poster: ball of fire

Ball of Fire, like The Lady Eve, had everything going for it, an excellent director, script and cast. Co–writer Billy Wilder who would begin filming his own scripts right after Ball of Fire spent a good deal of time on the set observing Ball of Fire’s director, Howard Hawks. The story was an original of Wilder’s called “From A to Z”, written in German by Wilder in Paris sometime before he arrived in Hollywood. The late Thomas Monroe helped him Americanize it. Wilder, Monroe, and co–writer Charles Brackett then sold it to Samuel Goldwyn when he was looking for a vehicle for Gary Cooper. The casting of Barbara Stanwyck came later. The screenplay, as some writers have put it, bears a resemblance to Snow White in reverse. Wilder said he did not think of it that way, “but maybe it was in our subconscious. At any rate, it is a kind of fairy tale”.

Seven whimsical professors, led by a pedantic one (Gary Cooper), are compiling an encyclopedia in a hallowed brownstone. Their sanctuary is invaded by ,trip–tease dancer Sugarpuss’s O’shea (Barbara Stanwyck) a gangster’s moll who hides from the police by helping Cooper with his research on slang. Sugarpuss has magical powers. The professors have been marching in step for nine years, from their constitutional in the park to their work on the project. But it is with glee that they toss this aside to follow “a pair of ankles” through four days of conga lines and similar hooky playing devices. As for the Prince of the tale: Cooper’s Professor Potts, was a child prodigy with no time for the more primitive pleasures of life. The tempting Sugarpuss blows the “dust that has piled up on his heart smack into his eyes” and he falls hopelessly for her.

Woven through this is a serious statement which director Howard Hawks puts across expertly and pleasantly respect for two ways of functioning and the ideal produced by their fusion. Sugarpuss starts out taking the “kids” for a ride, but ends up as devoted to them as they are to her. Thus, the eight squirrelly cherubs have their instincts sharpened by Sugarpuss’s vitality, and some of their gentle manner and moral soundness rubs off on her.

poster: ball of fire

With the same poise and glamour she displayed in The Lady Eve, Stanwyck plays the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple. But Sugarpuss is an entirely different kind of femme fatale probably best described by the reviewer in the Newark Evening News who called her “Little Miss Smarty pants, she’s fresh and totally lacking in inhibition, with, a sigh of freshness Miss Stanwyck delivers this–totally beguiling performance without a trace of contemptuousness.”

An energetic fingernail, lacquered to kill, taps on the curtain before she enters in a burst of spangles to sell her nightclub number, an excellent rendition of drummer Gene Krupa’s “Drum Boogie”. Equal surety of purpose accompanies her greeting to Cooper when she shows up on his doorstep to exchange her knowledge of slang for a hideout. She knows what she’s doing too when she sheds her mink and blinds Cooper with her brief and sparkling costume, Gregg Toland’s lights turning her into a Tinker Bell. And when she gives Cooper a cold, wet and very nude foot to feel–and then undulates up the stairs telling him to look at her “as another apple . . . just another apple”, well–it’s clear that Cooper is in for the works.

She makes the most of some very suggestive lines; in answer to Cooper’s apology for the fact that he hasn’t got his tie on, her response of “Oh, you know, once I watched my big brother shave” ought to have made the Hays office at least uneasy. Similarly, she turns a wicked pencil sharpener for the benefit of Cooper’s housekeeper who has lost out to Sugarpuss’s ability to get her man–and her way.

poster: ball of fire

There is another reason for the character’s appeal; Sugarpuss is fun. She's lovely, and is a cheerful thing to have around. The color she brings to the musty quarters of the Totten Foundation is enough to gladden any susceptible bachelor’s heart. And her seven ,pushovers are not without symptoms of revolt before her appearance. One has succumbed to a craving for strawberry jam; another has raised a shade to let the sun in; and, since a third is just beginning his article on sex, Sugarpuss has arrived not a moment too soon. The joy she gives them may be seen with their are blushing before her stuck zipper, or their dressing up to please her, and especially romping through her energetic conga ballet.

And, when “mink coat” learns that there is something in the world besides the opposite of this (bungalow apron), her reaction to the situation begins to change. Her tussles between her good conscience and desires, is just as gratifying. The Sugarpuss that raises a glass in genuine appreciation to what she has seen produces a moment–filled with loss of innocence that Hawks leads gently into the film’s most touching sequence.

From the peddling of slang to the final showdown and dramatic crises, the role required versatility and honesty. Sugarpuss has many dimensions. Barbara Stanwyck made them into a character quite her own, winning audiences and an Academy Award nomination.

m mills
Michael Mills