A review requested by McAlister, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The ingredients are pretty standard early '40s Hollywood comedy, so you wouldn't know it just to glance at it, but Ball of Fire is a very special movie. And not just because every film directed by Howard Hawks is special, though that should certainly be enough for anybody. This is a film directed by Hawks from a screenplay by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, one of those collisions of talent that makes so much obvious sense when you hear about it that you wonder why the studios didn't try it sooner (or at all: made by Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Ball of Fire is actually an independent film), or why, given the exemplary results, they didn't try it a second time. Better yet: not only is the solitary collaboration between Hawks and Brackett & Wilder, it's also the only instance of Hawks directing Barbara Stanwyck, which if anything makes even more obvious sense: the director had a marked tendency to trying to make the women in his films feel like they were just one of the boys, and Stanwyck was very probably the most masculine actress of the '30s and '40s. And under Hawks's guiding hand, she turned out one of the definitive performances of her entire career, though it speaks to the overwhelming quality of that career that her work in this film (for which she received the second of a woefully insufficient four Oscar nominations) wasn't even her best stuff in 1941 (for that, I turn you to The Lady Eve and one of the greatest comic performances that ever was or will be).

We'll get back to Stanwyck. Let's stick with Brackett & Wilder, because the scenario (which was also Oscar nominated) is thoroughly characteristic of those authors' tendency towards fancifully arbitrary urban fables, and their beloved mixture of the over-educated with the bawdy. Once upon a time, eight professors were holed up in New York, writing an encyclopedia; in 1941, that project had arrived in its ninth of a projected twelve years, close to the end of "S". Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) has only lately completed his entry on "slang", when an encounter with the garbage man (Allen Jenkins) reveals to him entirely by accident that nine years of seclusion have left him totally unable to understand any of the current street argot. A long day of research tromping around the city ends at a nightclub, where he's fascinated by the brassy language of featured singer Sugarpuss O'Shea (Stanwyck), whom he invites back to his office to take part in a roundtable discussion. What he doesn't know is that Sugarpuss is dating Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), a mobster with the police hot on his tail, and they're looking for her now, too. No better place to hide out than a noble institute of study inhabited by seven bachelors and one widower, all of whom literally wouldn't know what to do with a gorgeous woman if they had her. That Potts is the most visibly disinterested in Sugarpuss's obvious physical charms means, of course, that he's going to be the one to fall in love with her, a development that she sensibly, if callously, ends up using to her own advantage.

Riffing lightly on the Grimms' "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" - the early giveaway is when Potts stands in front of a theater marquee advertising the Disney adaptation of that story - Ball of Fire is a fairy tale all right, though one filtered through the sophistication and grit of a big American city right in the breezy period before America entered World War II (the film premiered all of five days before the attack on Pearl Harbor), and the whirligig sense of cynical humor characteristic of its screenwriters. There's not really all that much depth to it: it's a breezy lark in which a whole mess of delightful character actors - S.Z. Sakall, Oskar Homolka, and Henry Travers are the most immediately recognisable, though Richard Haydn (another Disney connection: ten years later, he'd voice the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland) maybe has the most interesting of the seven supporting parts - react with charmingly soft-edged horniness, while Cooper bumbles around looking terrified and confused of everything, and demonstrates that being a big, lanky, strong-chinned all-American guy can be the most amazingly hilarious thing when you turn of the saintliness and determination that tend to accrue to him in his dramas and Frank Capra dramedies.

The script is a beautifully-constructed thing: at 111 minutes, it's bloated for a comedy of this era, but the stacking of one scene atop the last is so organically done that it never feels like anything happens that doesn't absolutely need too. Nor is anything wasted, with apparent throw-away moments looping back around like a whole aresenal of Chekhov's guns. Even the distinct identities of each professor - instead of Grumpy, Dopey, and Bashful, we have the geographer, the botanist, the anatomist - end up providing specific plot-important detail later on, as though Brackett & Wilder had made it their goal to do something meaningful with each of seven stock types.

