Ball of Fire (1941). 111 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Katherine “Pussyfoot” O’Shea), Gary Cooper (as Professor Bertram Potts), S. Z. Sakall (as Professor Magenbruch), Richard Haydn (as Professor Oddley), and Dana Andrews (as Joe Lilac). Screenplay by Billy Wilder.
If you have ever seen Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, you will immediately notice the similarities between it and Ball of Fire, whose screenplay Wilder also wrote. Both involve characters going on the lam in conjunction with mob activity, a sexy nightclub singer with a ridiculous name (Sugar Cane in Some Like It Hot, Pussyfoot O’Shea in Ball of Fire), and men who have to transform themselves temporarily into their opposites in order to secure a woman’s affections. In Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon don female attire, with dirt-poor Curtis additionally and intermittently posing as a playboy millionaire in order to woo singer Marilyn Monroe. In Ball of Fire, the character Bertram Potts ultimately must channel his erudite professorial nature into a fist fight, shedding his intellectualism and pummeling mobster Joe Lilac in order to win the heart of singer Pussyfoot O’Shea.
In both movies, Wilder finds something fundamentally ridiculous in our attempts to be something that we are not. In Ball of Fire those attempts are not deceptive in nature but rather reveal how sweetly we try to adapt as a result of our love for others. And yet part of what is so wonderful about this movie is that while it focuses on an encounter between a man and a woman from two different worlds, and while it shows that man and woman trying to bridge their differences, it refreshingly permits its characters to love and celebrate each other for their idiosyncrasies. In this way, it majorly diverges from its literary predecessor Pygmalion and Pygmalion’s later musical stage and film incarnation, My Fair Lady.
It is not clear at first that this is going to be a story about love. The film takes place in New York, near Central Park, where Potts resides in an antiquated mansion with his seven professor colleagues who are all collaborating on a new encyclopedia. They have labored together for many years on their project, having finally reached the letter “s”. A chance encounter with the garbage man convinces Potts that his new entry on slang is utterly worthless, and one morning he departs the confines of the mansion in pursuit of new words. His travels through the city finally bring him to a nightclub, where he finds singer Pussyfoot O’Shea performing the song “Drum Boogie,” backed by none other than the famed drummer Gene Krupa and his band. Intrigued by her manner of speaking, and also curious as to the meaning of the word “boogie,” Potts invites her to visit him at the mansion. Little does he know that her boyfriend, mobster Joe Lilac, has just been arrested and needs her to hide out lest she inadvertently provide incriminating evidence against him. O’Shea arrives at Potts’s mansion and persuades him to let her live there while he studies her colloquialisms.
Ball of Fire draws from two stories that may be familiar to you: the first is Shaw’s aforementioned Pygmalion, a play about a linguist who studies the speech patterns of a Cockney woman. Like Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins, Professor Potts is a linguist in a stuffy old house who brings the vivacious language of the streets indoors. But whereas Higgins seeks to change the enunciation and vocabulary of young Eliza Doolittle as a prescriptive linguist, Potts merely wishes to study and record O’Shea’s remarkable street language as a descriptive linguist. What turns out for many complicated reasons to be an unsettling project on the part of Higgins is actually a project of love in Potts’s case: a love of language and ultimately a love for O’Shea.
His fascination with her way of speaking is enormously endearing. Uptight and formal, he knows that he cannot speak slang-infused language fluently, and yet he tries, with his chalkboard diagrams, fully to understand the ramifications of the words she uses (I am thinking especially of the scene where Potts explores the use of the word “corny” with the help of O’Shea). As Potts investigates O’Shea’s language more deeply, the professors that he lives and works with engage with other areas of her life that are equally transformative. There is a wonderful sequence that takes place after one of Potts’s language sessions where they request her help: she comes into their room to find chalk markings on the carpet—dance steps to the conga that she had taught them the night before. They are doing a horrible job of recreating the movements in their pedantic fashion, but she is able to show them how to do it by putting a record on and moving seductively across the floor. Just as Potts can teach, so too can O’Shea.
