During college, my friend Cookie and I bonded over Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck's romance in Howard Hawks' BALL OF FIRE (1941). Of course "Cookie" isn't her real name - we picked it up from Katharine Hepburn in SUMMERTIME (1955). Anyway, BALL OF FIRE was by far our favorite classic film.
Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) and his seven co-professors are shut up every day working on completing an encyclopedia when their hum-drum lives are overturned by the arrival of Sugarpuss O'Shea (Stanwyck). Potts meets O'Shea in a nightclub where he was doing some research for his article about slang. When her crooked boyfriend runs into some trouble with the fuzz, his compatriots convince Sugarpuss to go into hiding with the bumbling professors, where she causes incredible upheaval, teaching them the cha-cha and generally interfering with their work. Of course, Sugarpuss and Potts sort of unwillingly fall for each other and that causes all manner of trouble with her boyfriend's mob of gangsters. Not to worry - if you didn't know it already, professors are actually superheroes and they can sort out any problem using wit, brain, and a little bit of adorableness.
The adorable part of the film is that the professors are each modeled after the seven dwarfs. They are also brilliantly cast - many will recognize the faces of S. Z. Sakall, Henry Travers (Clarence in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)), and Oskar Homolka, among others. Because they are each so incredibly lovable, the audience really comes to care about them and how they are treated (or mistreated) by Sugarpuss and her boyfriend's gang. The professors are the heart of the film, as well as the comedy of it.
|Sugarpuss explains (and demonstrates) the meaning of "yum-yum."|
"Don't tell me the drive session has beat off without baby."
"Hey who decorated this place, the mug who shot Lincoln?"In true Howard Hawks fashion, BALL OF FIRE is full of fast-paced, witty dialogue. This film is one of a batch of movies Hawks made between 1938 and 1941, including BRINGING UP BABY (1938), ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), and SERGEANT YORK (1941). One of our favorite scenes in the movie is at the nightclub where Stanwyck performs "Drum Boogie" with drumming legend Gene Krupa. Watch to the end to see him perform the encore with a couple matchsticks: