Double Feature Showdown – Ball of Fire vs. A Song is Born
Howard Hawks was never shy about exploring similar ideas in multiple films—Rio Bravo and El Dorado being the best example—but in one instance, he remade a film almost word for word only seven years after the original was released. Ball of Fire versus its musical remake A Song is Born: which film is better? Read on to find out; it’s time for another Double Feature Showdown!
Ball of Fire (1941): Philologist Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) lives with seven other researchers in a house where they are working together to create a new encyclopedia. (All earlier encyclopedias neglected to give the funder of this version enough mention. And by “enough,” I mean any at all.) Potts is working on the current slang section, when an encounter with his garbageman forces him to realize that being shut up in the house has caused his knowledge of slang to become hopelessly outdated. He hits the town for the day, handing out his card to those he thinks might be valuable to his research. He ends his evening in a nightclub, where he makes the acquaintance of one Miss “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), whose creative use of the English language convinces him that she would be a perfect addition to his slang roundtable. She initially rebuffs him, but when it turns out she needs a place to hide from the district attorney—who is after some info on her mobster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews)—Sugarpuss talks her way into living with the professors. She is able to charm most of the household, and allows herself to be charmed by them in return. Complications arise when both Lilac and Professor Potts propose and she accepts both offers.
This is a wonderful comedy with a screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Barbara Stanwyck makes Sugarpuss both sweet and scheming, and the seven older professors are all wonderful, especially Henry Travers and S.Z. Sakall. The plot gives a nod to Snow White, only this time the evil witch is the District Attorney, and there are other, more dangerous evils waiting in the forest. This is one of Dana Andrews’s earlier pictures, and it really shows how great he was before alcohol derailed his career. There is one thing that didn’t work for me though, and that is Gary Cooper. I never ever, ever think he is funny. I mildly like him in other roles, but I always end up wondering why they cast him in comedies, which they did quite often. Cooper never has the right timing for me; he’s just not funny. However, he is an amiable presence, and the rest of the movie is good enough to elevate his performance. This is not as screwbally as some of Hawks’s earlier comedies, but it has a sweetness that I really enjoyed. (I like His Girl Friday too, but it is the only movie where I end up hating Cary Grant. What a jerk!)
A Song is Born (1948): Music professor Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye) lives in a house with six other professors working on an encyclopedia dedicated to music. (The funder of the encyclopedia had no talent, so he decided to leave his name on the music scene this way.) The professors are going about their business, when two window washers interrupt them to get some help with a musical quiz show, and end up playing a strange form of music for the professors called “jazz.” Professor Frisbee is in charge of the folk music section, and has a sudden realization that while he has been cloistered in his study for ten years, the world of music has continued to evolve. He decides to spend an evening out on the town—where he somehow manages to hit all of the raging nightclubs—and ends up making the acquaintance of singer Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo). She is not into helping with his work, but becomes interested when she needs to hide out from the District Attorney. It seems her boyfriend is up for a murder rap and she needs to lay low until the matter can be resolved. She ends up bunking with the professors and helping to teach them about jazz. Who will win her heart: the mobster or the musicologist?
This film was remade not so long after the original, and—according to the gossip—Howard Hawks was only in it for the paycheck. The script is virtually the same, just with long sections cut out to make way for the musical numbers. Danny Kaye had just split with his wife (for Eve Arden!) and was a wreck; rumor has it this was not a set where people were having a lot of fun. But movies have a life of their own apart from their makers, and this one ended up with a certain amount of charm in spite of everybody’s efforts otherwise. This is, in fact, one of the three most important Technicolor movies of my childhood. (The other two being1953’s Houdini and 1947’s The Perils of Pauline.) I LOVED this movie as a kid, and it helped establish a life-long appreciation of jazz. The film boasts performances by Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, and many more. It’s not as good as I remember it being, but the quality of the music keeps it from just being a tired remake.
The Victor: I so want to declare A Song is Born the winner, but it isn’t going to happen; Ball of Fire is the better film. It is very obvious that Hawks was not invested in A Song is Born. Poor Virginia Mayo does her best to live up to Barbara Stanwyck, but Hawks doesn’t change the part of Sugarpuss/Honey to suit her at all. She is forced to recite the same lines with the same inflections and even the same hand gestures. It is somewhat disconcerting to watch one film right after the other, because Stanwyck just does it better. Mayo is not meant to be a tough gangster’s moll, and the part should have been changed to suit her softer nature. And poor Danny Kaye. I love him, I really do. But he is not funny here. Gary Cooper, for all that I don’t think he is funny either, is the better Professor. Ball of Fire is a great film that should be more widely viewed. A Song is Born is a much less entertaining film that should still be watched, but will mostly interest Danny Kaye and jazz fans. Just don’t watch them together.
Availability: Both films are available to rent from Netflix, but things get slightly more complicated if you want to buy them. A Song is Born is out of print except in a musical 10-pack, and Ball of Fire is simply out of print; so, you are going to drop around 30 bucks each if you want to make them yours. Be sure to check your local video store to see if they have them in their rental inventory!