The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Ball of Fire and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Written by Anna Cooper Sloan.

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It is perhaps easy to forget, in this era of digital photography, cellular phones that play movies, and ever-more-sophisticated virtual online worlds, that we are not the first generation to be confronted by totally new media. We are not the first to grapple, through public discourse as well as through private experience, with the new possibilities and meanings that such a new medium might present. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, initially released in late 1937, was the world’s first feature-length animated picture; its use of animation was so striking and bold that for many it constituted a revolution in the technology of filmmaking. It was not uncommonly compared to The Birth of a Nation or to the advent of sound in terms of both its novelty and its potential to completely change the way movies were made and experienced.

A perusal of the New York Times from late 1937 into 1938 offers a compelling glimpse of the mixture of approval, consternation, and confusion which greeted the arrival of this new medium. Even the most hardened critics showered the film with praise: animation, until that point used almost exclusively in slapstick shorts like the Mickey Mouse cartoons, suddenly seemed to blossom into a bona-fide art form, full of expressive promise. The typical reviewer fell over himself to adoringly panegyrize the film’s greatness; Frank S. Nugent, who wrote not one but two reviews of the film (having evidently decided the first wasn’t doting enough - though I can assure you it was), gushed that the film was “so delightful, so engaging, so very merry a fantasy…there is magic in the film, and hearts’ ease, and tonic for disillusion,” assuring us that “Disney and his amazing technical crew have outdone themselves.” This general assessment was evidently shared by many; the picture was viewed by an audience exceeding 800,000 people in the first four weeks of its run at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Nugent described “a roseate nimbus over Fiftieth Street these days.”

Some intellectuals, however, attacked the film. The famous caricaturist, Al Hirschfield, wrote a blustering article slamming the film as “the biggest needle-point ever devised by man,” arguing that “there is nothing to be gained by such perfect facsimile except in such instances where the limitations of the camera demand it,” and envisioning a time when all movies would be created by animation, and the reintroduction of live actors by another “mediocre genius” like Walt Disney would create an equivalent furor.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science also condemned Snow White. It issued a statement (perhaps anticipating familiar later critiques of Disney) lamenting that the film “illustrated the tendency to seek escape in a dream world” away from the “fear of universal warfare and the general breakdown of existing social institutions.”

Still others were simply confused. As one woman wrote to the Disney office: “To settle a family argument please tell us whether or not three characters in Snow White were real people or were drawn by your artists. I maintain that Snow White, the Prince and the wicked Queen were all real actors, but my husband says I’m crazy. He always says that when we disagree, so please settle this for us.” Cluelessness notwithstanding, we can clearly say that the public in 1937 had an enormous need to discuss, explore and digest this new medium which confronted them.

In 1941 the screwball comedy Ball of Fire entered into this debate, taking it upon itsef to interpret both the cinematic medium and the representative flagship of its newest incarnation, Snow White. To both contemporaneous and recent critics, the connection between these two films was instant and obvious: in both, a beautiful woman on the run from the law enters the chaste but flawed home of seven infantile men (in Ball of Fire there are eight, but the eighth is played by Gary Cooper, making him - to the audience at least - the obvious “Prince” of this story). She wins them over with her charm. They then lose her to the machinations of an evil but powerful personage, but she is restored to them because of the love and devotion of the “Prince” who saves her.

But Ball of Fire does not merely replicate the story of Snow White. Far from it: it takes the occasion to both expand upon and excoriate the original tale, transforming it from a romantic melodrama taking place in some mythical, wooded past, into an up-to-the-minute, fast-paced comedy set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The differences do not stop there: in Ball of Fire, it is the man who is the innocent, sheltered, domestic character, while the woman, a racy nightclub chanteuse played by Barbara Stanwyck, is comparatively savvy. Both man and woman are presented with alternative partners whom they ultimately reject in favor of one another. Also notable is the absence of an evil Queen, although perhaps it is more accurate to say that this villain’s duties are shared by several characters (the jealous, old-maidish housekeeper; the singer’s mobster fiancé). Ball of Fire could be compared to Clueless (1995) or Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) in more recent times: it reworks a ‘traditional’ romance story in a contemporary setting, with changes and updates serving to highlight the modern audience’s comparative cynicism, whilst simultaneously satisfying a longing for mythical, fairy-tale romance.

