“14 watercolors ….” Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire at the Film Forum


Not as well-known as some other Howard Hawks films (or Billy Wilder scripts, for that matter), Ball of Fire, starring Gary Cooper as the nerdy linguistics professor (only in Hollywood ) and Barbara Stanwyck as the wise-cracking two-bit showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea is one of my favorite Hawks films. It has all the familiar Hawks-ian elements: men doing manly stuff in a masculine cloister, a cloister disrupted by a compelling wise-cracking dame who livens the mood, bringing the possibility of sex with her. Not domesticity, but fun friendly sex. She’s not a vamp. She’s one of the boys, only she’s got slamming curves. Usually Hawks’ masculine cloister is more action-based (airfields, battlefields, gangster shoot-ups), but in Ball of Fire it’s intellectual and professorial. The same rules apply.

Ball of Fire is a “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” story, with Sugarpuss entering the Cloister of the seven professors (commissioned to write a new Encyclopedia, each man having his own area of expertise). Sugarpuss is on the run from her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) and guesses that the goons will never track her to that dusty old mansion filled with virgin professors.

Naturally, Sugarpuss (who is first seen doing an unforgettable nightclub act, accompanied by the one, the only, Gene Krupa) completely disrupts the encyclopedia project: she looks around at the grim intellectual group, and demands that they all lighten up and have a little fun.

Before you know it, she’s leading them in a conga line around the drawing room.

My favorite moment may be the “14 watercolors” moment (it makes me laugh every time), but there are so many other great moments. It’s a crackling romance, too, with Cooper and Stanwyck generating enough heat to power the entire East Side. Cooper plays a man unused to feeling the way she makes him feel. He is convincingly shy. (Cooper was a shy man.) And Stanwyck is both tough and tragic, in her understanding that she’s not good enough for this guy, she’s sunk too low. Stanwyck plays the comedic side of the other “tramps” she played in her career, showing the cost for these types of women. The film does not descend into maudlin moralizing, however. It’s way too funny for that.

Ball of Fire is playing, in its original 35 mm archival print, at the Film Forum from December 25 to December 31.

I encourage you to go and read my friend Charles Taylor’s wonderful Village Voice review of the film. (He’s such a good writer. That last paragraph!!)

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “14 watercolors ….” Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire at the Film Forum

  1. Helena says:

    Man, I love Ball of Fire – dorky Gary Cooper and Barbara S sexy as all get out. My favourite version of Snow White ;-) A great film to catch at Christmas.

  2. mutecypher says:

    … And Elisha Cook Jr? I gotta see this.

    • sheila says:

      Oh, it’s an all-time fave.

      Plus Gene Krupa!!

    • Sheila says:

      You know I didn’t remember Elijah Cook in it. Just went and saw it again. He has 2 lines. He’s basically an extra. But fun to see him!

      The whole movie is like a Grand Parade of Hollywood character actors!

      • mutecypher says:

        I saw him listed in IMDB, didn’t know his part was so small in this.

        I saw a list today “10 things you didn’t know about Peter Lorre” or something to that effect. I guess Peter’s Joel Cairo got pretty handsy with Elisha in Maltese Falcon and the censors made John H. cut those scenes. Now I’m wishing for a deleted scenes version.

      • sheila says:

        Yeah – I just looked up his IMDB page – I knew he started out in the 30s – Ball of Fire is 1941, so he clearly was early on in his career. He does get a couple of good zingers in – which Gary Cooper (whose character is doing an investigation of American slang) is intrigued by.

        and Ooh!! Love that Peter Lorre bit – I had no idea. “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Peter Lorre.” Uhm, link please??

  3. carolyn clarke says:

    I love that movie. I even tolerate Hawks/Wilder’s remake with Danny Kaye because of the music (Louis Armstrong, etc.). The scene at the end when Cooper makes her stand on the books to kiss him is so sweet. I also love Howard Hawks. As you say, he uses the same formula over and over again, but it works. Hatari, Rio Bravo, The Thing from Outer Space, A Song is Born all have the same framework but all are very entertaining movies.

    • sheila says:

      // The scene at the end when Cooper makes her stand on the books to kiss him is so sweet. //

      Oh, it’s wonderful!

      I love her monologue near the end:

      “I love him because he gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk. I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!”

      I’m writing a chapter for an upcoming book about Howard Hawks – so this showing of one of my favorites is very well-timed. I’ve never seen it on the big screen too, so it should be fun!

  4. sheila says:

    Also: in what universe would Gary Cooper be believable as a celibate monk-ish intellectual??

    In Howard Hawks’ universe. Similar to Cary Grant being believable as a celibate nerdy scientist in Bringing Up Baby.

    There’s something so satisfying about these gorgeous leading men being re-cast as bumbling nerds … it’s ridiculous but it totally works!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.