AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
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Ball of Fire
Alternate Title: Blonde Blitzkrieg
Director: Howard Hawks (Dir)
Release Date:   9 Jan 1942
Production Date:   mid-Aug--mid-Oct 1941
Duration (in mins):   110-111
Duration (in feet):   10,032
Duration (in reels):   12
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Cast:   Gary Cooper (Prof. Bertram Potts)  
    Barbara Stanwyck (Sugarpuss O'Shea)  
    Oscar Homolka (Prof. Gurkakoff)  
    Henry Travers (Prof. Jerome)  
    S. Z. Sakall (Prof. Magenbruch)  
    Tully Marshall (Prof. Robinson)  
    Leonid Kinskey (Prof. Quintana)  
    Richard Haydn (Prof. Oddly)  
    Aubrey Mather (Prof. Peagram)  
    Allen Jenkins (Garbage man)  
    Dana Andrews (Joe Lilac)  
    Dan Duryea (Duke Pastrami)  
    Ralph Peters (Asthma Anderson)  
    Kathleen Howard (Miss Bragg)  
    Mary Field (Miss Totten)  
    Charles Lane (Larsen)  
    Charles Arnt (McNeary)  
    Elisha Cook (Waiter)  
    Alan Rhein ("Horseface")  
    Eddie Foster (Pinstripe)  
    Aldrich Bowker (Justice of the peace [P. Mulqueen])  
    Addison Richards (District Attorney)  
    Pat West (Bum)  
    Kenneth Howell (College boy)  
    Tommy Ryan (Newsboy)  
    Tim Ryan (Motorcop)  
    Will Lee ("Benny, the Creep")  
    Gene Krupa   and His Orchestra
    Otto Hoffman (Stage door man)  
    Pat Flaherty (Deputy)  
    George Sherwood (Deputy)  
    Eddy Chandler (Policeman)  
    Lee Phelps (Policeman in station)  
    Johnnie Morris (Justice of the peace's clerk)  
    Edward Clark (Proprietor of motor inn)  
    Ken Christy (Policeman at motor inn)  
    Dick Rush (Policeman at motor inn)  
    Ed Mundy (Spieler)  
    Geraldine Fisette (Hula dancer)  
    Oscar Chalkee Williams (Irish policeman)  
    Del Lawrence (Irish gardener)  
    June Horne (Nursemaid in park)  
    Ethelreda Leopold (Nursemaid in park)  
    Walter Shumway (Garbage man)  
    George Barton (Garbage man)  
    Merrilee Lannon (Girl in subway)  
    Doria Caron (Girl in subway)  
    Helen Seamon (College girl)  
    Catherine Henderson (College girl)  
    Jack Perry (Fighting bum)  
    Lorraine Miller (Girl in café)  
    Mildred Morris (Chorus girl)  
    Francis Sayles (Taxi driver)  
    Gerald Pierce (Delivery boy)  
    Chet de Vito (Toll keeper)  

