While browsing through the Summer Under the Stars lineup for today, I saw that Ball of Fire, a delightfully unique screwball comedy with one very catchy musical number that I find myself singing often, was on tap for this evening. I knew that I had to write an entry on it, as it is indeed a fascinating film and ahead of its time in many ways. Dealing at once with intellectualism, gangsters, burlesque, and romance, featuring a snappy script complete with endless slang terms from the era, Ball of Fire is a movie lover’s smorgasbord, with a little something to suit everyone’s taste!
The story begins as a group of aging college professors, living together in a large house, try to complete an encyclopedia that they have started. Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is writing an entry on modern slang, and to conduct research and gather participants for his study, he ventures out into the dingier parts of the city–pool halls, bars, anywhere where lower vernacular might be used. One of these establishments is a burlesque hall, wherein he sees a young dancer sing a sensual number called “Drumboogie.”
The drummer here is making a cameo appearance. Widely known and popular for their big band sound, this is the famous Gene Krupa and his orchestra. One of my favorite parts of the whole movie is how Krupa plays the matchbox like a drum at the end of this video, as the rest of the audience whispers the song. It reminds me of something Bob Fosse might have dreamed up some 30 years later.
With this number enters the character of Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom Professor Potts is very taken for her prolific use of slang. He decides to go backstage and ask Sugarpuss if she would be willing to take part in his project, but as we soon learn, Sugarpuss is a gangster’s moll whose boyfriend, Joe Lilac, is being linked to a murder case. When she hears a man knocking on the door wanting to talk to her, she is convinced that it is in relation to Joe and talks to Professor Potts in a very suspicious way. He is entranced with her usage of slang and though she keeps telling him she is not interested (“Shove in your clutch” is a phrase Professor Potts is most taken with), he leaves his card for her in case she ever is.
Those protecting Joe Lilac are concerned that if Sugarpuss were to go back to her apartment, the police would find her and make her talk. As they try to think about where to put her for the night so the police won’t know her whereabouts, Sugarpuss pulls out Professor Potts’ card, and the decision is made for her to go there for the night. She goes under the guise of being legitimately interested in Professor Potts’ investigation, and ends up staying much longer than the initial night.
Meanwhile, Joe Lilac is poised to marry her due to the fact that she wouldn’t be forced to testify against him. The protectors show up with a huge engagement ring, and though they downplay the not having to testify bit (one of my favorite lines is “He gets more bang outta you than any girl he ever met!”), it is clear that avoiding prosecution is his primary motive. However, what complicates things is that Professor Potts is beginning to fall in love with her. Eventually, the professor proposes and Sugarpuss is officially engaged to two men.
Through a series of circumstances, Sugarpuss is driven to Joe to be married along with Professor Potts and the rest of the professors in the house, but they all, including Professor Potts, think that Sugarpuss and the professor are going to be the ones having the wedding, not Sugarpuss and Joe. Once the professor finds out, he leaves Sugarpuss in anger and she is forced toward Joe. By this point, Sugarpuss really has fallen for the professor, and how exactly she gets out of her entanglement with Joe is what takes up the last 15 minutes of the movie.
I don’t usually like to spend too much time rehashing a film’s plot, preferring to leave more room for analysis, but the way this film unravels is truly like yarn–one thing leads to another, and in order to bring the character of the film into focus, the details of the plot are important to impart. In fact, the route of this plot is very typical of the comedies of Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay. When Ball of Fire is compared to a later Billy Wilder film such as Some Like it Hot (1959), the way the story unfolds is very similar.
Though today is technically Gary Cooper day on TCM, I think this is Barbara Stanwyck’s film, through and through. The real-life Barbara Stanwyck was a tough Brooklyn gal who grew up in poverty on the streets of New York, and that common slang of Sugarpuss O’Shea was her own way of speaking. I don’t think anyone else in Hollywood at that time could have been better for the part. The way she carries herself and even the way she walks is pitch perfect for the part she plays.
Stanwyck as a young girl in Brooklyn.
The others who steal the show are the absolutely adorable professors who share the house with Bertram Potts. Played notably by S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Henry Travers, and Richard Haydn, they do such things as mapping out the steps to the conga through an algorithm, and after crashing the car into a sign, explaining that by the theory of relativity that it was the sign who crashed into them. The presence of Sugarpuss in the professors’ house was supposed to be reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the professors certainly honed the sweet and slightly otherworldly quality of the dwarves.
I get a huge kick out of this movie, and truth be told I have never met one person who didn’t love it. It’s just one of those movies that is universally liked and appreciated. If you haven’t seen it, it plays on TCM fairly frequently.
Here is Sugarpuss O’Shea in a great scene teaching the professors how to dance the conga. Thanks for reading! And don’t forget to tune in later this week for my coverage of Cinecon, starting Thursday. I’ll enable live-tweeting again, as I think that was a good way to keep you informed up to the minute!