Carole Lombard was both leggy and alluring playing a showgirl in "Swing High, Swing Low." And a few years later, she had a chance to show off those glamorous gams again in a similar costume, but turned it down.
We bring it up because that film will be shown at 8 p.m. (Eastern) Saturday as part of Turner Classic Movies' "Essentials" series. It's "Ball Of Fire," from late 1941, and the actress who wound up as showgirl Sugarpuss O'Shea? None other than Barbara Stanwyck, who had some great gams of her own:
Actually, Lombard was not the first choice for the role in this Samuel Goldwyn film, directed by Howard Hawks with a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and starring Gary Cooper (who was under a personal contract for Goldwyn) as a linguistics professor who meets a slang-knowledgeable showgirl and becomes entangled with mobsters. The lead was initially offered to Ginger Rogers, who had won an best actress Academy Award the year before for "Kitty Foyle." Rogers apparently believed that this type of role was a step back for her, the ground she had trod as "Anytime Annie" in "42nd Street" back in her Warners days. So she said no.
Why did Lombard decline? Hard to say. Perhaps the story, or character, simply didn't click with her. Nearing the age of 33 in the summer of 1941, when this script would have come her way, Carole may have felt a bit too old for the part (though she was nearly 15 months younger than Stanwyck). It was also an aggressively urban role, more hard-edged and working-class than anything Lombard had played in some years (and, as it turned out, made to order for the Brooklyn-born Barbara).
But there has also been conjecture that "Ball Of Fire" could have been "Ball Of Fire" -- as in Lucille Ball. She was tested for the role (as was Betty Field); some say Lombard suggested her for the part. Whatever, Lucy wasn't hired, possibly because Goldwyn wanted a female lead of similar starpower to Cooper. (Jean Arthur, who Hawks reportedly didn't want, was also a supposed candidate, although she wouldn't appear to have had the requisite overt sex appeal for such a part.) Stanwyck was recommended by Cooper, who had just worked with her in "Meet John Doe," and she quickly accepted.
Considering its urban milieu and that Hawks is directing it, "Ball Of Fire" moves at a surprisingly languid pace; this is no "Twentieth Century." Nevertheless, it's a charmingly funny film, and if you only know Stanwyck from "The Big Valley" onward, you'll be amazed over how sexy she can be. To borrow a line from the film, "yum-yum." (You are also ordered to watch "Baby Face," "Night Nurse" and "Double Indemnity" -- the last of which was directed by Wilder -- ASAP.) It also capped off a stunning year for Stanwyck, who that year had not only made "Meet John Doe" with Cooper but two fine films with Henry Fonda -- the classic "The Lady Eve," a Preston Sturges creation, and the overlooked "You Belong To Me."
The supporting cast in "Ball Of Fire" is also wonderful, including Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea as the mobsters, and Oscar Homolka and Richard Haydn among the fellow professors helping Cooper with his dictionary project.
"Ball Of Fire," the last film Wilder would write before beginning his fabled directing career, was shown for a week in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1941 to qualify for the Academy Awards; Stanwyck was nominated, but lost to Joan Fontaine for "Suspicion." Its New York premiere came in the same mid-January week of Lombard's war bond rally and ensuing death in a plane crash.