On Christmas day, I could be found at Film Forum laughing along with the rest of the audience at Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941).
A screwball comedy based on Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, the film is set not in a forest but in New York City where eight professors live and work together in an old brownstone, writing an encyclopedia of human knowledge. They are on the letter “S” when the youngest professor, Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), realizes that his research on slang is out of date. He roams the city looking for people to make up a research panel and winds up at a nightclub where Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is performing with the Gene Krupa Band. Potts is entranced and invites Sugarpuss to join his panel. At first she declines but changes her mind when she needs a place to hide from the DA who's looking for her in connection to her mobster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). She moves into the house with the professors and quickly changes their lives. She and Potts fall in love, and he proposes marriage. The only problem is that Joe wants her to marry him so she can’t testify against him in court. Everyone winds up in New Jersey where Potts fights Joe for the woman he loves.
The film’s leads are perfect in their roles: Barbara Stanwyck was a street-smart New Yorker in real life and looks gorgeous while Gary Cooper is especially attractive when he's in full fumbling nerd mode (which he plays so well). They are supported by some of Hollywood’s favourite character actors including S.Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Leonid Kinskey, and Dan Duryea. There’s also a great musical performance by Gene Krupa of "Drum Boogie" including a scene where he uses a book of matches to play the drums. The comedy is balanced with some tender moments and the costumes are glorious (one of Stanwyck’s gowns literally shines). And then there is the language.
Screwball comedies are noted for their witty dialogue and this film delivers in spades thanks to a brilliant script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. In the film, Cooper quotes Carl Sandburg who said, "slang is language that takes off it coat, spits on its hands, and gets to work." In this film, the language is working overtime. The erudite words of the professors are juxtaposed with the slang-filled observations of working class people creating numerous comedic moments.
Early in the film Potts realizes that his slang research is obsolete when a garbage collector comes into the house to ask the professors for some help with a “quizzola” he’s filling out for the chance to win $25. He asks them a question about how Cleopatra died. When they give him the answer, he expresses his thanks and tells them why it’s important:
Garbage Man: I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week.
Garbage Man: What a pair of gams. A little in, a little out, and a little more out...
Potts: I am still completely mystified.
Garbage Man: Well, with this dish on me hands and them giving away 25 smackaroos on that quizzola.
Potts: Smackaroos? What are smackaroos?
Garbage Man: A smackaroo is a...
Potts: No such word exists.
Garbage Man: Oh, it don't? A smackaroo is a dollar, pal.
Potts: Well, the accepted vulgarism for a dollar is a buck.
Garbage Man: The accepted vulgarism for a smackaroo is a dollar. That goes for a banger, a fish, a buck or a rug.
Potts: Well, what about the mouse?
Garbage Man: The mouse is the dish. That's what I need the moolah for.
Garbage Man: Yeah, the dough. We'll be stepping. Me and this smooch…I mean, the dish, I mean, the mouse. You know, hit the jiggles for a little rum boogie.
Potts: Please, please, not so fast.
Garbage Man: Brother, we're going to have some hoytoytoy.
Garbage Man: Yeah, and if you want that one explained, you go ask your papas.
Sugarpuss O’Shea’s language is just as colourful as the Garbage Man’s, and she’s better looking. Between her delivery and the gold dress that shows off her midriff and shapely legs, Potts doesn’t have a chance.
When he first meets Sugarpuss in her dressing room she tells him, “Okay, scrow, scram, scraw,” and he responds with delight, “The complete conjugation!”
Sugarpuss also gets some of the best lines. When she first enters the professors’ library she says, “Hey, who decorated this place, the mug who shot Lincoln?” And when trying to convince Potts that she’s getting sick and needs to stay over at the house, she asks him to check her throat.
Potts: There is possibly a slight rosiness in the laryngeal region.
Sugarpuss: Slight rosiness? It’s as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore.
When Potts attempts to kick her out of the house, he tells her, "Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body." She responds by playing on his sense of duty as a grammarian.
Sugarpuss: There's a lot of words we haven't caught up with. For instance, do you know what this means, "I'll get you on the Ameche"?
Sugarpuss: Of course, you don't. An Ameche is the telephone. On account of he invented it.
Potts: Oh, no, he didn't.
Sugarpuss: You know, in the movies.
Potts: I see what you mean. Very interesting.
She finally convinces him to let her stay when she stands on three of Professor Gurkakoff’s reference books (Potts is very tall) and shows him what “yum yum” is. The kisses send Potts running out of the room to apply a cold compress to the back of his neck.
Like when Snow White went to live with the dwarfs, the other professors are enchanted by Sugarpuss and welcome her into their lives. They begin dressing smarter to impress her and instead of conducting research, they dance a conga. They also hang on her every word, trying to understand her world. When the professors turn the tables on the mobsters and pull guns on them, Professor Oddly (Richard Haydn) tells them, “I believe…I think it is known as an “up-stick.” Bless him.
Yet the influence isn’t one-sided. Sugarpuss comes to realize that not only does she deserve something better in her life but that she’s in love with Potts (or Pottsy as she calls him). He's the opposite of Joe, and she can't seem to believe that she's fallen for him.
“I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs. And the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that 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 was a hit with audiences and garnered six Academy Award nominations including one for Stanwyck for Best Actress. I think it's one of the best roles she ever played. So if you've never seen Ball of Fire, shove in your clutch and watch it now. Dig me?