Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: Ball of Fire (1941)

Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve

This post is my contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon hosted by Aubyn at The Girl With the White Parasol.

Ask a classic movie fan, “What was your favorite year or the best year for movies?” and I’m guessing that more often than not you’d hear “1939” as the answer. At least that seems to be the case based on numerous discussions I’ve heard over the years. While there were definitely some great movies made that year, there is a year that stands out to me even more, 1941.

I’m not sure if I can definitively call it my favorite, but I’ve watched more movies from that year than any other in the classic era, and a few of my all time favorites were made that year including Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, the latter starring the actress being honored in this blogathon, Barbara Stanwyck.

Add to those the acclaimed classics Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and another Barbara Stanwyck great, Meet John Doe, and I’d say it was one heck of a year for movies. And now I have a new favorite to add to that list, Ball of Fire, a movie that like Meet John Doe, starred Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.

Before I watched Ball of Fire, which was directed by Howard Hawks, I had previously watched two other comedies directed by him, with mixed results. I loved His Girl Friday (1940) and it is one of my all time favorites, but as I discussed in a post last year I can’t quite say the same for Bringing Up Baby (1938). So I was interested to see how this movie would tip the scales, and I’m happy to say it tipped them in his favor.

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.”
~ Carl Sandburg

Ball of Fire (1941) DVD

Ball of Fire, which was loosely based on the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, centers around seven elderly professors living together in a residence in New York City with their young colleague Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper. The group is several years into a research project with the goal of soon finishing an encyclopedia.

Responsible for the letter ‘S’ and more notably the term ‘Slang’, Professor Potts soon realizes that the extensive list of terms he’s come up with is woefully outdated and in need of some freshening up. His quest to find more current slang sends him out into the city to do further research.

This leads to an interesting scene showing him eavesdropping on others’ conversations; in Times Square, on the subway, at a baseball game, in a pool hall, and in a scene that will go down as one of my favorites ever in a movie, to a nightclub where he meets the singer Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

Barbara Stanwyck Singing Drum Boogie

In that scene, we are treated to an exciting performance of the Gene Krupa classic, “Drum Boogie” with Sugarpuss singing and dancing in a spectacular, sparkly gold dress. (Martha Tilton dubbed Stanwyck’s voice)

The atmosphere of the club, the cameo by legendary drummer Gene Krupa and his lively band, and the display of the fashions of the time all combined to form the type of scene I love to see in classic movies.

I always wish I could travel back in time and be a part of those nightclub scenes, and that’s saying a lot given that I’m an introverted homebody who doesn’t care much for going out to crowded places.

When Bertram Potts realizes that Sugarpuss, with her unique and colorful vocabulary, would be a perfect subject for his study of slang, he invites her to the professors’ house to participate in a discussion about the latest slang terms. She turns down his invitation at first but soon takes him up on his offer when she is told that she is wanted for questioning in connection with a possible murder committed by her boyfriend, mob boss Joe Lilac, played by the ever handsome Dana Andrews. She realizes that his place would be a perfect hideout for her, certainly better than the rat infested warehouse originally proposed by Lilac’s henchman, one of whom was played by the great Dan Duryea.

Barbara Stanwyck Ball of Fire (1941)

When Sugarpuss then pays a late night visit to the professors’ residence, the seven older professors are at first shy and intimidated by her, but soon warm up to her and are captivated by her charm.

I found all but one of the professors, who among them included the great character actors; Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Leonid Kinskey, and S.Z. Sakall, incredibly charming and endearing. Only Professor Oddly, played by Richard Haydn, did not particularly appeal to me due to the rather irritating manner in which he talked.

A great scene in the movie is when Sugarpuss teaches the professors how to do the Conga. It’s a very charming scene, because even though you know she is just using them for a place to stay, you can sense that she is developing a genuine affection for them.

Not only do the professors quickly fall under her spell, but Bertram Potts (affectionately called “Pottsie” by Sugarpuss) soon begins to grow quite fond of her as well, and before long he even ends up proposing marriage. But before they can get around to marrying, Potts discovers that Sugarpuss was just using him and after confronting her sadly returns back to his residence.

Joe Lilac then tries to convince her to marry him so she can refuse to testify against him in court, but Sugarpuss wants nothing to do with him. The question then becomes, will the professors be able to escape the clutches of Lilac’s henchmen, who end up holding them at gunpoint, to reunite Sugarpuss with her real love, Bertram Potts? Well, I’m sure you can probably figure out the answer, but I won’t give away any more details for those of you that haven’t watched the movie yet.

