Ball of Fire by Howard Hawks [DVD]
In this delightful romantic comedy Gary Cooper plays Bertram Potts, the youngest of eight professors who have lived together for years, devoting their time to the production of a new encyclopedia. When a trash collector asks the professors for help answering questions for a trivia contestd Bertram is baffled by the garbageman’s language and realizes his article on American on slang is badly out of date. In order to correct this he must leave his reference books behind in order to do some research in the field.
Bertram’s field research brings him in contact with Sugarpuss O’Shea, a witty and jocular nightclub performer portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. Sugarpuss has no interest in helping Bertram with his research until her mob-boss boyfriend gets in trouble and she needs a place to hide from the police. What better place to hide than among these quiet and respectable professors?
Having taken refuge with the encyclopedists, Sugarpuss delights in teasing the stodgy Bertram and soon makes friends with the other professors (who, unlike Bertram, enjoy her company from the beginning). Bertram, however, worries that her presence will interfere with progress on the encyclopedia. “Now, when the Foundation launched our vessel”, he proclaims, “it very wisely followed an old rule of the sea, no women aboard. It chose a crew of single men with nothing to distract them from the course they were to sail.” Sugarpuss recognizes this as nonsense, but can’t risk a fight under the circumstances. Still, it is with evident sarcasm that she offers “to sit on her legs”.
Bertram almost redeems himself when he replies, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind”. However, he continues with, “unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”, a statement which comes across as almost redeeming—Bertram wasn’t concerned for the sake of the other professors, but for himself. Fate will, however, keep Sugarpuss and the professor together, and despite flying wisecracks and bullets (remember the mob-boss boyfriend?) they soon grow to enjoy each other’s company.
Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss is refreshingly strong, independent, and easily the most complex character in the film. Gary Cooper’s Bertram is understated and reserved. Many of the characters come across as cartoonish, which is just what you want from the supporting characters in a screwball comedy. The dialogue is fast and witty and, of course, full of period slang, familiar and not.
By the way, Ball of FIre would later be remade as the musical A Song is Born starring Danny Kaye. The dialogue in the two films is in large parts identical, despite the different scenario and very different portrayals. Folks who have seen A Song is Born will be relieved to know that in Ball of Fire the dialogue actually makes sense!