Ball of Fire

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Ball of Fire
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHoward Hawks
Screenplay by
Based onFrom A to Z
by Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn
CinematographyGregg Toland
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Music byAlfred Newman
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • December 2, 1941 (1941-12-02)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,641,000 (worldwide rentals)[2][3]

Ball of Fire (also known as The Professor and the Burlesque Queen) is a 1941 American screwball comedy film directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. The 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 Oscar Homolka, S. Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Dana Andrews, and Dan Duryea.

In 2016, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.[4][5] In 1948, Hawks recycled the plot for a musical film, A Song Is Born, this time starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.[6]


A group of professors, all bachelors except for one 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, 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, Miss Bragg, keeping watch over them. Their impatient financial backer, Miss Totten, suddenly demands that they finish their work soon. When a slang-using garbage man comes in asking the professors' assistance for a quiz, Bertram realizes he is far behind the latest uses of slangs and ventures out to do some independent research and becomes interested in the slang vocabulary of nightclub performer Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea. She is reluctant to assist him until she suddenly needs a place to hide from the police, who want to question her about her boyfriend, mob boss Joe Lilac. 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, Joe decides to marry her, but only because as his wife she would not be able to testify against him.

The professors soon become fond of her, and she of them. Sugarpuss teaches them to conga and demonstrates to Bertram the meaning of the phrase "yum yum" (kisses). She becomes attracted to Bertram, who reciprocates by proposing marriage to her. She avoids giving him an answer and agrees to Joe's plan to have the professors drive her to New Jersey to marry him. After a series of misadventures, including a car crash, Sugarpuss realizes that she is in love with Bertram, but is forced to go ahead with her marriage to Joe to save the professors from his 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 Joe and his henchmen and rescue Sugarpuss. She claims she is not good enough for Bertram, but his application of "yum yum" changes her mind. The other seven professors leave the room to give Bertram and Sugarpuss a moment alone.



Publicity photo of Barbara Stanwyck for the film

Martha Tilton provided Barbara Stanwyck's singing voice for the song "Drum Boogie".[7] Drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa performed the song onscreen with his band.[6] In an unusual twist, he also played it on a matchbox with matches for drumsticks. Krupa band member and noted 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".


The script was written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder from a short story titled "From A to Z", which Wilder had created while he was still in Europe.[8] Partly inspired by the fairy tale "Snow White", the professors were loosely 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 directors' 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.

The role of Sugarpuss was offered to Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard, but both turned it down. Lucille Ball was almost cast in the role until Gary Cooper recommended Stanwyck.[9][10]

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 [a left-wing newspaper] and just as sore."

Wilder also worked in a reference to Cooper's Oscar-winning performance in the title role of Hawks' 1941 film Sergeant York by having Dan Duryea's character Duke Pastrami say, "I saw me a movie last week" before licking his thumb and rubbing it on the sight of his gun, a technique Cooper's York uses to improve his marksmanship.


According to RKO records, Ball of Fire took in $1,856,000 in theater rentals from the United States and Canada and an additional $785,000 from foreign rentals,[2][3] but because of the terms of Sam Goldwyn's deal with RKO, RKO recorded a loss of $147,000 on it.[11]

Ball of Fire holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.24/10. The site's consensus reads: "A splendidly funny twist on the story of Snow White, Ball of Fire boasts a pair of perfect leads in Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck".[12]

Awards and honors[edit]

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.



  1. ^ Rollyson, Carl (2012). Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. ISBN 978-1-60473-567-3. In Ball of Fire (released December 2, 1941), Gary Cooper plays Bertram Potts, a professor who falls in love with nightclub singer Sugarpuss O'Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck.
  2. ^ a b Jewell, Richard B. (1994). "RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: the C.J. Tevlin ledger". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 14 (1): 37–49. doi:10.1080/01439689400260031.
  3. ^ a b Jewell, Richard B. (1994). "Appendix 1". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 14 (S1): 1–11. doi:10.1080/01439689408604545.
  4. ^ Price, Gary. "Library of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry Including Thelma & Louise, The Princess Bride, and The Breakfast Club". LJ INFOdocket. Retrieved 2017-02-24.
  5. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-16.
  6. ^ a b Kael, p. 48.
  7. ^ Smith 1985, p. 93.
  8. ^ Fusco, Joseph (2017-09-12). Dan Duryea: A Career Appreciation. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media.
  9. ^ Wayne 2009, p. 106.
  10. ^ Thomson 2010, p. 80.
  11. ^ Jewell 2012 p. 254.
  12. ^ "Ball of Fire." Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: June 30, 2019.
  13. ^ "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: November 17, 2011.
  14. ^ Madsen 1994, p. 216.
  15. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs." American Film Institute. Retrieved: August 21, 2016.


External links[edit]