The Allure of Barbara Stanwyck (and Her Ankles)

Barbara Stanwyck Ball of Fire

Barbara Stanwyck was not the first choice for the role of Sugarpuss O’Shea. It was Ginger Rogers who was originally offered the role, but she turned it down. Lucille Ball was then set to appear in the role, but when Gary Cooper suggested Stanwyck, producer Samuel Goldwyn gave it to her instead.

I thought she was the perfect choice, because in my opinion not many actresses possess the same ability to show a tough side while also showing a softer, more comedic side as well as giving off an allure that makes men fall for her.

I thought she was as charming as ever in this role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, probably surpassed only by her performances in The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity, my two favorite Barbara Stanwyck movies.

Speaking of Double Indemnity, anyone who has watched the movie knows the importance her character Phyllis Dietrichson’s ankle bracelet plays in the movie, so I thought it was funny that a few years before that movie even came out, her ankle played a part in this movie as well. When Bertram realizes that Sugarpuss (and her ankles) are becoming a major distraction, he informs her that she will no longer be able to stay in the house.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck Ball of Fire

Comparing their project to a long, tedious voyage, he explained to her, “Now when the foundation launched our vessel, it very wisely followed an old rule of the sea, no women aboard. It chose a crew of single men with nothing to distract them from the course they were to sail. For four days we have been drifting Miss O’Shea. The needle of the compass no longer points to the magnetic pole. It points, if I may say so, to your ankles.”

Her humorous response was classic Barbara Stanwyck, “Oh come on now admiral. A bunch of grown men. They’ve seen a pair of ankles before. If you think I’m bothering them, I’ll sit on my legs.” When Potts insists that she must leave, she tries hard to convince him that she has so much more she can teach him about slang, and it leads to one of the best quotes of the movie when he responds, “Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”

Gary Cooper as Professor Bertram Potts

Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Gary Cooper but I did enjoy him in this movie. I guess I rather liked his combination of intelligence, shyness, and honest affection for Sugarpuss that along with his handsome good looks made him more appealing to me than usual.

Perhaps it also speaks to his on screen chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck. Though it didn’t necessarily leap off the screen to me, they did seem to have a comfort level with each other that made their relationship believable and fun to watch.

My Overall Thoughts on Ball of Fire

Obviously since I said that Ball of Fire is a new addition to my list of favorite movies from 1941, you can guess that I really enjoyed this movie. The great acting of Barbara Stanwyck and the appeal of Gary Cooper, the endearing charm of the professors, the cast loaded with so many great names from the world of classic film, and a funny script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett all made it a movie that stands out to me as one of the best of the year.

Oh, and I can’t fail to mention the house filled with books that highly appealed to the book lover in me, and the wonderful fashions by designer Edith Head. To read more about the fabulous gold dress featured in Barbara’s opening scene, check out this great post by Vanessa, another blogathon particpant.

There are a few scenes in the second half of the movie that drag a bit, but overall I found it to be a fun and delightful movie. If you love Barbara Stanwyck or Gary Cooper and smartly written comedies, I highly recommend you watch this movie!

Please be sure to head over to Aubyn’s blog and check out all the other great posts in this blogathon. An impressive group of over 40 bloggers are participating so there should be something of interest for everyone. Thanks for reading!


P.S. Although it’s not necessarily one of my favorite scenes (I’m not sure why really), everyone seems to love the “Yum yum” scene in which Sugarpuss teaches Pottsie what the phrase means, so I thought I’d include a link to it here.

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  1. Judy says:

    I was lucky enough to see ‘Ball of Fire’ on the big screen a while back and loved it – your review has brought it all back! Hawks, Stanwyck and Cooper make a great combination in this and it is so funny and endearing. I’m not sure which my favourite year is – possibly 1932 as I’m a pre-Code fan, but 1941 certainly was a great year too.