This description, however, does not do justice to the pleasure of watching Ball of Fire, whose depth, dramatic unity, and richness of characterization are on a par with some of the finest instances of classical Hollywood comedy. (Leland Poague has argued for the film’s inclusion in the “comedies of remarriage", an enchanting and accomplished set of films from the same era which have roots in Shakespearean comedy.) That Ball of Fire has been relatively neglected is an unjustifiable shame. The sheer amount of talent involved in its production alone should prove this: not only do Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper play the principal pair, but the movie was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, filmed by Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane [1941] fame), and directed by Howard Hawks, all heavyweights in their fields who now command strong critical and public followings. Ball of Fire deserves to be rescued from the vaults and dusted off with at least as much enthusiasm as Snow White receives, and with considerably more respect and tenderness.

It is an illuminating exercise to peel back the layers of our postmodern experience of Disney. Nowadays Snow White generally stands as just another example of the familiar pattern of the classic Disney films - and we are, in a sense, justfied in viewing them cynically. But if we allow ourselves, just for a moment, to be seduced into its synthetic world in a similar manner to that in which the original audience would have been, a completely different film is revealed.

Once one has given in to Snow White’s fantasy - for all critics, then and now, friendly and hostile, have almost universally characterized the film as a superlative expression of fantasy - the first thing one notices is its astounding level of technical accomplishment. The film purposefully draws attention to its own prowess: it contains moments which are entirely unnecessary to the story but which parade a particular animation effect. An early example is the water in the well, shown during Snow White’s first number: she stands singing above the well, and suddenly we cut to a shot which seems to film her from inside the well, under the water. Her image oscillates and distorts, and we see drops hit the water and ripple outward in concentric circles. Later, during the dwarfs’ face-washing scene, a fly buzzes around Sleepy’s face, lands on a bar of soap, and in extreme close-up, lathers its own face, creating an enormous bubble around itself which then pops. These and other shots - of a waterfall, for example, or steam rising from a cauldron - manage to be both lifelike and charmingly picturesque all at once, drawing our attention to the film’s astonishing technical ingenuity.

Another characteristic strategy of the film, and Disney more generally, is its “cute” and anthropomorphized portrayal of animals. Nowadays this may come across as an insipid gimmick, but at the time a baby bluebird embarrassed at singing a sour note, or a ticklish turtle employed as a washboard, or squirrels dusting for cobwebs with their tails, were far more likely to be seen as utterly entrancing. This representation of animals arises out of the surrealism of the Mickey Mouse cartoons, but it ultimately transcends these roots, uncovering a richness, an intimacy with the natural world, that was hindered by the slapstick of the earlier shorts; nothing showed off the representational possibilities of the medium of animation more bewitchingly.

Ball of Fire, correspondingly, draws similarly specific attention to the medium of live-action film. Sugarpuss O’Shea (the Barbara Stanwyck character) has a distinctive way of winking: as she does so, she makes a clicking noise with her mouth, evoking the shutter of a camera. This gesture, although repeated frequently, could have gone practically unnoticed but for the fact that it constitutes the very final shot of the film, when the professors, looking directly at us, wink and click in unison. Besides being funny, this shot serves as a kind of two-second epilogue: the film we have just seen is in some ways about the camera’s ways of looking.

In addition, the movie makes a trope out of light, fire, eyes and windows. The film’s title, of course, draws attention to this (it is also emphatically opposed to the title of Snow White). After Sugar enters the house, the drapes are soon opened and the study lit up. Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is first attracted to Sugar when light from the window catches in her hair. When thugs later hold the professors at gunpoint in an effort to force Sugar to marry her mobster fiancé (Dana Andrews), the professors use a microscope to focus the light of the sun, which burns through a piece of cord and causes a painting to fall on the head of their captor, as though the power of projected light - the power of live-action cinema - can cause paint and ink to topple.

