Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; based on From A to Z by Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder
Cinematographer: Gregg Toland
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
by Jon Cvack
This was one of Billy Wilder’s last films he wrote before he entered into one of the finest directing careers in the history of cinema. The film contains all his trademarks, and yet even though directed by Howard Hawks, just doesn’t have the same energy found in his directed work. The story is a hyper sexualized rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in this case Snow White is a lounge singer Katharine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) who’s involved with a local mob boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). The Seven Dwarves being a team of academics who’re working on an encyclopedia series financed by some Wall Street tycoon who all live in a modest sized home, all bachelors with no interest beyond their research.
Being on the letter “s”, one of the professors Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) dives into the world of slang, which when their financier discovers what some of the phrases mean, decides to end the project and terminate the entire team. Undeterred, Bertram heads to a nightclub where he sees Katharine perform. Later, when Katherine’s approached by some police officers who want information on her boyfriend and she’s unwilling to cooperate, she approaches Bertram for protection who takes her back home to the mansion, offering to exchange her knowledge of slang in order for room and board. Bertram agrees and brings her back and immediately all of his colleagues are washed with lust and desire.
I’m not sure if it’s that I’m getting older and appreciating the creative pre-code style, but this scene has one of the hottest moments I recall from the period. After the rest of the professors allegedly leave, Bertram and Katherine are left alone in the study, where in the background we see the other professors easing in from doorways, eavesdropping on the conversation. Bertram stands above and Katherine looks up from the sofa, still wearing her tight sparkling dress; the ruffled cut falling right above her upper thighs. “Let’s get a couple of drinks, start the fire, and you can start working on me right away,” Katherine says, “I’m planning to work on it all night.” Bertram fails to pick up on the suggestion. When Katherine says she’s going to sleep over, she then removes her stockings, holds up her leg and asks him to feel her foot, asking Bertram what he feels. “It’s cold,” he says, “It is, cold and wet”, she says before trying to bring him in closer to look down her throat; the entire process arousing all of the other men to the point where they can’t resist intruding; There is a heavy suggestion of a gang bang at this moment. Not that it’d actually happen, either Katharine wouldn’t do it and the professors couldn’t go through with it, but the suggestion is palpable as they circle around her, enraptured, following her around. They agree to let her stay and while Bertram tries to plead his side once more to avoid having her over, losing when Katherine makes a reference to Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, comparing herself to that of the apple that would fall upon Bertram, then clicking her tongue. Katharine knows she can seduce any of the men, and even finds Bertram worth pursuing. She’s also aware of how to use her body to get almost anything she wants from men.
From there, the flirtations continue until Bertram and Katharine are left alone in the room where there’s a hot first kiss segment, where again without a mention of sex, you can feel exactly where the story went after the scene ended. Bertram proposes (in classic era 48 hour speed) and Katharine keeps helping with the slang. She wins the affections of the other professors, realizing that the life of study is a nice change up from underground crime and nightclubs.
Joe tracks her down and soon she’s kidnapped and as though straight from a 90s rom-com, the professors and Bertram all travel across town in order to save her. When Joe’s henchmen arrive with machine guns, she bargains for the professors’ lives in exchange for marrying Joe and leaving Bertram forever.
The last third is as generic as it gets in the genre. The girl goes back to her boyfriend until she has a change of heart and the pair live happily ever after. Beyond Stanwyck’s oozing sexuality is combining her with someone like Gary Cooper, often seen as a paragon of virtue; who while never seeming to have purely lustful thinking, at the very least is conflating his desire for love; providing the one time when a 24 hour engagement actually made sense in Bertram wanting to get down to business as soon as possible. Add the search for the latest slang, in which Wilder and Hawks went to actual drug stores and pubs to get authentic phrases, and any time the movie needs a break from the romance we’re often learning new slang terms from the period.
Some regard the film as the final nail in the coffin for the classic slapstick romantic comedy era. I don’t know much of what came out after, but having just watched What's Up, Doc? (1972) and currently reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) and how Bogdanovich was an egomaniac who regarded himself as great as Orson Welles and that Ryan O’Neal was dressed up as a dork to prevent him from getting involved with Cybil Shepherd, but overall you realize that even a master cinephile couldn’t capture what the original slapstick comedies had. Given how overt sex can now be, viewers can’t appreciate the power of suggestion as anything more than a cheesy or hackneyed way to talk around sex. It’s so often done with a wink of an eye to the audience. Ball of Fire took the power of suggestion to the absolute limits, and I’m left wondering, for people who had nothing more than some dirty magazines or pictures, how it must have felt to have movie stars talk like this. The reason the films can’t be replicated is because they’re part of a moment in time, when physical comedy was a way to camouflage sex. They were films that progressed things forward, and with almost 90 years having passed, it’s no surprise that to try and revisit the movies feels antiquated. Someone might be able to do it, but it has to go way beyond just the story. It has to capture the tone.
BELOW: Pre-code dialogue
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