Film Title: Ball of Fire
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Screwball Comedy
- Gary Cooper
- Barbara Stanwyck
Ball of Fire is credited as a 1941 feature. It was, however, released on January 9, 1942. Interestingly enough, the film has an alternate title of “Blonde Blitzkrieg”, which is confusing given that Barbara Stanwyck is a brunette. The title as we know it today was obviously the more sensible choice. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire is the quintessential inferno and a tale of opposites.
Gary Cooper is Professor Bertram Potts, one of eight academic scholars working on a definitive encyclopedia. The eight men have been working tediously for years to cover all aspects of life in the massive volume. Each is relegated to their area of expertise, yet occasionally assists one another when necessary. Potts is the English professor and a stickler for proper expression. His pièce de résistance is a section on American slang, which he believes he has covered in its entirety, leaving no verbal jab undefined. When the building’s janitor (Allen Jenkins) appeals to the scholars for contest trivia answers, Potts recognizes many slang terms in his vocabulary that he’s never heard before. This is cause for alarm, as Potts realizes that his “slang dictionary” is largely incomplete. He surmises that their research in solitude has cut them off from the real world, thereby stripping them of everyday life experience. In the interest of enlightenment, Potts runs out late at night to live among the living. In his nocturnal quest, he happens upon a smoky nightclub where a showgirl named ‘Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Stanwyck) is performing. Potts is intrigued with her raw dialect and approaches her after the show, hoping to recruit her as a subject of study. She brushes him off despite his persistence. Sugarpuss has found herself in a jam. Her mobster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), is suspected of murder and hiding out. She gets wind that the police are looking to question her about Lilac. Not wanting to be under the hot lamp, she flees the nightclub with two goons to hide out before the cops can locate her. They plan to take her to a seedy location, but when she refuses, the only other logical choice is to blend in where no one cop would think to search. Sugarpuss remembers Potts and his offer. She shows up at the professors’ mansion in the middle of a storm and invites herself into the living room. Potts is surprised to see her but excited about the wealth of information he stands to gain.
None of the scholars have been around a woman in years and are a bit uncomfortable with their new “guest”. The only other female is the mansion housekeeper Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard), who is a bit homely and no threat to the male hormones. Sugarpuss’ plan is to feign interest in Potts’ slang project until Lilac is able to scoop her up. Miss Bragg is less than fond of her presence and senses an underlying motive. Before long, the other seven professors begin to like Sugarpuss. She teaches them the latest dance moves and sheds light on a house that has long been dim under the weight of academics. Potts is gathering all the data he can from her vernacular. Subconsciously, the two are falling in love with each other, but Potts’ dedication to his work will not allow him to weaken. He mentally overrides all emotion with textbook facts and figures. She manages to crack his diligent exterior while giving him the meaning of “yum yum” (a kiss). She props herself up on three books and pulls him close. Potts is so taken aback with the bold gesture that he recoils before running to the bathroom. He places a cold towel on the back of his neck to calm the raging physical excitement. He decides that she must leave the house immediately, as her presence is detrimental to his level-headedness. Meanwhile, Lilac is devising a plan to spring Sugarpuss so they can be married by a Justice of the Peace. Sugarpuss is reluctant to vacate because she has no way back to Lilac without being collared by the law. She tries to change Potts’ mind about “evicting” her but he stands firm (not before asking her to kiss him once more). The second kiss causes Potts to fall hard and he decides not only to let her stay, but to propose.