And the story told through all the flawlessly-disciplined writing is pretty great, on top of it. Step far enough back, and it's just a romcom - but one that works so hard to get to the ending! We know from his future career that Wilder was a cynic and more than slightly misogynistic, and yet it's still an unexpected, bold move when he and Brackett allow Sugarpuss to remain unredeemed deep into the second half, even after she's had the sweet banter with her Pottsie and all the ingredients that would ordinarily fuel the de rigueur "oh no, I have mistreated the man I really love" revelation. She's sorry, but still enough of a survivalist to not actually regret anything. And that makes the fourth act where things finally come together all the more satisfying, while also giving Stanwyck a far more interesting character to play.

See? We're back to Stanwyck. And what an awe-inspiring place to be. This isn't a character in her wheelhouse: lines like "Oh, Greek philosophy! I got a set like this with a radio inside", directed to a stack of books, naturally suggest Jean Arthur in her "I'm not as flighty and dumb as you think I am" mode, or Ginger Rogers in her "I'm bored, why aren't we boning yet?" mode, and it's easy to imagine Ball of Fire with either of those actors; it's easy to imagine it still being a hell of a good movie. But what Stanwyck is up to is in some entirely different stratosphere. To begin with, there's the shocking respect she demands for Sugarpuss: an uneducated floozy the role may be, but this performer has no interest in playing a wide-eyed bimbo or a sexy yokel or even a flirt. There is, throughout the first half of the movie, a powerful sense that she's studying the professors every bit as much as they're studying her, and her fascination with their arcane knowledge is that of the tough survivor who has learned that no piece of knowledge should be discarded, just in case it turns out to be useful someday. She doesn't play up the dumb aspects of Sugarpuss, because in her hands, Sugarpuss isn't dumb. She's cagey - that shows up in her handling of the character's approach to sex, as well. Though the mechanics of the plot require her to lead the boys along, it's all in the facial expressions and elegantly flirty body language that clearly indicate how much Sugarpuss genuinely appreciates the attention being lavished upon her by these befuddled old men. Which, in turn, makes the gradual evolution of her loyalties in the film's second half easier to understand, and more plausible.

Ball of Fire would always be a solid comedy thanks to its script, and Hawks's appropriately busy direction - the number of different ways he manages to stage background business for the seven professors never ceases to be impressive. The writers' way of constantly juggling registers, rocking back and forth between smutty comedy and erudite gags about science and history, is gracefully met by the director's excellent grasp of the comic energy, which he's even willing to roll way back when necessary: there's a solid 20-minute stretch right after the halfway mark where the film isn't funny at all, but Hawks guides the actors so cleanly into the more grounded, sober-minded needs of moving the story forward that it simply doesn't register that it's going on. This is clearly the work of the man who directed Bringing Up Baby and Twentieth Century, which are both more maniacal and thus, I'm compelled to say, "better" than Ball of Fire, while sharing its primary strength of following the characters through the comedy rather than forcing it down upon them. Hawks strength in comedy stars by treating it like drama: by making sure that the whole thing works as a movie, with well-ordered physical relationships, with characters who have fully fleshed-out realities rather than just funny lines to say. Cooper's masculine crisis is of a wholly different order here than in his other 1941 film with Hawks, Sergeant York; but it is still a crisis, and Hawks still treats it as such, even if we're laughing at Cooper rather than feeling with him.

(It is not, maybe, quite as much the perfect follow-up to His Girl Friday, the director's comedy masterpiece from the previous year. Having perfected in that film the art of overlapping comic patter, it's a little disappointing that Hawks doesn't bring it back even once in this film).

So: great, deep, humane, well-built comedy. But throw in Stanwyck's unbelievable act of character creation, and that's when Ball of Fire becomes its best self: a daffy farce in which, without warning, we find this challenging and unpredictable figure, a woman who is palpably more self-aware and crafty and thoughtful than we are. There's only one place where the mask slips: in the film's only weak scene, Stanwyck simply cannot deal with the jazz number "Drum Boogie", which makes a fine showcase for legends Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge, but a deeply unprepossessing introduction to Sugarpuss O'Shea, who comes off looking flat and uncertain and detached, three things she'll never be again; and Stanwyck joins the legions of terrific actors who simply don't grasp the mechanical requirements of lip-syncing. It's a bum note in an otherwise delicious, quicksilver performance, and all the more damaging because it's literally the first thing we see her do; but Stanwyck survives it just fine, and along with her, so does the whole damn movie, triumphing as one of the last great screwball comedies before war came along and started to ruin everything.