Ball of Fire (1941)
Ball of Fire (1941)

Genre: Romantic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: December 31st, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Howard Hawks Actors: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Aubrey Mather, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea




n New York in 1941, eight incredibly wise men are writing an encyclopedia – nine years into a twelve-year project. They know everything there is to know, except for one thing: the ways of women. After all, as a collection of bachelors living in a house cut off from the world, their only interaction with the finer sex is maid Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard), who mostly berates the men for their untidiness. Seven of them appear middle-aged, pondering the minutia of life and how it all works. But English professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is younger and dashing – the odd looker in the midst of unkempt, bumbling, mischievous historians, mathematicians, lawyers, doctors, geographers, scientists, and other bookworms.

When funds from the Daniel S. Totten Foundation start to dry up, daughter Miss Totten (Mary Field) comes to warn the professors of the need to hurry up in their attempt to compile and catalogue all human knowledge. A secondary visit from a garbage man informs Potts that his research on the English language is far from complete, particularly in the area of modern slang, which is entirely missing from his work. And so he wanders out into the bustling city to eavesdrop on every conversation he can stumble upon (from a wide assortment of backgrounds), to conduct a thorough colloquialism investigation. That evening, Bertram watches showgirl Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) – supplementing Gene Krupa and his orchestra in a big “Drum Boogie” number – on stage. And she’s the kind of hip, fast-talker whom Potts desperately wants to interview – and get to know better.

“Who am I to give science the brush?” Unfortunately, she’s mixed up with some bad people, gangsters with names like Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) and Benny the Creep, causing the District Attorney to seek her out for an interrogation. On the run, Sugarpuss decides to hole up at the Foundation, where the eight odd analysts finally get an opportunity to mingle with a lady – and a worldly, street-smart girl at that. “That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple!”

With a story and screenplay by Billy Wilder (aided by dependable writing partner Charles Brackett), some of the plot details and gags are obvious stepping stones to “Some Like It Hot” (while the gauche elders are reminiscent of the Bolsheviks in “Ninotchka”). And here, there are also clear references to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The prime appeal, however, is the humor of naive, inexperienced men fumbling about in the presence of an exceptional dame – the kind of sharp contrast generally only found in the movies. From zipping up a zipper to learning a dance to exploring the art of kissing, this collection of geniuses is about to learn a thing or two about femme fatales; and the mobster’s moll has some things to learn about honesty and manipulation.

Like plenty of contemporary romantic comedies, the pickle in the premise is a bit too severe for a clean, happy ending. The main conflict is bound to leave a mark. Additionally, O’Shea and Potts aren’t exactly a compatible couple; their union is one of momentary convenience, not unalterable authenticity. But the levity is consistent, with the professors contributing a genuine cheeriness and good-natured atmosphere, particularly with recognizable casting choices like Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, and Richard Haydn (whose deep drawl is inimitable).

The running time is a touch too long, spreading the laughs thinner for the sake of drama and inevitable confrontations, but it creates an opportunity for a heavy-hitting revelation – and eventual reversal. Strangely, the betrayal is too sizable and the villains too wicked, forcing behaviors to change for the sake of a friendlier resolution. Plus, the climactic escape is terribly complicated and contrived. Thankfully, Cooper and Stanwyck are likable even when they aren’t playing roles best suited to their specific screen personalities.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10