“Ball of Fire” (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck & Gary Cooper

Opening credits prologue: Once upon a time – in 1941 to be exact – there lived in a great, tall forest – called New York – eight men who were writing an encyclopedia. They were so wise they knew everything: the depth of the oceans, and what makes a glowworm glow, and what tune Nero fiddles while Rome was burning. But there was one thing about which they knew very little – as you will see…

I saw this movie yesterday (July 16th)- Barbara Stanwyck’s b-day. A clever/sexy/wise-cracking nightclub singer, Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Stanwyck- who got an Oscar nod), needs to be kept on ice b/c her mobster bf Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews- slick and sharply-dressed) is suspected of murder and her testimony could get him the electric chair. A naive/tall/handsome professor, Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper- almost 40 and fabulous), meets Sugarpuss while researching an article on modern slang; in rom com fashion, their two worlds collide. When she hides out with Potts (and his 7 fellow nerdy profs), everyone learns something new! This is included among the AFI’s list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.

Potts: What’re you gonna do?

Sugarpuss: I’m going to show you what yum-yum is. Here’s yum. [kisses him] Here’s the other yum. [kisses him again] And here’s yum-yum. [gives a long kiss that knocks him backwards onto a chair]

To pick up slang for their script, screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett visited the drugstore across the street from Hollywood High School, a burlesque house, and the Hollywood Park racetrack. When Cooper is taking notes of the newsboy’s slang, the marquee on the theater across the street advertises Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), an inside joke that refers to the script’s inspiration. There is even a promo photo showing the actors sitting in front of a Disney poster, each one in front of his corresponding dwarf: S.Z. Sakall – Dopey; Leonid Kinskey – Sneezy; Richard Haydn – Bashful; Henry Travers – Sleepy; Aubrey Mather – Happy; Tully Marshall – Grumpy, and Oskar Homolka – Doc. Lucille Ball wanted to play Sugarpuss, as she thought it was the kind of role that would win her an Oscar. She fought for the role and was eventually hired, but once producer Samuel Goldwyn found out that Stanwyck (recommended by Cooper) was available, he gave her the part instead. Andrews based his character on notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel, who owned the Formosa (a club across the street from Goldwyn Studios). Andrews used to go there after work; he had the suits, hats, and spats down pat.

Miss Bragg: That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple!

One of Gene Krupa’s four trumpet players was Roy Eldridge, the only Black man in the band (briefly seen in the film). To avoid offending white audiences in the Jim Crow South, the studio and director Howard Hawks came up w/ a plan. The reels of a movie were shown using two alternating projectors. Sixteen mins. into the film, Stanwyck comes on, sings “Drum Boogie” (Martha Tilton provided the voice) w/ the band, and Eldridge stands to perform his trumpet solo. When the song is over, Stanwyck leaves the stage and the first reel ends. As the next reel begins, she returns for an encore, the band is still in place and the audience is still applauding; however, Eldridge has been removed from the band. By simply switching projectors before Stanwyck’s first entry, a projectionist could “edit out” Eldridge.

Sugarpuss: [about Potts] Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!

After surviving quarantine life, all of us know about being house-bound, lonely, and out of touch w/ the world (though we aren’t working on a set of encyclopedias)! It’s obvious that the the (also nerdy) Miss Totten has a crush on Potts; when she comes by for a meeting re: financing their work, the other profs urge him to be nice to her. In just a few days, Potts wins over Sugarpuss by being kind, thoughtful, and respectful (traits that her bf doesn’t possess). She teaches the profs re: current songs and how to dance the cha-cha- it’s sweet and funny. Check this movie out if you want a laugh!

[1] A very funny, sprightly film, fast-paced and full of wonderful performances. Stanwyck is glowingly wonderful, but I still can’t get over Cooper’s wonderful characterization of a supremely attractive total geek. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, see the movie and you’ll realize it’s true.

[2] I really liked the way that every one of the nerdy professors is tempted to correct every mistake made by the others. But the gags throughout the movie are really something. Hilarious.

[3] “Ball of Fire” shows pre-Pearl Harbor comedic Hollywood at its zenith.

[4] The expressions of the day are dated and humorous and there are so many you can’t count them all. Some are stupid; some are hilarious… which is what you get with most comedies anyway. Not every line hits the mark, but a lot do in this one.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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