Sugarpuss is stunned at the proposal. She never directly answers Potts, which he takes as a “yes”. She receives a call from Lilac, who masquerades as her father when Potts asks to speak to him over the phone. Potts believes he’s asking his future father-in-law for permission to marry Sugarpuss. In actuality, he’s giving Lilac a full blueprint of his intentions. Lilac (aka the father-in-law) suggests that the marriage take place in their home state of New Jersey. Potts readily agrees to gain favor. Lilac knows he has to move quickly. The eight professors gather in a rented automobile and set out for the Jersey ceremony. After a small accident, they hold up in a set of bungalows for the night while the car is being repaired. Meanwhile, Sugarpuss phones Lilac with her location so he can leave with his crew to infiltrate. As the professors are seated around a table toasting Potts and his bride-to-be, Sugarpuss decides to go to bed for the night. She plans to pack her things and slip away with Lilac without being seen. When one of the professors reminisces about his wife (who’d passed away 24 years earlier), the melancholy forces him to wander back to his room. Potts leaves to talk to the professor a short time later but instead enters Sugarpuss’ bungalow by mistake. He cannot see in the darkened room and spills his true feelings of love for her (though he believes he’s telling the other professor). Sugarpuss knows that she has fallen in love with him too. She jumps up and kisses him before a voice summons him back to the main lobby, where he finds Lilac waiting. Lilac notices the lipstick on Potts’ face and punches him. Suddenly the police arrive, having been tipped off to Sugarpuss’ location. Potts runs outside to tell the cops that she and Lilac left a half hour ago. When the coast is clear, Lilac leaves with his goons and his soon-to-be wife. With Sugarpuss’ new love for Potts, she finds herself unwilling to marry Lilac but is trapped by his hair-trigger temper. If someone is going to stop the “arranged” vows, it will have to be Potts. The only problem is: Lilac’s men are holding all eight professors hostage while the ceremony is officiated. They must decide between being men of study and just being men.
Its been suggested that Ball of Fire was purposely modeled after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for dropping an attractive woman in the middle of socially awkward men. That may or may not be the case, but the idea is not entirely unlikely. Gary Cooper was the stereotypical astute professor whose pursuit of knowledge deprived him of basic human interaction. He was able to solve any linguistic riddle or ascertain the meaning of any word, but he lacked the ability to feel. Each of the professors suffered from the same affliction. They considered themselves to be above the shallowness of everyday society. In their limited world, they lost sight of the essential factors that life is based upon. Cooper, as Bertram Potts, was the ringleader of his colleagues. He set the schedule for each day and stuck to it like a drill instructor. It took someone as drastic as Sugarpuss O’Shea to shock him back into reality. Barbara Stanwyck played Sugarpuss as a woman walking a tightrope between two personalities. She was the vamp and the good girl gone astray. She was the embodiment of someone forced into a life they didn’t necessarily want. During her stay with the professors, the real girl inside slowly began to stick her head from underneath the snappy facade. Had she been as tough as her exterior suggested, she wouldn’t have needed a mobster boyfriend like Joe Lilac to govern her life. Dana Andrews is a much underrated actor whose characters never fail to mold the complete story. As Joe Lilac, Andrews was like the burning wick of a firecracker. He kept himself under control and reserved, all the while sporting a subtle expression that dared anyone to rub him the wrong way. The murder with which he’s been charged is almost certainly his doing. He commands a team of subordinate roughnecks who are willing to shoot first and ask questions later if he gives the order. He was the anti-Bertram Potts. Stanwyck’s ‘Sugarpuss’ is half Potts and half Lilac, and each of those men play tug-of-war with her emotions. The result of these three characters, coupled with the plethora of popular character actors who comprise the other seven professors, is a fantastic film of attracting opposites. Gary Cooper was 18 years into his career when Ball of Fire was made. Having just finished Sergeant York, he would follow Ball with Pride of the Yankees.
Ball of Fire was released on DVD on May 22, 2007 by MGM. Sadly, it appears to be a bare bones release with no bonus features. It would have been nice to see a documentary on Cooper, Stanwyck and Andrews, perhaps showing the continued upswing of their respective careers. The audio and video transfers are more than satisfying, but the lack of extras really makes this disc a mere shadow of what it could have been. We can only hope that one day a Barbara Stanwyck Collection will be released with a more fitting edition of this great film.
Ball of Fire may not be recognized among the most influential films of all time, but it should be remembered for its impact on classic cinema. When a cast like this is assembled in a film, it sets a high bar for any features that dare to contend with it. Having been released at the beginning of the 1940s, it was smack in the middle of the Gangster era and the forthcoming wave of Film Noir gems. For that reason alone, it was both the result and the catalyst of inspiration. This is a required feature for aficionados of solid acting and brilliant writing.
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