Ball of Fire is straight-up Howard Hawks: the middle child bearing strong traits of the earlier Scarface and the later Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Have to love the tool of language as an explicit and implicit symbol of miscommunication among the characters. Hawks here is toying with the effect of a single woman upon a group of men, implying early on that she can pretty easily outnumber them, a la Gentlemen. The narrative won’t resolve in this case, however, without falling back into the impotent female subjugated to the men. It’s got plenty of self-acknowledged references to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and in the end Barbara Stanwyck’s character marries Gary Cooper’s and, by association, the rest of his cronies. Compared to Stanwyck’s pre-code films, Ball of Fire very much puts her back in her place as a woman fundamentally without power. Perhaps it’s the undeniably presence of her potent sexuality that ultimately led to Hawks problematizing the gender dynamics as he later did in Gentlemen. Although the women in Gentlemen are still very much on display for the men (within the film and in in the viewing audience), the dialogue at the very least gives more of a voice to the women than it does to the men. In so doing, the film implies the beginning of the feminist movement: lots of women talking powerfully over men but still being gawked over as they do so. In Ball of Fire, interestingly, the group of men require Stanwyck’s character in order to complete their encyclopedia. Without her input about modern jargon and street slang, the men are the mutes, the vocally impotent. Once she gives them the info they need, she returns to a state of merely bodily power over the men and becomes a pawn between the sweet academics and the ruthless gangsters.
Images courtesy of this guy.