Equally, Snow White tacitly acknowledges that animation gains most of its power from water - specifically its incarnations found in ink and paint - in the fact that many of its most stunning visual effects involve the portrayal of water (and the title character is even named “snow”). Ball of Fire offers itself as a rebuttal to the bewitchment of animation, drawing attention to the enduring power of photography to captivate us.

Beyond using its technical prowess to create a compelling fantasy for the audience, Snow White takes fantasy as one of its principal topics. After all, in our first encounter with Snow White she sings a song about “wishing for the one I love”; the Prince steals into the garden, his desire evidently piqued by the maiden’s beauty. The central bond between them is their mutual act of fantasizing. Indeed the principal pair have only two very brief encounters within the film, spending the duration yearning for each other. Snow White portrays both the perfect world for which the audience longs, and the act of longing itself.

Yet the couple’s fantasies of one another, although romantic in intention, are also notable for their total denial of sexuality. Perhaps the most enduring image of Disney’s entirey conscious erasure of sex comes in Dumbo, released in 1941: in the opening scene, babies are dropped from the sky by storks, floating gently to the feet of expectant mothers in adorable little white bundles. Snow White, too, constitutes a kind of denial of the flesh, for in so emphatically stressing its own status as created, from start to finish, entirely by the minds of humans, it declares its preference for sanitization - for the illusory over the material. The film makes crystal-clear to which side of the Cartesian split it belongs.

And it would be a mistake to think that this act of creation is not essentially gendered. On the contrary, Snow White is created entirely out of the fantasies of her male designers (the Disney studio was composed almost entirely of men) and lacks any independent existence, any feminine reality. Laura Mulvey famously argued that in classical Hollywood cinema, the female serves as the “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” - that women are objectified by the implicitly male gaze of the camera, the audience, and the male lead. Snow White, however, takes this objectification to a new level, for every minutia of her existence - every inch of her body, every word she says - has been literally created by the minds of men. As such, Snow White has been made into the embodiment of the superlatively Victorian male fantasy of womanhood: innocent, naïve, passive, beautiful, domestic, and submissive.

Here again, Ball of Fire seems specifically intended to criticise these aspects of Snow White. First, of course, is this film’s frank way of dealing with the sexuality of its principal characters - it’s just about as open as it could have been, considering it was made at the height of the puritanical Hays code. Barbara Stanwyck is a positive siren in the role of the racy singer, her radiantly gorgeous body shown to great effect in each of her skin-bearing costumes. Gary Cooper also has a deer-in-the-headlights way of acknowledging that his body is responding to her presence: he literally sprints up the stairs to put cold water on the back of his neck. The pair acknowledge their sexual fantasies of each other in frank terms, referring to their own “instincts” and “boiling points” with regard to one other. One of the professors, named Oddly (Richard Haydn), declares that a woman should be approached as a “sensitive and delicate” flower, which “one rough, impetuous bee can completely destroy.” Potts protests this conception, replying that he is younger and bolder than Oddly - as if to reject the antiquated, Victorian notion of womanhood put forth by Oddly (who, it is indicated, was married twenty-five years before - hence around 1915, the tail end of the Victorian era).

Yet in spite of all this relative frankness about sex, Ball of Fire is about two people who spend much of the film denying their desires. There is a Cartesian element to this denial. As Potts puts it, “Make no mistake - I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.” The film envisions itself as a site of contestation between the mind - the “ivory tower” world of the professors as well as the sheltered fantasy-world envisioned by Snow White - and the body, as personally represented by Barbara Stanwyck. Given these options, who in their senses would choose the world of the mind?

This dualism is also expressed in Freudian terms. Throughout the film, Potts conceives of himself as needing to “control” and “suppress” his desire for Sugar for the sake of his continued ivory-tower existence. Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard), the old-maidish housekeeper, puts it even more starkly: “That is the kind of woman,” she declares, “who makes whole civilizations topple!” But the film ultimately refutes this old conception of humanity as constantly repressing our desires for the sake of civilization’s patina; at the end of the film, under a different pretext, Potts proclaims his “apologies to Mr. Freud,” thus releasing himself, and us, from Freud’s dualistic conception of the self.

