"Brackett and Wilder were superb writers and they could make almost anything good." - Howard Hawks on Ball of Fire
Ball of Fire (1941) Original Trailer
Ball of Fire - 1941 (Original Poster)
Released: December 2, 1941 Running time 111 minutes
Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn had good reason to feel frustrated in 1941. His biggest star, Gary Cooper, had recently appeared in a string of hit movies.
Unfortunately, none of these films were Goldwyn productions.
Every time Sam loaned Coop to another producer, the result was box office gold. Meanwhile, the five movies Gary Cooper had done for Goldwyn had been far less successful. The iconic producer was determined to fix this situation.
He borrowed one of the hottest writing teams in the business to create a script that would allow Cooper to shine. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett had recently won Oscars as the screenwriters for Jean Harlow’s “Ninotchka” and seemed to have a knack for writing movies that pulled in big audiences.
While Gary Cooper was working with Howard Hawks on “Sergeant York,” Wilder and Brackett began developing a tale about a mild-mannered college professor, a slang spouting nightclub singer with mob associations, and the professor’s seven associates. The finished script would become the comedy classic, “Ball of Fire.”
When it came time to choose a director, Goldwyn had to admit that none of the directors that he had under contract had managed to work well with Gary Cooper. He left the decision up to his star and was horrified when Coop chose Howard Hawks.
Five years earlier, Hawks and Goldwyn had clashed while making a film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s “Come and Get It.” Things got so bad that they parted ways before the movie was completed, leaving William Wyler to finish the picture. Goldwyn thought Hawks was pompous, stubborn, deceitful, and slow to produce results. Howard Hawks had an even less flattering opinion of Goldwyn.
These two strong personalities did, however, agree on two things when it came to making “Ball of Fire;” they respected Gary Cooper’s talent and they were impressed with the script that Wilder and Brackett had produced.
While selecting an actress to play the vibrant and conflicted “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, Hawks considered Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, and Lucille Ball. Gary Cooper once again sealed the deal when he suggested his “Meet John Doe” co-star, Barbara Stanwyck. She turned out to be a brilliant choice, giving the role an energy and humanity that lights up the picture.
Hawks then chose some of the finest character actors in Hollywood to play the professors. Watching this stable of familiar faces in action is another one of the joys you experience watching “Ball of Fire.”
If you’re a movie buff, there is one particular hidden pleasure in viewing this Howard Hawks/Samuel Goldwyn collaboration. Although Billy Wilder had already established a reputation as one of the finest writers in Hollywood, he had by this time been struck with a strong desire to direct. Before leaving Europe, he had directed a movie in France and longed to direct an American feature film.
Part of his deal with Goldwyn gave him permission to observe every day of the shooting from the beginning to the end. Howard Hawks was happy to have Wilder on the set and willingly shared his thought process while making the picture.
The following year, Billy Wilder would direct his first American film, “The Major and The Minor,” and go on to have an exceptionally successful directing career of his own. It can be said that of few of the seeds that eventually blossomed into such colorful works as “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” “The Seven Year Itch,” and other Wilder wonders were planted as he watched Howard Hawks make “Ball of Fire.”
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (original story) Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.