Film is a visual medium, but if there was anyone who could make an audience feel the scales tip more toward the written word, it is writer/director Billy Wilder. And of all the amazing motion pictures Wilder created or contributed to in his career from the 1930s to the 1980s, there is perhaps no greater example of his linguistic brilliance than the delirious screwball comedy BALL OF FIRE (1941), a supreme example of the pre-war Hollywood studio system firing on all cylinders and a fabulously satisfying entertainment in which much of the humor is based on the different ways a single language can be used by different people to the point of hindering, rather than facilitating, communication.
The picture is positively teeming with diverse characters whose distinctive spin on our native tongue make for some serious hilarity; the pitch-perfect cast is a veritable who’s who of memorable character actors of the day and is headed by Gary Cooper’s awkward English professor and Barbara Stanwyck’s streetwise gangster’s moll, one of the great mismatched couples in romantic comedy. The madness is all choreographed delightfully by director Howard Hawks, who had just worked with Cooper in the acclaimed drama SERGEANT YORK (and who, within the past three years, brought audiences the screwball gems BRINGING UP BABY and HIS GIRL FRIDAY), and photographed beautifully and inventively by Gregg Toland, fresh from his revolutionary work with Orson Welles on CITIZEN KANE. But even among these giants of the cinema, the man whose fingerprints are most to be found on BALL OF FIRE is Wilder.
An uncommonly rich and balanced screenplay that contains many worlds, BALL OF FIRE is a highlight of the fifteen year screenwriting partnership between Wilder and Charles Brackett, a fruitful and award-winning collaboration that included Ernst Lubitsch’s NINOTCHKA (1939), Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), and culminated in Wilder’s dark masterpiece SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Here, their talents are in the service of a decidedly more lighthearted enterprise, and serve to underscore the particular genius of the Austrian émigré.
Born in 1906, Billy Wilder arrived in America in 1933 from his birthplace in Austria-Hungary by way of Vienna and Berlin, and without any major interruption continued the screenwriting work he began in Germany. In many ways his career echoes uncannily that other master storyteller who also fled upheaval and anti-Semitism to eventually settle in America, Vladimir Nabokov. Like the great novelist, Wilder’s proficiency in English soon surpassed that of many native speakers, and, more significantly, he was able to use that skill to create entertaining and lasting narratives that captured successfully the tone, the tenor, and the spirit of his adopted country at a particular time with a keen eye, an often sardonic sense of humor, and an intimate knowledge of human weakness tempered by a certain generosity, sympathy, and even love.
As with the spectacular heights reached by Nabokov’s prose, it is staggering to consider that Wilder’s string of literary achievements was accomplished by a man for whom English was not a first language. Certainly the contributions of Charles Brackett, the Harvard man and short story author who was the more refined and introverted of the pair, cannot be understated, but Wilder’s was the greater talent and after the two went their separate ways he continued his string of successes with his next collaborator, I. A. L. Diamond.
In BALL OF FIRE (a hip reimagining of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), Cooper’s Professor Potts is dutifully researching slang for his entry in an encyclopedia being compiled by himself and six other similarly stuffy and old-fashioned experts in various fields, and his research takes him from the cloistered, controlled atmosphere of the old house in which the professors all live and work, straight into the heart of the swinging streets of New York, complete with crooks, killers, good-natured toughs, and Stanwyck’s sassy singer Sugarpuss O’Shea, introduced in a wonderful nightclub scene featuring a powerful performance by drummer Gene Krupa and his band at the peak of their powers (including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, with Stanwyck the obvious stand-in for Anita O’Day). And when O’Shea invades the tranquil professors’ sanctuary the sparks – verbal and otherwise – really start to fly. (Her first reaction upon seeing the book-stuffed library: “Say, who decorated this place, the mug that shot Lincoln?”) The clashing personalities and approaches to language are pure comedic gold, and the rapid fire dialogue manages to be authentic in both its erudite and streetwise sensibilities without reducing either to parody, overflowing with hysterical exchanges and incidental jokes that vanish before they can even register fully.
Of course, a brilliant script is useless without a cast with the talent to make it work, and one couldn’t ask for a better collection of actors. Both Cooper and Stanwyck have arguably never been better, generating some real chemistry, and every single member of the ensemble rings true under Hawks’s deft direction. The lost art of the Hollywood character actor is on full display, with a remarkable collection of top-notch players including Oscar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Aubrey Mather, Allen Jenkins, and Dana Andrews as a particularly slimy villain. Anyone possessing even the most cursory knowledge of old movies is bound to recognize a face, from Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to Humphrey Bogart’s loyal German waiter Karl (S. Z. Sakall) in CASABLANCA.
A kind of distant predecessor to Wilder’s outrageous comic concoction SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), Hawks’s BALL OF FIRE is the complete package: a first-rate team of performers and technicians combining their talents to create one of the most entertaining and fulfilling films you could ever hope to see; a dazzling spectacle that embraces the optimistic image of America as melting pot not only for different cultures, but for wildly varied takes on the same culture, the pandemonious patchwork that is uniquely, chaotically and fabulously American.