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Ball of Fire (March 25, 2010)

Billy Wilder was a screenwriter in Germany, and while there wrote a story (“From A to Z”) on which Ball of Fire was based, inspired by the Snow White fairy tale. He went to Hollywood in 1934, continuing as a screenwriter there. Thomas Monroe helped him Americanize the story. Wilder wrote the screenplay with his long time collaborator Charles Brackett and Monroe. This story of a jazz singer who meets seven professors (and Gary Cooper) writing an encyclopedia was modeled on Walt Disney’s animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a publicity shot was made with each of the professors in front of a picture of the animated character he was based on.

The film was produced from August to October, 1941 and was directed by Howard Hawks, who earlier that year had directed Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance in Sergeant York. That WWI biography is briefly parodied near the end of the picture. Brackett and Wilder visited a drugstore patronized by high school students, a pool room, a burlesque house, and a racetrack to collect slang for the screenplay. Martha Tilton dubbed Barbara Stanwyck’s voice in the singing sequence with Gene Krupa’s band. Gregg Toland, today famous for his work on Citizen Kane the year before, was cinematographer. Stanwyck, during the filming, was supposed to throw a punch at Kathleen Howard, who played the housekeeper. She was mortified when the punch connected, and fractured Howard’s jaw. The picture was released in early December, 1941, right before Pearl Harbor, and did good business.

Stanwyck was nominated for the best actress Oscar; Alfred Newman for the best music, scoring Oscar; Thomas Moulton for the best sound recording; and Monroe and Wilder for best original story. Variety at the time wrote, “Casting is meticulously perfect to make every character a caricature of itself. Cooper is in the familiar 'Mr Smith-John Doe' role of the brainy guy who's not quite hep to his surroundings until near the end, when he wises up in time to snatch victory from the smart boys. Stanwyck is likewise in a familiar part that she can play for maximum results.” Yeah, they were right. Character and caricature both play their parts in this boy meets girl story. Please enjoy watching Ball of Fire with me tonight.