“That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple.”

The incomparable Barbara Stanwyck meets her match in a group of nerdy professors in 1941’s hysterical Ball of Fire, a film generally recognized as one of the last screwball comedies to come out of the so-called “Golden Age” of the genre. A burlesque performer with the … unique name of Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck)  is approached by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), a naive, bookish scholar who is working with seven other professors to compile an encyclopedia of modern slang. Her brash, ballsy speech, peppered with inexplicable phrases, intrigues the young man, yet she is uninterested in working with him. But when her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), discovers that the police want to question Sugarpuss about his activities, he urges her to find a place to hide, and she inveigles a place to stay with Bertram and crew in exchange for her language “expertise.” But just as Sugarpuss falls for Bertram, Joe decides he finally wants to marry her to prevent Sugarpuss from testifying against him …

The script, written by Billy Wilder as a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale (in the wake of Disney’s successful 1937 animated feature), was the last he wrote before he began directing his own films. In fact, the movie’s director, the prolific Howard Hawks, allowed Wilder to shadow him on the set in order to learn more about the ins and outs of directing (though Wilder would later comment that he actually didn’t learn overmuch from Hawks). The story is unmistakeably a Wilder production–quick-witted, sly, sarcastic, and fun.

The cast is remarkable, led by a radiant Stanwyck who, as always, lights up the screen as the pushy, seductive burlesque dancer. As the unexpected Snow White-type figure, reigning over her bemused, befuddled professor “dwarves,” she is a real pleasure to watch. Cooper seems initially out of place as staid Bertram, but he comes alive throughout the film and ably handles Bertram’s eventual awakening with aplomb.  The two leads display wonderful chemistry; not surprising, considering they had recently been paired in 1941’s Meet John Doe for Frank Capra (in fact, Cooper suggested Stanwyck for the role of Sugarpuss after Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned it down). The seven older professors, most notably prolific character actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall and Henry Travers (best known as Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life), are just plain delightful. Andrews, too, is great as the “bad” boyfriend, and Kathleen Howard, as the put-upon housekeeper, Miss Bragg, is hilarious.

It’s a sexy, funny, and just plain enjoyable romp, so be sure to watch!

Oscar checklist:

Nominations: Best Actress (Stanwyck), Best Sound, Best Music, Best Screenplay

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