    • Ginny says:

      Oh, that would have been cool! I was also able to see Barbara on the big screen in Double Indemnity, but unfortunately that’s the only classic movie I can say that about. I’ve recently been getting more into pre-codes, and 1932 was a good year with Three on a Match being a stand out for me. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Vienna says:

    Great review and thanks for the link to that funny scene. I also took another look at the Drum Boogie number which I love.
    You’re right – 1941 was a good year. Some of my favorites include Devil and Miss Jones,Hold Back The Dawn,How Green was My Valley,Manhunt,Penny Serenade,That Night in Rio,Suspicion,Smilng Through,A Woman’s Face.
    It was also the year of Citizen Kane but I’m not a fan.

    Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Vienna! That was such a great number! It’s been so long since I’ve seen Citizen Kane, I can’t say that I even remember how I felt about it. It might be time for a re-watch. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Stanwyck and Cooper are a winning combination. I’d be interested in hearing what you think about Virginia Mayo in the remake, “A Song is Born” also directed by Hawks. I think she compares most favourably to Barbara Stanwyck

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll have to check that one out! It should be interesting to see how another actress compares to someone I love as much as Barbara Stanwyck in the same role.

  4. Rick says:

    A delightful review of one of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck movies. Heck, her character’s name just makes me laugh! In addition to being a fine a dramatic actress, she was an excellent comedienne, as evidenced by this classic, THE LADY EVE, and CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT. As you pointed out, the supporting cast of professors is a huge bonus (especially Cuddles Sakall, who co-starred with Barbara again in CHRISTMAS (seems like the Dennis Morgan role in that movie was written with Coop in mind). I also like the remake of BALL OF FIRE with Danny Kaye.

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Rick! Christmas in Connecticut is another one of my favorites. Thanks to yours and Patricia’s comment above, I just put the remake on hold at my library. I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares.

  5. R.A. Kerr says:

    You make a good point about movies from the year 1941. It really was a good year, wasn’t it? I hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned it.

    This is such a fun movie! Barbara’s free-spiritedness is a great foil for Cooper’s uptight-ness.

    Great post!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks R.A.! Yes, I thought the year had a good mix of well known classics plus some lesser known personal favorites of mine.

      Their personalities did contrast very well! Again, that’s probably why I liked Gary Cooper more than usual.

  6. Nice write-up. I can see how Haydn could be irritating, but I have to admit he grew on me.

    In case you’re interested, I wrote about “Ball of Fire” last year during the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon:

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Sean! It’s funny I don’t think I minded him too much at first, but after watching the movie through once and then watching a few scenes again to write this review, that’s when I noticed more that he bugged me a little. But he did play the part well! I’ll be sure to read your review. Thanks for the link.

  7. Le says:

    Unlike you, I liked Bringing Up Baby more than His girl Friday. But Ball of Fire, oh, what a delight! It’s my favorite screwball comedy and I agree that Barbara was the best choice for Sugarpuss. I really enjoyed the nerdy professor played by Gary Cooper.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks for stopping by Le! It’s always interesting to hear the differing opinions of classic movie fans. I know I’m in the minority on Bringing Up Baby, but I’m glad we agree on this one. :-)

      I’ll head on over to your blog to read your post!

  8. Karen says:

    Enjoyed your write-up immensely, Ginny — and I share your fondness for this film (and I even like Richard Haydn’s character)! My favorite scene is the one with the Drum Boogie number — I could watch that over and over again! I didn’t know that Stanwyck was dubbed, though!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Karen! Wanna go back in time with me and watch that number in person? :-) If only! I thought she was singing at first too, until I read who dubbed her.

  9. Hamlette says:

    Love this movie! I originally watched it for Dana Andrews, but my repeat viewings have been because of Stanwyck. Such a fun movie — thanks for providing such a great review of it!

  10. Ginny says:

    Thanks and you’re welcome!

    I didn’t even know Dana Andrews was in it until I saw him on screen. I was pleasantly surprised to see him! :-)

  11. FlickChick says:

    Wonderful review. Stanwyck is just aces here – everything else is cake.

  12. Aubyn Eli says:

    I really do think Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve are tied for the title of Stanwyck at her Sexiest. The Lady Eve has the better performance (by a small margin) but Ball of Fire has that amazing sparkly dress and that great running gag of her clicking her tongue whenever she wants to make a point. It is hard to imagine another actress in the part. I enjoy both Rogers and Ball but they both seem a little too hard-boiled to be fully believable succumbing to the wholesome charms of Cooper and the Seven Dwarfs. Thanks for a great review and a great little entry in the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon.