In trying to get friends to give old movies a chance, I often start with Ball of Fire, mainly because I know many English majors/graduate students, few of whom predict what delights are waiting for them in this 1941 classic. Here are just five of the reasons why everyone who waxes poetic about Shakespeare or Austen needs to spend a little time with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck:
1. The Plot: A Mobster/Moll Romantic Comedy about Language
Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper), on the hunt for colorful subjects to aid him with his encyclopedia entry on slang, enlists a sexy torch singer, Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck).
Sound ridiculous? It is, wonderfully so.
In the “meet cute” moment, O’Shea has just learned that her mobster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) is in trouble with the law. Fearing the knock on her dressing room door is the DA with a subpoena, she’s hostile to Potts, and when she discovers his mission to study her, dismisses him:
O’Shea: “Shove in your clutch.”
Potts: “Exactly the kind of thing I want”….
O’Shea: “OK, scrow, scram, scraw.”
Potts: “A complete conjugation!”
The opening sequence of Potts’ investigation, in which we learn the sources of such terms as “slap happy” and discover just how old the term “jerk” must be, is equally amusing to those of us who delight in wordplay, as is the nerdy professor’s ignorance of such words as “boogie.”
And that’s just the first half hour.
2. A Clever Take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Fables, folk tales, fairy tales. We English majors love to read them, interpret them, reinvent them. (Angela Carter’s dark The Bloody Chamber traumatized me in an introductory lit course.) Famed writing team Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder turn the tale on its head, making Snow White a seductress and the dwarves a team of innocent professors (six bachelors and a widower) who are writing an encyclopedia together, with Prince Potts acting as the eighth member.
O’Shea seeks shelter from the police at their house, claiming she needs to stay to help with Potts’ research. The proper Potts doesn’t understand why she needs a sleepover, but his elderly companions, used to only the “singularly uninspiring underpinnings” of their housekeeper, outweigh his objections. They have fallen for O’Shea, and their charming antics to gain her attention—wearing new outfits, making sure their pants get ironed, having her teach them the conga—make you wonder just how unfair it is that the prince is the one who wins Snow White’s affection.
O’Shea has no plans to seduce Potts, but when things get “hotter” for her boyfriend and she’s told “to stay in the icebox like a good little salad,” she gives the impressionable Potts a kiss. And, as in the fairy tale, things escalate from there.
3. The Witty Dialogue/One Liners
What English major isn’t a sucker for good dialogue? With Wilder & Brackett as writers and Howard Hawks as the director, witty banter and frequent double entendres are a matter of course.
Early in the film, Miss Bragg, the housekeeper, badgers Professor Oddly for gobbling up the strawberry jam after writing an encyclopedia entry on strawberries. She then expresses horror at Professor Magenbruch’s studies.
“I’m just starting my article on sex, Miss Bragg,” he answers. “Any objections?”
“No,” she concedes. “I trust you have more control of yourself than Professor Oddly.”
And the one liners! Some favorites:
O’Shea: “Say, who decorated this place, the mug that shot Lincoln?”
Potts: “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”
O’Shea (describing her throat): “It’s as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore.”
Miss Bragg (speaking of O’Shea): “That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple!”
I always wonder why so many Gilmore Girls and Aaron Sorkin fans won’t give 30s and 40s comedies a try. Ball of Fire not only employs the banter they love so well, but avoids the trap of making EVERY character eloquent (a Sorkin flaw). The contrast between O’Shea’s wisecracking and Potts’ slow earnestness is one of the delights of the film, and given that Cooper typically played a Clint Eastwood type, his professorial wordiness is particularly amusing. As the Self-Styled Siren put it, “Who besides Billy Wilder would look at Gary Cooper, the most laconic speaker in Hollywood, and think, ‘Linguistics!’”
4. Wonderful Characters (and Performances)
With eight professors, a nightclub singer, a mobster and his minions, the DA and his team, and Potts’ other research subjects, a viewer would be unreasonable to expect much character development in any but the main players. Romantic comedies rarely get beyond stereotypes anyway. But most of the characters in Ball of Fire are unique and memorable, from the prim widower with the sexless interpretation of romance, to the genial Professor Magenbruch, who can’t stop thinking about his need to research for the sex entry. Even Joe Lilac’s two minions are funny in their villainy. And at the center of the film, we have Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Stanwyck in an Oscar-nominated performance.
Stanwyck’s job as Snow White is to charm, and she takes to it naturally. She’s laid back and confident, and as cool as her companions are geeky. (I kept thinking of an Elizabeth Bennett landing in the middle of The Big Bang Theory.) Most of all, O’Shea’s a great deal of fun, whether leading her band in a quiet version of “Boogie” at the start of the story, or teaching the professors to conga. She doesn’t want to harm any of the professors with her deception, but she is so used to looking out for herself that their brand of vulnerability is foreign to her.
O’Shea too is soon smitten, so unfamiliar with sincerity that it floors her even as her comfort with her sexuality undoes her companions. Her guilt at duping such lovable men is palpable.
Stanwyck lost the Oscar to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion that year. Fontaine’s was a strong performance, but I think Stanwyck’s dazzling turn should have guaranteed her win. Though some of the credit for her fully rounded performance definitely goes to the writers, Stanwyck is so believable in the midst of this crazy plot that she grounds the film. A once reluctant watcher of black and white flicks, I became a classic movie enthusiast and lifelong Stanwyck fan after watching this movie. I suspect I’m not the only one.
5. The Grammarian Winning the Girl?
English majors—especially males—don’t get a lot of cred in the romantic lead department, especially when up against mobsters like Joe Lilac.
At least women can get the “sexy librarian” rep. Occasionally, poets can win some attention in film (and I know such gifts helped my friends on Valentine’s Day). But grammarians? Teachers of the comma splice? Among an unglamorous profession, grammar professors are the nadir when it comes to sexy reps, right down there with nuclear physicists.
“You see, this is the first time anybody moved in on my brain,” says O’Shea after entering Potts’ home, and you know when she later glows at the possibility of becoming “Mrs. Lilac” just how unlikely the brain is to triumph.
But slowly, Potts makes inroads. O’Shea even reads a grammar book in her spare time, and there’s a whole discussion about the repetitiveness of her phrase “on account of because” in the midst of a romantic interlude. Only Wilder and Brackett could not only make this scene romantic, but convincing. Due to the caliber of their writing and Stanwyck’s performance, we trust that this cynical nightclub singer really does get so flushed in company with “corny” Potts that she needs to take the movie’s equivalent of a cold shower (a towel to the neck).
And this triumph, my English major friends, is a rare treat to witness. Good luck finding a modern film so generous in its treatment of grammarians. When you find one, be sure to let me know. In the meantime, I’ll take another serving of Ball of Fire.
Check out the other romantic comedy entries in the blogathon!