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Ball of Fire

Screening on Film
Directed by Howard Hawks.
With Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Homolka.
US, 1942, 35mm, black & white, 111 min.
Print source: Park Circus

Three years after Bringing Up Baby, Hawks returned to the comic potential of the intellectual hermit, an archetype within which the prevailing rationality of the director’s male characters is exaggerated to an absurd degree. Ball of Fire finds Gary Cooper in unexpected territory as Bertram Potts, a bookish dope toiling away with a merry band of old professors on an encyclopedia to end all encyclopedias. Confronted with the challenge of a chapter on modern slang, Potts is forced to venture out into a social world of which he knows little. There, in one of Hawks’ greatest scenes of musical performance, he meets nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a gangster’s moll who also happens to need a temporary hideout from the law. The delightful events that follow constitute a playful gloss on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with Sugarpuss confidently inserting herself into a cloistered academic retreat by offering her erudite but clueless students a multi-course education in worldly matters. Packed with crowded compositions juxtaposing Stanwyck’s carefree self-possession with the stiff inquisitiveness of the professors, Ball of Fire is a visually engaging piece of filmmaking, though its innuendo-laden screenplay, written partially by Billy Wilder, is the real reward.

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