Ball of Fire

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For the song by Tommy James and the Shondells, see Ball of Fire (song).
Ball of Fire
Ball of Fire movie poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay by
Based on From A to Z
by Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder
Starring
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Production
company
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • December 2, 1941 (1941-12-02) (US)
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2.2 million (US rentals)[1]

Ball of Fire is a 1941 American screwball comedy film directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. This Samuel Goldwyn Productions film (originally distributed by RKO) concerns a group of professors laboring to write an encyclopedia and their encounter with a nightclub performer who provides her own unique knowledge. The supporting cast includes Oskar Homolka, S. Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Dana Andrews, and Dan Duryea. In 1948, the plot was recycled for a musical film, A Song Is Born, this time starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. The film is also known as The Professor and the Burlesque Queen.

Plot[edit]

A group of bachelor professors (one was a widower) have lived together for some years in a New York City residence, compiling an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. The youngest, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), is a grammarian who is researching modern American slang. The professors are accustomed to working in relative seclusion at a leisurely pace with a prim housekeeper named Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard) keeping watch over them. Their impatient financial backer Miss Totten (Mary Field) suddenly demands that they finish their work soon.

Venturing out to do some independent research, Bertram becomes interested in the slang vocabulary of saucy nightclub performer "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). She is reluctant to assist him in his research until she needs a place to hide from the police, who want to question her about her boyfriend, mob boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Sugarpuss takes refuge in the house where the professors live and work, despite Bertram's objections and their housekeeper's threat to leave because of her. In the meantime, Lilac decides to marry her, but only because as his wife she cannot testify against him.

The professors soon become enamored of her femininity, and she begins to grow fond of them. She teaches them to conga and demonstrates to Bertram the meaning of the phrase "yum yum" (kisses). She becomes attracted to Bertram, who reciprocates with a vengeance by proposing marriage to her. She avoids giving an answer to the proposal, and agrees to Lilac's plan to have the professors drive her to New Jersey to marry Lilac. After a series of misadventures, including a car crash, Sugarpuss realizes that she is in love with the Professor, but is forced to go ahead with her marriage to Lilac to save the professors from Lilac's henchmen. Bertram, meanwhile, unaware of Sugarpuss' love for him, prepares to resume his research, sadder but wiser, until he discovers her true feelings.

The professors eventually outwit Lilac and his henchmen and rescue Sugarpuss. She decides she is not good enough for Bertram, but his forceful application of "yum yum" convinces her to change her mind.

Cast[edit]

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper

Music[edit]

Martha Tilton provided Barbara Stanwyck's singing voice for the song "Drum Boogie".[2] Drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa performed the song onscreen with his band.[3] In an unusual twist, he also played it on a matchbox with matches for drumsticks. Krupa band member and historically significant trumpeter Roy Eldridge received a brief on-camera spot during "Drum Boogie". At one point the professors also perform an a cappella version of the 1869 song "Sweet Genevieve".

Publicity photo of Barbara Stanwyck for the film

Production[edit]

The script was written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder from a short story written by Wilder while he was still in Europe, and based in part on the fairy tale Snow White. The professors themselves were based on the dwarfs from Walt Disney's animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although Ball of Fire was directed by the well-established Howard Hawks, Wilder had already decided that he needed to direct his screenplays to protect them from studio and other director's interference. Hawks was happy to let Wilder study his directing on the set and Wilder thereafter directed his own films. The film was the second feature of 1941 to pair Cooper and Stanwyck, following Meet John Doe.

Wilder reveled in poking fun at those who took politics too seriously. At one point, "Sugarpuss" points to her sore throat and complains "Slight rosiness? It's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore". Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housekeeper the name "Franco" just before she knocks the woman out. Wilder also worked in a reference to Cooper's Academy Award-winning performance in Hawks' Sergeant York by having Dan Duryea's character Duke Pastrami say "I saw me a movie last week" just before wetting the sights of his pistol and aiming it.

Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea, while Lucille Ball almost won the role until Gary Cooper recommended Stanwyck.[4][5]

The film was later remade with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo under the title A Song is Born (1948).[3]

Reception[edit]

The film was a big hit at the box office. However, because of the terms of Sam Goldwyn's deal with RKO, RKO recorded a loss of $147,000 on it.[6]

In a retrospective review, critic Pauline Kael dismissed the film as "shrill and tiresome".[3]

Awards and honors[edit]

Ball of Fire was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Best Sound, Recording (Thomas T. Moulton) and Best Story.[7]

In World War II, a total of 12 servicemen were pen-pals with Stanwyck; two of them asked for a poster of her in the Ball of Fire outfit for their mess hall.[8]

Ball of Fire is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

In a 1999 AFI poll, stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck were both ranked #11 on the male and female lists of the greatest American screen legends.

Ball of Fire holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 24 reviews.[13]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "101 Pix Gross in Millions." Variety, January 6, 1943. p. 58.
  2. ^ Smith 1985, p. 93.
  3. ^ a b c Kael, p. 48.
  4. ^ Wayne 2009, p. 106.
  5. ^ Thomson 2010, p. 80.
  6. ^ Jewell 2012 p. 254.
  7. ^ "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners." oscars.org. Retrieved: November 17, 2011.
  8. ^ Madsen 1994, p. 216.
  9. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs." American Film Institute. Retrieved: August 21, 2016.
  10. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions Nominees." ."] American Film Institute. Retrieved: August 21, 2016.
  11. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes Nominees." American Film Institute. Retrieved: August 21, 2016.
  12. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees." American Film Institute. Retrieved: August 21, 2016.
  13. ^ "Ball of Fire." Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: November 17, 2011.

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]