said...

Great comment, nem baj. I love the way you look at this film through the lens of Hawks' common narrative and thematic structures. I've often seen this referred to as a less Hawksian film than some of his others, but I very much agree with you that many of the director's trademark concerns and visual ideas are in evidence here.