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Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay by
Based on From A to Z 
by Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • December 2, 1941 (1941-12-02) (USA)
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Ball of Fire is a 1941 American screwball comedy film directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. This Samuel Goldwyn Productions film (originally distributed by RKO) concerns a group of professors laboring to write an encyclopedia and their encounter with a nightclub performer who provides her own unique knowledge. The supporting cast includes Oskar Homolka, S. Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Dana Andrews, and Dan Duryea. In 1948, the plot was recycled for a musical film, A Song Is Born, this time starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. The film is also known as The Professor and the Burlesque Queen.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Music 3
  • Production 4
  • Reception 5
  • Awards and honors 6
  • References 7
    • Notes 7.1
    • Bibliography 7.2
  • External links 8


A group of (mainly bachelor) professors have lived together for some years in a New York City residence, compiling an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. The youngest, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), is a grammarian who is researching modern American slang. The professors are accustomed to working in relative seclusion at a leisurely pace with a prim housekeeper named Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard) keeping watch over them. Their impatient financial backer Miss Totten (Mary Field) suddenly demands that they finish their work soon.

Venturing out to do some independent research, Bertram becomes interested in the slang vocabulary of saucy nightclub performer "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). She is reluctant to assist him in his research until she needs a place to hide from the police, who want to question her about her boyfriend, mob boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Sugarpuss takes refuge in the house where the professors live and work, despite Bertram's objections and their housekeeper's threat to leave because of her.

The professors soon become enamored of her femininity, and she begins to grow fond of them. She teaches them to conga and demonstrates to Bertram the meaning of the phrase "yum yum" (kisses). She becomes attracted to Bertram, who reciprocates with a vengeance by proposing marriage to her. She accepts, but before they can do anything, she is taken away by Lilac's henchmen. Lilac also wants to marry her, but only because as his wife she cannot testify against him.

The professors eventually outwit Lilac and his henchmen and rescue Sugarpuss. She decides she is not good enough for Bertram, but his forceful application of "yum yum" convinces her to change her mind.


Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper


Martha Tilton provided Barbara Stanwyck's singing voice for the song "Drum Boogie".[1] Drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa performed the song with his band. In an unusual twist, he also played it on a matchbox with matches for drumsticks. Krupa band member and historically significant trumpeter Roy Eldridge received a brief on-camera spot during "Drum Boogie". At one point the professors also perform an a capella version of the 1869 song "Sweet Genevieve".


The script was written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder from a short story written by Wilder while he was still in Europe, and based in part on the fairy tale Snow White. The professors themselves were based on the dwarfs from Walt Disney's animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although Ball of Fire was directed by the by now well-established Howard Hawks, Wilder had already decided that he needed to direct his screenplays to protect them from studio and other director's interference. Hawks was happy to let Wilder study his directing on the set and Wilder thereafter directed his own films. The film was the second feature of 1941 to pair Cooper and Stanwyck, following Meet John Doe.

Wilder reveled in poking fun at those who took politics too seriously. At one point, "Sugarpuss" points to her sore throat and complains "Slight rosiness? It's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore". Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housekeeper, the name "Franco", just before she knocks the woman out. Wilder also worked in a reference to Cooper's Academy Award-winning performance in Sergeant York by having Dan Duryea's character Duke Pastrami say "I saw me a movie last week" just before wetting the sights of his pistol and aiming it.

Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea, while Lucille Ball almost won the role until Gary Cooper recommended Stanwyck.[2][3]


The film was a big hit at the box office. However because of the terms of Sam Goldwyn's deal with RKO, RKO recorded a loss of $147,000 on it.[4]

Awards and honors

Ball of Fire was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Best Sound, Recording (Thomas T. Moulton) and Best Story.[5]

In World War II, a total of 12 servicemen were pen-pals with Stanwyck; two of them asked for a poster of her in the Ball of Fire outfit for their mess hall.[6]

American Film Institute Lists

In a 1999 AFI poll, stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck were both ranked #11 on the male and female lists of the greatest American screen legends.

It currently holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 24 reviews.[7]



  1. ^ Smith 1985, p. 93.
  2. ^ Wayne 2009, p. 106.
  3. ^ Thomson 2010, p. 80.
  4. ^ Jewell 2012 p. 254.
  5. ^ "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: November 17, 2011.
  6. ^ Madsen 1994, p. 216.
  7. ^ "Ball of Fire." Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: November 17, 2011.


  • Jewell, Richard B. RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-52027-179-1.
  • Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. ISBN 0-06-017997-X.
  • Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Random House, 1985. ISBN 978-0-517-55695-5.
  • Thomson, David. Gary Cooper (Great Stars). New York: Faber & Faber, 2010. ISBN 978-0-86547-932-6.
  • Wayne, Jane. Life and Loves of Barbara Stanwyck. London: JR Books Ltd, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906217-94-5.

External links

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