In fact, it is clear that although she is in a house full of professional academics, the person who drives the learning in this movie is O’Shea, whether she is sitting in front of Potts’s chalkboard or dancing over the chalk dance markings of the other professors. She is the story’s firecracker, a source of stimulation and liveliness that the virginal professors have hitherto acquired mainly only during their morning jaunts around Central Park. The glitzy, sparkling gown from her nightclub act, a dress made up of a great deal of fabric that nevertheless barely covers O’Shea’s body, is a great symbol of her function in the professorial residence and of the young, vivacious woman’s role in screwball comedies of this era more generally. This brings me to the second source for this film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the animated version of which had been released in 1937 and was a smash hit. Like the seven dwarfs, Potts’s seven bachelor colleagues become infatuated with their lady guest Pussyfoot, who, in the Snow White role, transforms their world. Of course, unlike Snow White, O’Shea teaches them to dance and swear and delights them with her feathery feminine attire, which she on at least one occasion requests that they zip up for her, much to their amusement.
One of the great strengths of the love story, as I suggested earlier, is that it permits its characters to be the strange people that they are as they discover and secure true romance. Consider, for example, what Potts and his cohorts do to bring Potts and O’Shea together at the film’s conclusion. It turns out that O’Shea uses Potts and the professors to sneak her down to New Jersey, where she can marry Joe Lilac so as not to have to testify against him—also, of course, because she thinks she loves him. But when Potts and the other professors determine back in New York (through the use of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, of course) that O’Shea really loves Potts, they scramble to rescue her from a doomed wedding to Lilac in New Jersey. When in the meantime some of Lilac’s fellow gangsters show up in New York to rough them up, the professors manage to smash a painting over one of the mobster’s heads—a brutal move, yes, but they do it by using the fire-producing powers of an intense microscope to burn through the painting’s wall hanging. It is true that on the way back down to New Jersey and in anticipation of the climax with Joe Lilac, Potts studies up on how to box—something we might not imagine him otherwise doing—but he does this through the use of diagrams in a book. Similarly, his academic friends must extract a confession on the road from Lilac’s goons through torture of a kind (the torture they choose to use is tickling), but their instruction on persuasive feather use comes from a tome on Chinese interrogation techniques.
In other words, although the professors adapt to grapple with their foes, none of the professors have to give up their pedantry in order to do this; in fact, their studiousness is an asset. Similarly, O’Shea does not shed her slang or her sexiness as the plot evolves. Ultimately, what O’Shea loves about Potts, she tells Lilac at the film’s conclusion, is his innocence and awkwardness, the very things that make him not of her world—and while relating this to Lilac, she uses her characteristic vernacular: “I love him because he’s the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!” The film’s final scene is a perfect snapshot of how their relationship will preserve all of their proclivities and personal quirks: Potts places her on top of a pile of books so he can kiss her at an even height–a trick that she used to seduce him in an earlier scene. The books and the sultry kiss symbolize the way that their two respective specialties remain undiminished, even as we watch the characters meeting each other halfway.
It is worth noting that if you have never seen a Gary Cooper movie—perhaps especially if you think of him primarily as a western actor and do not find that genre appealing—there is a good chance that you will be surprised by him in this film. His characteristic soft-spokenness and sensitivity are very much present here, but paired with an academic poise and bookish intelligence. It is hilarious to hear him calmly and almost robotically correcting the housekeeper’s grammar as if it were a matter of greatest importance. But Cooper shows a delightful passionate side in this movie as well. At first his character seems fairly innocent in amorous ways, but it soon becomes clear that we are watching his sexual awakening, and it is very charming. He and Stanwyck appeared in another movie in the same year, the acclaimed Meet John Doe (directed by Frank Capra), which is much less to my taste. Ball of Fire is sexier yet sweeter, wilder yet more sophisticated, and sillier but more learned. If you want to give Gary Cooper a try, Ball of Fire is a great choice.