Why don't we have a guy like Howard Hawks working today? Hawks (1896-1977) was a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. He was definitely not an outsider. He worked in the studio system and generally made hits for his bosses. He could jump from genre to genre, and made great films in the detective, Western, screwball comedy, war, adventure and musical genres. And yet -- almost magically -- he managed to include his favorite themes and a personal touch again and again. Whether watching Cary Grant in a comedy or John Wayne in a Western or Humphrey Bogart in a film noir, you can see the same ideas cropping up -- mainly about honor between men -- as well as the same infallible camera placement and pacing. But the best thing about Hawks is that he was just as intrigued by honor among women; he very often allowed women to be as tough and as smart (sometimes tougher and smarter) as the men in his films.
Ball of Fire (1941) is a case in point. Barbara Stanwyck plays tough-talking showgirl Sugarpuss O'Shea, who finds herself on the run from mobsters. She discovers the perfect hiding place: with seven stuffy bachelor professors who are working on a new encyclopedia; their leader Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is the stuffiest of all. Her angle is that she can provide fresh material for the entry on "slang." The film almost works better as a checklist of great things rather than as a great film.
It has Stanwyck's great "leg" scene. It has a screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the latter just a year away from his own directorial debut. It has gorgeous, deep-focus, black-and-white cinematography by Gregg Toland, who shot a little film called Citizen Kane the same year. It has a cameo by legendary drummer Gene Krupa, performing "Drum Boogie." And it has some of the tastiest, most musical dialogue ever written. But what you walk away with is Stanwyck: self-sufficient, funny and oh-so desirable. (She received an Oscar nomination, but lost to Joan Fontaine for Hitchcock's Suspicion.) (See also Jette Kernion's take on the film, written all the way back in 2006.)
Boogie on over to SlashControl to watch the film.