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  • Writer's pictureBruce Klein

Timeless Feel Good Movie Ball of Fire

Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is a professor of English gathering slang words for a new encyclopedia. In his quest, he visits a night club to start his research. He is one of eight older, single scholars living together to write this encyclopedia from scratch. The scholars have a portly housekeeper, Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard) who prepares their meals and cleans. She in essence is their house mother.

In the night club, Bertram befriends “Sugarpus” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a provocative night club singer with the looks of a Greek love goddess and the manners of a Brooklyn truck driver. She is fluent in slang and Bertram Potts “Pottsie” asks Sugarpus to join his slang research group leaving his business card with her. At that minute, she must “scram” because the cops are after her. She’s the key witness at the upcoming murder trial of her gangster boyfriend.

To escape the police, she charms Professor Potts. Soon after, Sugarpus quickly charms the other professors and they all agree to take her in for a few days. At first glance, the house mother can’t stand Sugarpus. Although, the attachment to Sugarpus grows quickly among the professors and Potts hears wedding bells. Her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) wants to marry Sugarpuss so, as his wife, she can choose not to testify against him. I can’t think of a more selfish and ruthless reason to get married. If there is a right time to get away with a handsome guileless professor and a gang of precious innocents, this is the time.

Out of this plot comes a delightful and unexpected journey. Gary Cooper plays a gentle soul, very unlike his typical screen persona of the tough guy often riding the range. The scholars are played by some of the best male character actors of the era. Richard Haydn, S.Z. Sakall, and Oscar Homolka are particularly wonderful. But the other professors have excellent performances. Gary Copper who has a larger film role than the others, stands out as their spokesman and is easily the most attractive. While playing against type, Cooper handles this comedy role with just the right touch. Cooper’s role in “Ball of Fire” is as the kind leader of a group of extremely intelligent scholars although their personalities resemble the seven dwarfs in “Snow White”.

Stanwyck is fantastic in this movie. At the beginning of this comedic fairy tale, Stanwyck plays a sexy gang moll but her character is transformed. Stanwycks’ quick transformation allows her to avoid marriage to a mobster.

Samuel Goldwyn, Hollywood’s best independent producer at this time, used his freedom to create popular, artistic pictures such as “Ball of Fire”. During Goldwyn’s forty year career he produced 140 pictures including “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Guys and Dolls.” He handpicked stories, writers and actors.

The incomparable Billy Wilder and the talented Charles Brakett wrote the script. Goldwyn hired the best available actors. He benefitted from the fact that in the 30s and 40s Hollywood studios, for a price, would lend out their players for outside productions. Also, Goldwyn had stars under contract that he tapped for his productions. So he chose with the best actors that were available for the parts and excellent directors like “Ball of Fire” director Howard Hawks. Leonard Maltin, the prodigious movie critic said that Hawks was the best director that you never heard of. By 1941 when this movie was made, he had been directing movies for 15 years. Although some of his best work was in comedy, he could direct in any genre.

In 2016, The Library of Congress chose “Ball of Fire” for the National Film Registry. The films on the Registry are deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The movie was nominated for four Oscars including Stanwyck as Best Actress in a Leading Role. The American Film Institute also gave the movie high marks. At the end of the movie, Sugarpus and Pottsie were happy and you will be leave wearing a big smile on your face.


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