Eight men in New York City have come together for a noble purpose: to compile an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) has decided his latest contribution will be to research modern American slang for addition to the encyclopedia.
The men work slowly but diligently, in a house they share, which is kept up by Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard). Their financial backer (Mary Field), however, wants them to pick up the pace.
When Bertram heads out to conduct some research, he sees “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanywck) performing at a nightclub. Fascinated by her slang, he asks for her help working on the encyclopedia. She’s reluctant to get involved, but takes the opportunity when she needs to hide out from the police, who are searching for her criminal beau Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).
Howard Hawks directs 1941’s Ball of Fire. The film was written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.
“Once upon a time – in 1941 to be exact – there lived a great, tall forest – called New York – eight men who were writing an encyclopedia.
They were so wise they knew everything: the depth of the oceans, and what makes a glowworm glow, and what tune Nero fiddled while Rome was burning.
But there was one thing about which they knew very little – as you shall see…”
Ball of Fire is one of Stanwyck’s most well-remembered and beloved films, and for good reason. For me, it was a contributing factor in my becoming a fan of the actress. It was one of the first Stanwyck films I saw, and while I have only revisited it once in the past several years, I was sure it would still impress when I popped it in the DVD player for the Stanwyck Filmography Project.
Sometimes the cast makes the film, and I’d say that’s partially the case here. Stanwyck gives a fabulously energetic performance, and her leading man is a fella you may be familiar with, Gary Cooper. The seriousness of Cooper’s character in contrast with Stanwyck’s fire makes for great viewing.
The supporting performances are also very good. Dana Andrews makes an appearance as Stanwyck’s mob boss boyfriend, bringing some of that grit from his crime drama/noir roles to this screwball comedy environment. Also filling the supporting roster are Dan Duryea, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Lenoid Kinskey, and the great S. Z. Sakall, among others.
Beyond the performances, there is more to love about Ball of Fire. Its somewhat nerdy but very lovable encyclopedia-making premise is handled with a great sense of humor. The mood is kept light, and there are plenty of laughs, as well as a fast pace throughout. Andrews and his gang bring touches of crime and drama, too, which are equally fun to watch.
Several years after I first saw it and on my third viewing, Ball of Fire holds up. Among Stanwyck’s filmography, there are films I love more, but this is undoubtedly an enjoyable screwball comedy played well by Stanwyck and all of her co-stars.