Ball of Fire (1941, Howard Hawks)

Ball of Fire is a rare delight. It’s got an enormous cast of scene-stealers who all work in unison, thanks to Hawks’s direction but also Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s screenplay being so well-balanced.

For most of the picture. The third act has two choices, and it chooses poorly but still successfully; I’ll get to it later. First the rundown.

Fire is the story of eight encyclopedia authors who have been living in seclusion for nine years (in New York City). They’ve got three more years (at least) on the encyclopedia, but they’ve found their rhythm. Right up until garbage man Allen Jenkins lets himself into their house—they’re right off Central Park on 83rd, with a ginormous work area on the first floor and their living quarters on the second floor; Jenkins has some questions about a trivia sweepstakes and figured, based on the books he’s seen through the windows, they’d have answers.

However, Jenkins’s slang makes English content expert Gary Cooper realize he’s using twenty-year-old books and nine-years removed personal experience. If he doesn’t go out into the world and listen to some slang, the encyclopedia’s entry will be at best dated, at worst incorrect.

Cooper’s the youngest of the eight authors. The rest are mostly familiar character actors of a certain age: (in alphabetical order) Richard Haydn, Oskar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey, Tully Marshall, Aubrey Mather, S.Z. Sakall, and Henry Travers. All of them are splendid; Homolka and Haydn are probably the best. They’re also the two with the most to do, though Travers gets a bit. Or his smaller part just stands out more because it’s Clarence. Mather, Kinskey, and Marshall probably get the least to do, meaning they deliver punchlines. Haydn gets the most to do because he’s the only one of the men who’s ever been married. They’re all bachelors, all utterly perplexed to do around the ladies, including Cooper, who we discover Doogie Howsered instead of chasing girls.

However, the older men do know Cooper’s at least potentially a hit with the ladies; he’s in charge of flirting with their reluctant benefactor, Mary Field, whose dead father had the encyclopedia project in his will. Field’s only got a little to do, but like everyone else, she’s great. Charles Lane plays her attorney because Ball’s a who’s who of recognizable Classic Hollywood supporting players.

Anyway.

On his expedition to find the newest slang, Cooper finds his way into a nightclub, where Barbara Stanwyck is performing. He finds her vocabulary fascinating and even more enthralling than revealing outfits. Turns out Stanwyck’s a gangster’s moll; in this case, the gangster’s Dana Andrews, who probably gives the film’s most energetic performance. Andrews can’t quite steal the scenes, not opposite such strong actors, but he makes sure to stand out. He’s a hoot, especially once he starts mixing charm with menace.

The D.A. has got the goods on Andrews, but only if Stanwyck can give evidence against him. The case they’ve got Andrews dead to rights on is slightly absurdist, with various sight gags and one-liners, and no one ever just gets the idea to have Stanwyck lie. Though maybe they’ve got a witness placing her somewhere. It’s a very thoughtful, intentionally convoluted setup, with Brackett and Wilder enjoying the excuse to spin great expository yarns.

Andrews’s solution is to have Stanwyck temporarily go on the lamb, with a fantastic Dan Duryea as her bodyguard. Ralph Peters is also there to help, but the movie knows to give Duryea more material. He’s so good.

Luckily, Cooper’s arranging a slang symposium and gives Stanwyck an invite; she figures he won’t mind if she shows up early and needs to crash there for the night. While it turns out Cooper does mind, his seven roommates are ecstatic at the idea of Stanwyck bunking with them for the evening.

An evening turns into a few days, during which Stanwyck teaches the old boys the latest dances while helping Cooper pick up—and study—the latest lingo. Stanwyck’s presence annoys housekeeper Kathleen Howard to no end, and when Howard finally puts her foot down, Stanwyck’s got to take drastic measures. In doing so, she discovers Cooper’s got a crush on her and, unlike his colleagues, still wants to do something about it. So Stanwyck makes it work in her favor while starting to get dreamy-eyed when looking at Cooper.

While Cooper’s got some excellent comedy moments in Ball and he’s earnest in his romantic scenes, he’s still playing an elevated rube. Sure, his character’s in charge of supervising the project, but he’s only the protagonist of the bunch because he’s Gary Cooper. Stanwyck, however, gets to take this trope-ready part and turn it into something incredible. The romance subplot comes from her performance; otherwise, it’s just a cruel joke at Cooper’s expense. The nasty subterfuge thing also never works too much against her character being sympathetic because Stanwyck’s tortured with regret about the plan.

Things perturb to get all the parties together for the finish; only comedic happenstance throws things off course so the second act can end where you’d think they’d be ending the third.

Now for that third act.

It’s longer than it needs to be, especially since they never get the film entirely back on track—they spent too much time at the station to keep the unrelated metaphor going (there’s a lot of car and truck humor, actually). The actual pacing issues aside, the material’s all well-written because it’s Brackett and Wilder, and the cast is, as usual, delightful; it just isn’t where the film had been headed. It’s hectic, with lots of great moments for the actors, but it’s reductive.

The filmmakers seem to know it too. Whenever the distraction starts dragging, one of the cast will have some great moment and reset the timer. The movie’s frittering and knows it. Once they’ve gotten it all together (again), adding four more characters to the mix (at least sixteen characters in play), the ending’s strong and fun. It can’t entirely make up for the lost time but knowingly wasted it well.

Ball of Fire’s mostly a phenomenal comedy. Stanwyck’s great, Cooper’s real good, Andrews, Duryea, Homolka, they’re all real good. Haydn gets a particularly devastating scene all to himself. The only character who doesn’t get a good arc is Howard as the justifiably judgey housekeeper, which hurts the performance.

In addition to all the character actors in major supporting roles, there’s also a young Elisha Cook. It’s just packed with great performances, big and small.

Like I said before, a rare delight.