Sunday, July 19, 2020

"Ball of Fire" (1941)

I don't think I realized it until probably my third time watching Ball of Fire, but this is actually a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!  A beautiful girl running away from a person close to her seeks sanctuary with seven social-misfits (and one handsome prince) who protect and defend her while she also helps them.

Only in this movie, she's a nightclub singer, not a princess, and the seven misfits (and one handsome prince) are professors writing an encyclopedia, not dwarf miners (though the seven ARE all shorter than the handsome prince).

For a person who writes fairy tale retellings, sometimes I'm not the swiftest at spotting them, heh.  Even when they open with a prologue like this:

But I did get it eventually.

Anyway.  So, there are eight professors working together in a big, fancy house to write an encyclopedia.  They have a housekeeper (Kathleen Howard) to look after them (which means nagging them about messes and indelicate subject matter and eating too much jam), and they're paid for their work by a grant from a man who left a quarter of a million dollars to have an encyclopedia written.  Why?  Because he invented the electric toaster, but the Encyclopedia Britannica refused to add him to their pages.  So he decided to have a new one written.

Trouble is, they're not done writing it yet, and the money is running out, as his daughter (Mary Field) and her lawyer arrive to tell them.  Fortunately, said daughter finds Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) very attractive.  As long as he smiles at her and says lovely things about her father, she'll keep funding them.

That very day, Prof. Potts, linguist, has a brush with a garbageman that makes him realize he is hopelessly outdated when it comes to modern slang usage, which happens to be what he's currently writing about.  So he goes out into the world to seek slang.  And brother, does he ever find it.

Enter Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), singer at the nightclub Prof. Potts goes to for research.

Potts is all business.  He listens and watches, only interested in academia.

Sugarpuss sings a song loaded with slang.

Potts dutifully writes it down.

After her number, Sugarpuss gets waylaid by two guys (one of them played by Dan Duryea) who work with her boyfriend, gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).

Prof. Potts interrupts while these two charming gents are explaining to Sugarpuss that Joe Lilac is in trouble with the law and she needs to hide for a few days until the cops quit looking for her.  Prof. Potts asks her to assist with his linguistic research, but she tells him to scram.  He leaves one of his cards with her in case she changes her mind.

So Potts goes back to the other professors, who have waited up late to ask him all about his experiences out in the real world.  They get very enthusiastic when they find out he went to a nightclub, and some of them nearly swoon when he talks about going backstage to talk to entertainers.  They're much more interested in finding out if he noticed any dancing girls wearing stockings and makeup than in any linguistic discoveries he may have made.  He finds them all very silly.

As Potts is just about to go to bed, who should come knocking at his door but Sugarpuss.  Her boyfriend's pals have decided this would be a great place for her to hide out until the cops lay off Joe.  Of course, she doesn't tell Potts that, she says she's here for research.

When he says it's too late at night for research, and she should come back tomorrow, Sugarpuss coolly unhooks one stocking from her garter belt, unrolls it, and demands he feel her bare foot.  It's chilled and wet, and she's sure she's catching a terrible cold.

The other professors (played by Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S. Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Aubrey Mather, got all that?) are only to happy to diagnose her symptoms.  They insist she spend the night rather than risk her falling ill.

Seven of these eight people are very happy indeed to have Sugarpuss O'Shea as their guest.  Actually, eight of them -- one just doesn't know it yet.

Now, the first time I watched this, I watched it mostly because Dana Andrews was in it and I wanted to see him play opposite Stanwyck.  And I need to warn you that if you're watching this movie just for the Dana Andrews content, you might come away disappointed.  He's not in it much, and he doesn't get much to work with while he's around.  Though you do get to see him wearing this pajama jacket over his regular clothes while at a police station, which is not something you get to see in just any old Dana Andrews movie.

He's very yummy, as always.  I maintain that no one has ever worn a suit as well as Dana Andrews.  (No, not even Alan Ladd.  But Alan wore cowboy hats better.)

Why is Dana Andrews so handsome?  It's a great mystery.

Anyway, that's enough time spent on Joe Lilac, who's trying to convince the police that a pair of pajamas with his initials on them that are linked to a murder are not his at all, even if his girlfriend Sugarpuss did buy him a pair just like it once upon a time. It's time to get back to dear Prof. Potts.  He's assembled several other people, including a garbageman and a newsboy, to assist him in his quest to collect modern slang.  Why?  He says it's because "Slang, as the poet Carl Sandburg has said, 'is language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands, and goes to work.'"

Some of the guys helping him think this is pretty nifty stuff, but Sugarpuss is bored.

So she livens up the dusty old mansion by teaching the other professors how to dance the conga.  Which they are only too happy to learn from her.  But Potts isn't happy.  She's his research material, darn it all, not a dance instructor!

Turns out there are a few things Sugarpuss could teach Prof. Potts.  Which she proceeds to do, when he threatens to throw her out for disturbing work on the encyclopedia.  She turns on the charm, and how.

