Howard Hawks liked to hide behind the role of unpretentious genre craftsman, but he was truly classic Hollywood’s closet intellectual, perpetually fascinated by the clash between mind and body in westerns, comedies, gangster thrillers, and sci-fi adventures. The tension is more relaxed in Ball of Fire, where the screwball intensity of Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday feels a bit diluted, though who’s complaining when it’s Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck providing the minds and bodies in question?
Indeed, the first of the film’s jokes comes from the sly casting of virile man’s man Cooper as English professor Bertram Potts, a prematurely fusty brainiac who, while collaborating with a sextet of graybeards on an updated encyclopedia, hits a dead-end upon reaching the “slang” entry. Off he scrambles through New York City to collect samples of jive idiom, which leads him to the nightclub where burlesque star Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) performs “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa’s orchestra. She’s described as “root, zoot, cute, and solid to boot,” but Potts is at first interested only in her linguistic skills; exasperated, she orders him to “scrow, scram, scraw,” to which the enthralled professor exclaims, “A complete conjugation!”
Such verbal humor seems to spring irresistibly from the young Billy Wilder’s outsider fascination with American snap, though the basis for the screenplay he concocted with Charles Brackett is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a connection clinched when Sugarpuss, hiding out from cops out to snatch her gangland boyfriend (Dana Andrews), stays with the shy scholar and his seven “squirrelly cherubs” (endearingly played by character actors like Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, and Richard Haydn, all of them old, dear faces to the seasoned movie buff).
After the rush of His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire is a more sedate ride, full of such marvelous passages as the conga line Stanwyck’s delectable Sugarpuss teaches the professors. Ultimately, the film’s optimistic integration of intellectual and physical impulses lends it a feeling of wholeness (greatly aided by Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography) closer to Hawks’s later, more serene films than to his breathless early comedies.