Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 1948. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Screenplay by Harry Tugend, based on the story From A To Z by Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe. Cinematography by Gregg Toland. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Music by Hugo Friedhofer, Emil Newman. Production Design by Perry Ferguson, George Jenkins. Costume Design by Irene Sharaff. Film Editing by Daniel Mandell.
Howard Hawks takes his 1941 comedy Ball Of Fire and turns its jazzy Snow White plot into a Technicolor musical, with Danny Kaye filling in for Gary Cooper as one of a group of housebound eggheads who in this version are music historians instead of linguists. The men are busy at work on a comprehensive history of music around the world when two window washers (played by the comedic team of Buck and Bubbles) enter their hallowed domain and introduce them to the wonders of modern jazz. Realizing that a whole shift has happened in the artform since they began their project, Kaye decides to venture out to the city’s nightclubs to learn more about the up-tempo rhythms of the genre, making the rounds from place to place and asking the various acts he meets (which include the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, The Golden Gate Quartette and Samba Kings all playing themselves) to come back to his institute to help with his research.
He also meets a hot nightclub singer (Virginia Mayo in place of Barbara Stanwyck) who holes up in the musty old house of studious professors to hide from the law, as her gangster boyfriend (Steve Cochran) is suspected of murder and the cops want her for questioning. Mayo slides right in to an easy life with these gentlemen, helping out with the study sessions (which exist as good excuses for some fun musical numbers) while pretending to fall in love with Kaye in order to help her cover story. The problem is, of course, that he genuinely falls for her and she eventually can’t help but be won over by his naïve, good-natured sincerity.
While this is hardly the jewel in Hawks’ directorial crown, and in fact is a project he was coerced into making and brought little passion to it, it’s a worthy retelling of one of his brightest comedies, the production numbers have snap and show off the talents of some of the finest artists in popular music of the time, and Kaye still manages to stand out for his sharp comedic talents despite being threatened with an overpowering supporting cast of no end of terrific supporting characters.
The main disappointment is that Hawks places Mayo’s character far more in the background than was the case in the original version, and Mayo isn’t a strong enough actor to survive the challenge: confident, glamorous and enjoying marvelous chemistry with her frequent co-star, Mayo doesn’t have the street-smart sizzle that made Stanwyck both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time, and without that electric charge (most evident in the very limp version of the “yum-yum” scene) the rest of the film is forced to be that much more charming to justify its own existence.