As to the portrayal of its heroine, Ball of Fire is also enlightened in comparison to Snow White, for Sugarpuss is bold, savvy and enterprising where her counterpart was meek and passive. Ball of Fire suggests that this newfound equality of the sexes is actually more arousing, for both sides. It also emphasizes Barbara Stanwyck’s control over the ways she is “gazed” upon by men, displaying an almost uncanny anticipation of the Mulveyan conception of the camera. As Anthony Lane, a critic for the New Yorker, put it in an article on Stanwyck:

“Film theory has dwelled, with justice, on what is called the objectifying male gaze - that is, the power of the camera to ogle and depersonalize, and to encourage the viewer to follow suit - without always remembering that, at Hollywood’s height, there were plenty of people who could take that gaze like a punch and throw it right back.”

In the initial nightclub scene, Sugar directs the audience to gather around and sing with her, as though inviting us in for a close-up. Later, when she begins her romantic con of Potts in order to avoid the police, she steps into the light of the window so that her hair shines, which she knows Potts to find irresistable. In the relationship between Stanwyck and the camera, or the professor, or us, it is Stanwyck who pulls the strings. Thus the film emphasizes the fact that Stanwyck is a real woman, whose relationship to us is one of interpretation and acknowledgment rather than creation. Because Sugar is a master of the modern street slang which Potts is investigating, her every word is written down and pored over for its meanings. She is thus, in a sense, a kind of text - a fact which is confirmed when she stands atop a pile of books to kiss Potts. In this manner, Ball of Fire highlights its own relationship to reality, offering an alternative to the puritanically constructed womanhood of Snow White. It elevates itself as bearer of truth about people, as offering an interpretation of ourselves rather than a fantastical lie. (Of course there are still essential ways in which Ball of Fire is evidently created from the male perspective, but that is the subject of a different essay.)

There is one moment in Ball of Fire so marvelous that no matter how many times I view it, it still sends tingles up my spine. The professors hold a bachelor party for Potts; Professor Oddly has just told the group about his dead wife, Genevieve. He requests that the other professors sing “Genevieve,” an old song “that everyone sang at that time.” They oblige, singing:

Oh Genevieve, sweet Genevieve,

The days may come, the days may go,

But still the hands of memory weave

The blissful dream of along ago.

This song, sung in the faulty voices of these hyper-civilized men, seems to grow out of one person’s memory, into a universal nostalgia amongst men, a longing for the mythical, primordial moment of bliss between man and woman before their expulsion from Eden. (Notice the similarity between “Genevieve” and “Eve.”) The machinery of our civilized lives now frustrates the “blissful dreams” we have lost, and the way to regain this bliss is to acknowledge our desires without losing ourselves to them.

Snow White contains a similar nostalgia for a lost paradise, for not only do its visual tropes firmly place it in some mythical past, but a central part of the film’s fantasy lies in its vision of domestic bliss: Snow White is an idealized mother, cheerfully cleaning and cooking for her seven little boys and ever-so-gently chiding them to behave. They live in a picturesque little cottage, are graced with steady self-employment (mining for diamonds, no less!), have plenty to eat, and merrily dance and sing each night by the fireplace. In Depression-era America, this modest fantasy was perhaps more overwhelming than any castle or prince could have been.

These two films, then, share a poignant and very sweet nostalgia for the past. Only, as Jack Zipes puts it, Snow White displays “Disney’s great talent for holding antiquated views of society still through…his use of the latest technological developments”. That is, Disney keeps us longing for the past, forever locked in a cycle of escapism and disappointment. Ball of Fire, on the other hand, looks forward to a secular restoration of paradise, the paradise of romantic and sexual acknowledgment, which has the power to turn the world, the real world, into a fairy tale.

This article was published on November 19, 2008.