“Don’t tell me the jive session has beat off without baby!”
With the likes of His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and Bringing Up Baby, it may seem odd that my first foray into Howard Hawks‘ oeuvre would be the screwball comedy Ball of Fire. Considering I’m criminally behind on catching up with the cinematic 40s and 50s, it is.
Co-conceived and -scripted by Billy Wilder, this hyper-real world contains more than just a passing similarity to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Between mentioning the Disney film more than once and opening to a textual ‘Once Upon a Time’ fantasy prologue, we’re thrust into its manufactured capsule of over-the-top sensibilities impeccably catered to service the story told. Opening with its eight professors blissfully content on a daily constitutional around the park, we’re prepared for the fact these older men are nothing more than wide-eyed children easily distracted by the beauty surrounding them. So when a sexy singer—hiding from the police who hope she’ll testify against her gangster boyfriend—stumbles into their view, it’s unsurprising to watch them bumble giddily and end a nine year sequester with the lustful longing for Miss Sugarpuss’s large wealth of talents.
And by talents I mean her propensity for speaking slang, of course. This living language of the street is exactly what our court of professors’ levelheaded leader, Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), has been attempting to conquer for their now decade-long task of composing a new encyclopedia for the Tottem Estate. So long encapsulated in academia with men older than he, his research as a grammatist proves obsolete when a local garbage man (Allen Jenkins) arrives speaking as though in foreign language. But while the exotic words captivate and entrance the other seven professors as though a delightful morsel of Americana distracting from the laborious task occupying them, Potts is driven to educate himself and angry he hasn’t done so until now.
Thus it’s Potts who fills in for the Snow White of this tale—living with his dwarves in seclusion, hiding from the dangers of the big bad world outside the Tottem Estate—and Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) the prince. Fresh, alluring, and someone who could legitimately teach our stuffy professor a thing or three about contemporary life, this dancer transforms before his eyes from a sexual creature to ogle and need cold handkerchiefs to cool his neck into a woman he wants to provide for as husband. Ball of Fire is “The Big Bang Theory” over half a century before it took our present society by storm with witty wordplay and the culture clash based in the IQ chasm between genius and Joe Schmoe.
Like the sitcom too, the potential love story here isn’t needed to sustain interest when the characters populating the plot are so fantastically eccentric and immensely entertaining thrown out of their element. Dana Andrews‘ Joe Lilac may always loom over the proceedings as the gangster looking to marry Sugarpuss once the cops are circumvented, yet the inevitable conflict to win her heart pales in comparison to how these sheltered, delicate men come to that climax. Fawning over this sultry woman taking residence in their home—something caretaker Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard) won’t even do considering they’re seven bachelors and a widower—their brains are made to use their expertise in applications they never fathomed needing to solve.
Consisting of S.Z Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, and Richard Haydn, it’s the three men rounding out the septet who propel themselves above the rest in terms of comedy. Aubrey Mather (Prof. Peagram) is a hoot as he consistently alludes to current research on sex with thinly veiled lines like “She can stay in my room” before clarifying his meanings; Henry Travers (Prof. Jerome) is almost identical in tone to his Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life and seeing him overwhelmed by the trigger of a machine gun is endearingly hilarious; and Oskar Homolka (Prof. “Gurkey” Gurkakoff) possesses the most intellectually humorous quips when trying to use mathematical principles to wash his hands of any deserved fault—”The sign hit the car”.
And while you’d think it couldn’t get funnier than academics discovering latent hero complexes in the dangerous city to satisfy their libido’s long overdue lust, Cooper and Stanwyck prove their star status through lively interactions of opposing styles. Scenes with her teaching him the meaning of the word “corny” or giving a first hand presentation of what “yum-yum” feels like work because of her infinite confidence and his puritanical shielding. Thinking Cooper’s introduction was stiff and clichéd only having his goofy peers to converse with, I soon discovered his pompous introvert was in fact carefully measured after the outside’s chaos pulls him in. His social inexperience allows Stanwyck’s kiss to release him from his self-erected prison—a common trope seen most recently in “Chuck” when its Nerdherder finds the bombshell spy making the first move.
She’s the epitome of gangster mol and her delivery of the slang is pitch-perfect. We watch her invested in the entertainment world through an inspired rendition of “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa on matchsticks, having fun while giving the frustrated old professors a little sizzle to get their hearts pounding, and most of all her street smarts to con poor Potts and yet legitimately keep him on his toes as a grammatist of her own language devoid of split infinitive rules. Stanwyck and Cooper’s back and forth creates a wealth of one-liners and scenes like Chinese tickle torture in an empty garbage truck show Ball of Fire isn’t a film easily forgotten. More absurd than polished, its broad, zany strokes are actually what make it smart, sophisticated, and utterly successful.