A couple months ago, fellow classic movie fan and blogger, Steve, at Movie, Movie, Blog, Blog posted that he was hosting an upcoming blogathon, entitled Sex!(Now that I have your attention), a look at classic movies that tastefully, skillfully, without being graphic or vulgar, hinted at that something that causes a man to seek his mate, so to speak. I saw Steve’s announcement for the blogathon, I blushed, and decided that I wouldn’t be able to participate. Then, 3 weeks ago, I received a personal invite to participate in this blogathon! The first day of this blogathon, June 19th, happens to be my birthday, and not just any birthday; I was born in 1965, so I’ll let you do the math. I decided, oh let’s have some fun and I contacted Steve and told him I was in. Be sure to visit his site to read about the other films getting the treatment this weekend.
I decided to take a look at 1941’s screwball, rom-com, Ball of Fire. This film is shown on Turner Classic Movies quite regularily, and I always ignored it! This past winter, I finally gave in and tivoed it and viewed it. The film is a gem! Well-directed by the late, great Howard Hawks(here is a list of his award winning films courtesy of imdb), well-written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, two gentlemen who excelled at getting those double entendres into their scripts, and well-acted by the two leads, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. The supporting players are also great, but more about them in a moment! Barbara Stanwyck plays Katharine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, a nightclub singer and dancer. Sugarpuss loves her work but her problem is her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac(Dana Andrews in an early role). Joe may have committed a murder and the District Attorney wants to question Sugarpuss about Joe, his whereabouts when the murder happened, etc. Joe wants to marry Sugarpuss because then she can’t testify against him; it’s known as testimonial privilege in the US judicial system.
Enter the movie’s hero, Professor Bertram Potts, played by handsome Gary Cooper. He is a nerd, a very serious linguistics professor. He and his 6 professor friends, all bachelors, live in the same house near their college. They are all working together on an encyclopedia of knowledge, and Professor Potts has taken it upon himself to learn about American slang amd then he’ll write that section for the encyclopedia. He decides to go out daily to walk the streets of NYC and listen to the slang that is all around him. One evening, he stumbles upon the nightclub where Sugarpuss works, and is fascinated with her language usuage. Here are two clips, courtesy of Youtube, that show Sugarpuss entertaining the audience. The legendary Gene Krupa has an excellent drum solo, as do other musicians in the band. Cooper’s Professor Potts is writing down slang terms he hears Sugarpuss use in her song. The second clip is fun, as Sugarpuss and Gene Krupa are called upon for an encore. Note how Cooper, as the Professor, tries to use a new word, “Boogie”. Fun scenes!
Professor Potts asks Sugarpuss to join in a roundtable at his home, so he can study slang in depth. Sugarpuss turns down the invitation as she thinks the Professor is a bit of a nut and too dull. Sitting in her dressing room after the show, Sugarpuss gets a visit from her boyfriend Joe’s two henchmen, Joe Pastrami(the ever great Dan Duryea- a family man in real life, an expert at playing sleazy, no-good baddies in the movies!), and Asthma Anderson(Ralph Peters). The two henchmen tell Sugarpuss that she needs to make herself scarce as the DA is looking for her. She agrees to hide out and quickly finds Professor Potts. She says she’ll be a part of his study, but that she needs a place to stay and before he can blink, she has it planned that she’ll stay at his house!
Some movie critics have compared Ball of Fire with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I can see a tiny bit of that fairy tale in Ball of Fire. When Sugarpuss arrives to live at the house, in her showgirl costume and her slang speech, with her very feminine charms on display, it shocks the old professors right on their keesters! They awaken to how nice it is to have such a pretty lady in their midst. They begin to spruce themselves up a bit, to remember old girlfriends, their courtship days; a few remember with sweet fondness their late wives. Sugarpuss does have to contend with the grouchy housekeeper, Miss Bragg, who is appalled that a showgirl is living in the house with 7 men, so more modest clothing is worn; the flashy showgirl number is packed away. Sugarpuss even teaches the professors how to do a Conga line! It is reminiscent of how the 7 dwarfs start to warm up to Snow White and grow to love her. The professors are wonderfully acted by: Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Leonid Kinskey, S.Z. Sakall, Richard Haydn, and Tully Marshall. Here is a clip of the Conga lesson.
Professor Potts and Sugarpuss are thrown together due to his work studying her grammar and her slang, but she also uses those times to study him, and to find out what makes him tick. There grows a chemistry of attraction between the two, and it explodes in the scene where Sugarpuss decides to give the Professor some “Yum-Yum”, er, kisses. Here’s a great clip of that scene via Youtube.
Professor Potts loves Sugarpuss and wants to marry her. Joe Lilac, gangster on the lam in New Jersey, wants to marry Sugarpuss, too. What’s a girl to do? You’ll have to find Ball of Fire to find out how all of the love and romance plays out, with good dashes of comedy strewn over all the happenings. Turner Classics will be airing Ball of Fire on Sunday, July 12th, at 4:00 pm eastern/3:00 pm central. It’s available to buy via Amazon and at TCM’s Shop. To close out my post, here are some more stills from the film, the film’s trailer, and a fun video tribute I found made by a fan of the movie, set to Jerry Lee Lewis’s hit song, Great Balls of Fire.