Thursday, 9 April 2015

Alternate Best Actor 1941: Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire

Gary Cooper did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying professor Betram Potts in Ball of Fire.

Ball of Fire is an entertaining screwball comedy about a group of professors working on an encyclopedia who accidentally get entangled with gangsters.

Gary Cooper plays against type here in that he plays a bookish professor of grammar which contrasts his usual roles as the worldly heroic everyman. He can be seen in that sort of role in Sergeant York, for which he won his first Oscar, as well as Frank Capra's Meet John Doe. I have to say even in that type I preferred Copper in Meet John Doe as well although sometimes I think the Oscar is used to reward the real life accomplishments of the character sometimes so York would have been an easy choice. His biggest challenge though perhaps came in his role here as one would not expect Cooper in this sort of role. For me though I have to say that Cooper fits particularly well in this sort of role. Despite his burly frame I must say that Cooper can be a nebbish quite well. In fact I'd say his soft spoken voice fits this character far more than in Sergeant York where he's suppose to be a commanding figure. His voice actually works incredibly well here as it does wonders in creating the very unassuming manner of the character.

The professor's initial task in the film is to properly cover modern slang for the encyclopedia the men are working on. Cooper is actually quite humorous as he presents such a politeness and genuine interest as the professor seems fascinated by every new word he learns, no matter how ridiculous. One of the individuals the professor goes to learn about slang is an earthy nightclub performer Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), who comes with many a complications due to her gangster boyfriend Joe (Dana Andrews). At first though she just simply shakes up the refined world of the professors. Cooper again is rather enjoyable in portraying the reactions of Betram as he cannot believe some of the results of her presence. Cooper has quite excellent comic timing as even though Betram is fairly quiet character, he makes an impact through his portrayal of Betram's surprise as well as obviously his intrigue. Eventually Sugarpuss and her boyfriend decide to use Betram's romantic interest her for their own personal gains which means stringing the professor along by getting his hopes up.

When the truth is eventually revealed Cooper is very moving in portraying the heartbreak in Betram, and as I've always said Cooper had considerable talent as a silent actor. This actually continues into the film's final act where Betram and his professor pals have to go toe to toe with Joe and his cohorts. There is one particularly hilarious scene, simply because of Cooper's physical performance, as he portrays Betram excessively technical method as a boxer as he decides to take on Joe with a fight. I do want to clear things up slightly in it has been said that I hate Cooper as an actor, in a similar way that's been said to be my view of Denzel Washington. Neither case is it true though in that I do like plenty of their performances well enough, but I just happen to love any of them. I technically do not love this performance either, but I do quite like it. It's a fun performance from Cooper as he technically moves out of his comfort zone here and does it splendidly. From this and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town I'd actually say Cooper's true calling was as a comic actor since it's where it seems like he's most comfortable as a performer.


luke higham said...

Louis: Rating & Thoughts on Stanwyck.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Glad you liked the film, Louis, it's one of my favourite screwball comedies ever. What are your ratings and thoughts on the rest of the cast, and would you say this is your favourite Cooper performance?

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Also which was your favourite out of Love Crazy, Ball of Fire, and Sullivan's Travels

luke higham said...

GDSAO: I don't really want to tempt fate here, but I believe that myself, Daniel and Robert have won the prediction.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

@Luke: We shall see :) I actually can't guess at all, only thing for certain is Bogart at #1.

Matt Mustin said...

"I think the Oscar is used to reward the real life accomplishments of the character sometimes"

SO true.

mcofra7 said...

Any thoughts on the True Detective teaser?
It's only a teaser but I'm not at all convinced.

Louis Morgan said...


Stanwyck - 4(She's a good foil for Cooper and the professors as she effectively plays up her character's more knowing nature. She's enjoyably vivacious here, and in addition I feel she handles the character's moral transition fairly well even though it's pretty abrupt)


The Professors - 3-3.5(Haydn was probably my favorite individually. They worked though so well as a group and together they were collectively a hoot with their meekness and little eccentricities)

Duryea - 3(His role is pretty brief but he's entertaining in playing up the overly pompous gangster type)

Andrews - 3.5(A challenging role really as being the evil other guy is kinda thankless in this sort of role. Andrews is good though as he brings enough of a menace, but brings a certain amount of humor through some of his dead pan reactions to the ridiculousness of the professors)

Yes this is my favorite from Cooper that I have seen.

I really liked all three but I think I'd go with Sullivan because it was funny while handling its dramatic side surprisingly well.

Louis Morgan said...


Couldn't get much from it to be honest.