Gary Cooper was the archetypal American long before either John Wayne or James Stewart moved into that spot, but he died relatively young fifty years ago and the passionate fervor with which he was adored has been forgotten. His tall good looks combined with a little-boy innocence was like catnip for women: the word is that of all Hollywood players, Cooper had the highest score. His acting style was imitable but not emulatable. Orson Welles told me he’d stood not more than three feet away from Coop while a close-up of the actor was being made and was convinced that it would have to be re-taken because he could see nothing happening. When he later saw the dailies, Welles was astonished by the subtle play of expression the camera had caught. “I swear I could see none of that from three feet away!” This was Cooper’s mystery, and it made him a born picture-star…
The year after Cooper won the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor in Howard Hawks’ memorable World War I biographic drama, Sergeant York, he appeared in as different a Hawks picture as could be: a wacky screwball comedy in which Cooper was equally good, 1942’s delightful BALL OF FIRE (available on DVD). His co-star, at her brazen best, was Barbara Stanwyck (Oscar-nominated for it), with whom he had appeared the year before in Frank Capra’s heavyweight Meet John Doe. Looking at all three pictures gives a small indication of the considerable range within these stars’ personas, and the different levels on which directors and writers could play with them. What a rich time it was!
The Ball of Fire script developed from a story of Billy Wilder’s (also Oscar-nominated) which he and Charles Brackett fashioned into an outline they sold to Samuel Goldwyn. The plot concerned a group of scholars cloistered together working on an encyclopedia, when one of them gets involved with a nightclub singer/gangster’s moll. Goldwyn sent the outline to Hawks, who agreed to direct, saying he saw it as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Indeed, Hawks treats the piece somewhat like a fable, and certainly this is the most leisurely and sentimental of Hawks’ comedies. When I first saw Ball of Fire, I had just been looking at the director’s other major comedies (Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was A Male War Bride) and noted for my movie-card file: “Slightly restrained, a bit too ‘tasteful,’ Goldwyn-produced Hawks comedy about a scholarly encyclopedia-writer’s pursuit of the meanings of slang, which leads him into romance and underworld intrigue with a boogie-woogie singer. Cooper, Stanwyck and the rest of the cast fall in easily with Hawks style, but the picture doesn’t have the darkly frenetic quality of his other comedies, and thus is not as effective or funny.”
Yes, but—having realized that the number of even semi-terrific comedies with stars and directors of this caliber is finite—Ball of Fire now seems to me more precious. Also, the relatively relaxed pace of Ball of Fire is connected to Cooper’s delivery, which could never have the speed of Hawks’ other comedy stars, Cary Grant or John Barrymore. What’s lost has been compensated for by other virtues: The high-voltage chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck; an international group of charming, superb character-actors including S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn and Leonid Kinsky; nice tough-gangster support from Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea; for jazz buffs, an energetic appearance by drummer Gene Krupa; striking black-and-white photography, with extremely effective deep-focus groupings, done by the legendary Gregg Toland, who had just completed another picture famously filled with deep-focus shots, Citizen Kane. Altogether, Ball of Fire is Gary Cooper’s best comedy.
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