This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts.
Nerd alert: I used to sit in the basement, reading my parents’ World Books for fun. I think it started with A Tale of Two Cities. A few hours into the encyclopedia set’s entries on The French Revolution, and Sydney Carton was forgotten.
Now, of course, my addiction is Wikipedia, despite my warning students away from it with Colbert. The other day I attended a Renaissance Faire featuring a pirate show (yes, I know how ridiculous that is), just after reading about Blackbeard in The Smithsonian. The combination led me on a Wikipedia binge on female pirates.
Thus it should be no surprise that a film about professors writing an encyclopedia (and their unexpected romantic interlude with a gangster’s moll) would thrill me. I’ve already explained why Ball of Fire should be viewed by all English majors. Today I’m advocating it for history buffs as well, particularly due to one scene starring the professors, two gangsters, The Sword of Damocles, and the mirrors of Archimedes.
For those who’ve never seen the film, here’s the basic plot: Sugarpuss (Barbara Stanwyck), girlfriend to gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), hides out from the D.A. in the home of the encyclopedia writers, pretending she’s there to help with Professor Potts’s (Gary Cooper’s) entry on slang. Potts falls for and proposes to her, and she (to her great shock) falls for him too. But when her scheming is exposed, Potts lets her leave with Lilac, who needs her “I do” to prevent her from testifying about his crimes.
Sugarpuss knows she’s earned Potts’s disgust, but refuses to marry Lilac, instead explaining her love for the professor. She describes his poor kissing technique, his “giraffe” fashion, and other traits that have somehow inspired her love for him.
To force her, Lilac sends two of his henchmen, Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Anderson (Ralph Peters), to take the professors hostage.
When Potts discovers how much Sugarpuss loves him, he wants to yodel he’s so happy. His fellow professors share in this enthusiasm, even holding down Pastrami’s gun. The gangster retorts,”Better look out, it’s gonna spit.”
At this exciting juncture, their garbage man arrives with questions on a quiz, including one about the Sword of Damocles. Professor Jerome (Henry Travers–a.k.a., Clarence of It’s a Wonderful Life) explains the legend, realizing its pertinence to their situation: A sword is suspended above the head of Damocles by just a hair, just like the portrait above Pastrami.
After Potts shares another story–Archimedes burning the Roman fleet with well-aimed mirrors–Professor Gurkakoff (Oscar Homolka) moves his microscope so that it’s catching the sunlight, and directs it at the rope above the portrait.
Now all the professors need to do is distract the criminals’ attention from the fire. Potts insults the gangsters in a pseudo-intellectual style, beginning a nonsensical speech with “Your inferiority is a question of the bony structure of your skulls.”
Anderson is unaware how truthfully he speaks when he complains, “This mixed-up talk is giving me a headache.” Pastrami argues that guns, not smarts, make the world go round, and proves it by shooting their globe.
While this gun play has the whole room worried, it’s Pastrami’s decision to leave his chair that leads to panic. Professor Oddly proposes that Pastrami shoot a dime out of his hand, but only if he returns to his seat. Realizing the risk he’s taking, poor Oddly switches to a quarter, then a 50-cent piece. The tension in the room has obviously reached quite a pitch.
And Anderson falls via the carpet move. Oddly faints–quite theatrically. And the professors rush off in a garbage truck to save Sugarpuss, with Potts studying boxing strategies to use against Lilac en route. With scenes as delightfully geeky and ridiculous as this one, it any wonder that this classic film remains my favorite?