Potts really doesn't stand a chance.

Especially when she figures out a way to make herself tall enough to teach him how to kiss.  Or, as she puts it, shows him the meaning of the slang phrase "yum yum."

Now, Cooper has been pretty grim and serious through this whole film so far, with just a glint of charm here and there.  But now we get a glimpse of the Gary Cooper that was a matinee idol and left female audiences swooning when he got more traditionally romantic roles.

Meanwhile, Joe Lilac has found himself a table corner to perch on (it's a thing -- watch a Dana Andrews movie, and he's inevitably going to perch on the corner of a desk or table) and calls up Sugarpuss.  He's got a swell plan: she can marry him, and then she can't be forced to testify against him!

Just one problem.  Sugarpuss just got a proposal from someone a whole lot nicer than Joe Lilac.  Which she accepted, sorta.  But she knows she doesn't belong in Potts's world.  She's not nice enough for him.  She's more on Joe Lilac's level, and she proves it to herself by convincing Potts she'll marry him if he takes her to New Jersey to meet her 'dad.'  Who, of course, is the gangster she's actually intending to marry.

All of the other professors come along.  As Sugarpuss toasts them and bids them goodnight, she calls them "Eight squirrelly cherubs right out of this world."  They think this is the highest compliment they've ever been paid.

Now, honestly, if Dana Andrews came to your door in a suit and hat with a spray of flowers pinned to his lapel, wouldn't you be a teensy bit tempted to marry him?

SPOILER ALERT:  I'm giving away the whole end of the movie after this.  If you don't want it spoiled, skip down to the shot of the words The End, okay?

Sugarpuss goes away with Joe so he'll let Potts and the other professors go home. She thinks this will solve everything.  Once her pet professors are safely gone, she announces she's not going to marry Joe Lilac.  And you can bet she won't, either -- nobody gets stubborn like Barbara Stanwyck!

(Oh, look, he found a desk!  My nickname for Dana Andrews is Desk Percher for a reason.  Pretty sure he's sitting on a desk in the shot above with the nice hat and flowers, too.)

Just one hitch in Sugarpuss's plan -- Joe's sent his hit men (including a smarmy Dan Duryea -- I can never like that guy!) over to the encyclopedia house.  If she doesn't marry him, they'll start shooting her squirrelly cherubs.

Well, yeah, guess she has to go through with it, huh?

Not so fast!  The professors take out the two hit men and tickle them to make them tell where Joe is holding Sugarpuss.  I'm not even making that up.  Turns out killer gangsters are very ticklish.  Prof. Potts arrives, ready to fight for the woman he loves.

He's not actually any good at fighting, but he wins anyway because Gary Cooper's name is above the title, not Dana Andrews's.  And everything turns out just fine, as you can see from the other professors' faces as they watch Prof. Potts remind Sugarpuss just what "yum yum" really means.

Is this movie family friendly?  Yeah.  No cussing and only implied violence (even the fist fight at the end is tame).  It has some mild innuendo in the dialog that kids won't get, and a few shots of Stanwyck's marvelous legs getting admired, plus a few movie-star-style kisses.

This has been my contribution to the Queen of Sass: Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by Pale Writer.  Click on that button or this link to find the official blogathon page, complete with list of entries.


  1. Now, Gary Cooper usually just annoys me in his movies, but he is so sweet and endearing in this one that you can't help loving him. This is a rollicking good time! And it wasn't until a post of yours from a few years ago that I learned about it being like Snow White!

    1. MC, lol, he does? Too funny. A lot of times I'm kind of indifferent to him, but I love him in this, in Along Came Jones (oh my word, I laugh so hard over that), and Friendly Persuasion.

      It's kind of cool that it's not an obvious retelling because that means it works so well on its own too!

  2. I mean, I would be tempted to marry Dana Andrews....
    This movie was super fun! I've watched it a couple times. My favorite part is when Richard Hadyn's character shoots the machine gun into the ceiling and then says "I believe this is what they call an 'Up stick'". LOL Cracks me up.

    1. Anna & Irene, I know, right? Aside from him being a Bad Guy and all, lol.

      The ending, when they overpower the thugs, is just soooooooooo delightful!

  3. I love this movie so much, and your review did it justice. I had forgotten about Dana Andrew's awesome pajama jacket! You made me smile in many phrases - in special about Cooper winning the fight only because his name was above the title.

    1. Le, isn't that jacket just the best? Because he's a tough gangster, but yet, he wears pale purple pajamas? It cracks me up :-) Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed reading this :-) (And Cooper in other roles probably could have shellacked Andrews, but this one? Not credibly, heh.)

  4. I only saw this once back in high school but I never forgot it. So romantic. Thanks for this great review. :-)

    1. Rebecca, it IS romantic in an off-kilter, unpredictable way, which is why it's so charming :-) Glad you enjoyed my review.


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