Boyishly handsome yet hopelessly naive, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is the youngest of eight kindly old academics sharing a house whilst compiling a definitive dictionary of modern slang. Hoping to get hip to the hep-cat lingo, Bertram goes searching for the perfect “research assistant.” He finds one in the curvaceous form of sultry striptease dancer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) who, unbeknownst to Bertram, needs a place to lay low so the law can’t get her to testify against her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Over time, “Sugarpuss” and the professors grow deeply fond of one another, while she and Bertram begin falling in love. Until Joe Lilac reappears on the scene, putting everyone in danger.
Strange that the only successful update of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is more than seventy years old, but this delightful screwball comedy delivers a wittily subversive take on the classic fairytale. It is a joke signposted in the opening scene, wherein the eight professors go marching through Central Park in a matter not unlike the dwarves in the classic Walt Disney cartoon, long before it is underlined in the dialogue. Co-written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, some critics maintain Ball of Fire is more representative of Wilder than director Howard Hawks on account of the verbal fireworks found in the crackerjack script that not only runs riot with Forties slang but crams as many racy jokes as they could get away with in 1941. What’s more, Wilder later recycled aspects of the plot into his own comedy classic Some Like It Hot (1959) which also has its protagonists hiding out in an unfamiliar milieu in order to evade gangsters. Yet the hand of Hollywood’s most versatile master is apparent from the vivacious female lead, machine gun patter, and disarmingly sweet and tender undertones to what in Wilder’s hands might have been a more acerbic satire. Note the scene where Professor Oddly (Richard Hadyn) wistfully clutches a lock of his late wife’s hair while his colleagues sing a melancholy ode to lost love.
As portrayed by a collection of charming, codgerly characters including Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Hadyn, and Aubrey Mather, the film delivers a clutch of vividly drawn, lovable personalities, an affectionate caricature of intellectuals. For all their vast reservoir of knowledge, these academics flounder when faced with feminine guile, whether it is their bossy housekeeper (Kathleen Howard), stern benefactor (Mary Field), but especially the scintillating “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (memorably described by housekeeper Miss Bragg as “the kind of woman that makes whole civilisations topple!”) whose presence reduces these grey-haired old eggheads into a gang of exciteable adolescents. Any Howard Hawks heroine is bound to be as brassy and tough as she is sexy. Wearing a sensational dress, Barbara Stanwyck commands the screen as effortlessly as she enchants the old gentlemen while co-star Gary Cooper is at his most delightful. His goofy grin upon receiving his first kiss is a scream.
While some favour an alternative reading of the film that posits “Sugarpuss” as Satan incarnate unleashing corruption in Eden, it does not hold water given the devil is unlikely to feel remorse. The film’s joy lies in having the spirited “Sugarpuss” draw out each of the professors vibrant personalities and zest for life, even as they melt her hitherto mercenary heart. Hawks, Wilder and Brackett do not attempt anything so trite as to suggest the superiority of emotions over intellect. Rather they stress the importance of balance, underlined in the film’s climax with a deftness typical of Hawks, as Bertram literally throws his book away and relies on pure animal instinct to trounce rival Joe Lilac. In one of his earliest roles, Dana Andrews is a suitably menacing villain and utters the priceless line: “We’re not down here to enjoy ourselves, this is a wedding!” There are moments of brilliantly orchestrated suspense alongside the expected gut-busting gags while Greg Toland’s cinematography leaves this among the most visually striking screwball comedies.