Summary: At the Daniel S. Totten Foundation in New York, Bertram Potts, a somber, dedicated linguistics professor, oversees the writing of an encyclopedia, on which he and his eight uniquely qualified colleagues have been toiling for nine years. When their financial backer, Miss Totten, drops by the foundation and threatens to withdraw her support, Bertram is prodded by the others to flirt with her. Charmed by Bertram's flattery, Miss Totten changes her mind, agreeing to back the encyclopedia to its completion. Soon after, a garbage man appears in the foundation's library and asks the professors for help on some radio quiz show questions. Intrigued by the garbage man's picturesque slang, Bertram declares that his section on slang is already outdated and requires further research. Bertram then takes to the streets, where he eavesdrops on a series of conversations and invites several people to participate in a slang symposium. When he invites sexy nightclub performer Sugarpuss O'Shea to attend, Sugarpuss abruptly dismisses him. Unknown to Bertram, Sugarpuss is being sought by the district attorney in connection with a murder that her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac, is suspected of committing, and she and Joe's henchmen, Asthma Anderson and Duke Pastrami, flee the club one step ahead of a subpoena. With no safe place to hide, Sugarpuss decides to take Bertram up on his invitation and shows up at the foundation later that night. Although pleased to see the still scantily clad Sugarpuss, Bertram, whom Sugarpuss calls "Pottsie," refuses to allow her to stay the night, but is overruled by his sex-starved colleagues. At the district attorney's office, meanwhile, Joe is confronted about a monogrammed bathrobe found in the murdered man's suitcase, which the district attorney suspects once belonged to Joe and was given to him by Sugarpuss. Concerned that Sugarpuss might be compelled to testify against Joe, his lawyer advises him to marry her. Three days later, Sugarpuss, who has been helping Bertram dissect a long list of slang expressions as well as teaching the other professors the conga, is visited by Asthma and Pastrami. The thugs present her with a pricey diamond engagement ring from Joe, and eager to become the wealthy Mrs. Lilac, Sugarpuss accepts the ring and agrees to stay at the foundation until she can safely meet Joe. Just then, however, Miss Bragg, the professors' prim housekeeper, demands that Sugarpuss leave, as she has become too much of a disruption. When Bertram asks Sugarpuss to go, admitting that her feminine ways have distracted him from his work, Sugarpuss declares that she is "just plain wacky" for him and kisses him. Bertram is so taken with Sugarpuss' kisses that he decides to propose to her, and the next morning, he gives her a small diamond engagement ring. Bertram's ardor saddens and confuses Sugarpuss, but before she can respond, Joe telephones from New Jersey. As Joe has identified himself as "Daddy," Bertram assumes he is Sugarpuss' father and asks him for permission to marry. Joe, seeing an opportunity to get Sugarpuss past the police's dragnet, goes along with the misconception and requests that the wedding be performed in New Jersey. Before the wedding party departs, however, Miss Bragg, having seen Sugarpuss' photo in the newspaper, threatens to call the police on her. After Sugarpuss slugs Miss Bragg and locks her in a closet, Bertram and the other unsuspecting professors excitedly depart for New Jersey. On the way, Professor Gurkakoff, who is driving, crashes into a signpost, disabling the car. The wedding party is forced to spend the night at an auto court, but when Sugarpuss calls Joe with the news, he insists on picking her up that night. While she waits in her bungalow, Professor Oddly, a widowed botanist, tells Bertram about his genteel honeymoon, then retires for the night. Perturbed by Oddly's remarks, Bertram seeks him out for clarification, but accidentally ends up in Sugarpuss' darkened bungalow. Believing that he is speaking to Oddly, Bertram describes his deeply felt passion for Sugarpuss, and moved by his words, she reveals herself and kisses him. At that moment, however, Joe and his gang arrive and expose Sugarpuss' deception. Finding lipstick on Bertram's face, Joe then pummels the hapless professor. After directing Miss Bragg, who escaped from the closet, and the police away from the auto court, Bertram confronts Sugarpuss. She tearfully apologizes, but Bertram returns to New York, angry and humiliated. Later, at the foundation, Oddly reveals that Sugarpuss gave him a ring to deliver to Bertram, not his, but Joe's. Bertram is buoyed by the professors' deduction that the singer is in love with him, and is unshaken when a scandalized Miss Totten arrives to announce their termination. Asthma and Pastrami then appear and, while holding the professors and Miss Totten at gunpoint, tell Sugarpuss over the phone that they are going to open fire unless she marries Joe. To protect the professors, Sugarpuss proceeds with the ceremony, which is being conducted in New Jersey by an addled-brain justice of the peace. Sugarpuss' fate appears sealed until the professors cause a heavy portrait to fall on Pastrami and then take Asthma by surprise. With help from the garbage man, the professors tickle Pastrami into revealing Sugarpuss' location and race to New Jersey, arriving seconds before she is officially wed. After Bertram beats up Joe and delivers the gangsters to the police, he convinces Sugarpuss she is worthy of him by giving her a passionate, "yum-yum" kiss. 

Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Inc.  
Distribution Company: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Howard Hawks (Dir)
  William Tummel (Asst dir)
  John Sherwood (Asst dir)
  Marty Moss (2d asst dir)
  Arthur Rosson (2d unit dir)
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn (Pres)
  Samuel Goldwyn (Prod)
Writer: Charles Brackett (Scr)
  Billy Wilder (Scr)
  Billy Wilder (Orig story)
  Thomas Monroe (Orig story)
Photography: Gregg Toland (Photog)
  James V. Murray (Asst cam)
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson (Art dir)
  McClure Capps (Assoc art dir)
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Howard Bristol (Set dec)
  Irving Sindler (Props)
Costumes: Edith Head (Miss Stanwyck's cost)
Music: Alfred Newman (Mus)
Sound: Frank Maher (Sd tech)
  Thomas T. Moulton (Sd)
Dance: Nick Castle (Dance dir)
Production Misc: Jack Pollack (Supv pub)
Country: United States

Songs: "Drum Boogie," words and music by Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge; "Sweet Genevieve," words by George Cooper, music by Henry Tucker; "Gaudeamus Igitur," traditional.
Composer: George Cooper
  Roy Eldridge
  Gene Krupa
  Henry Tucker

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number Passed By NBR:
Samuel Goldwyn 1/12/1941 dd/mm/yyyy LP11063 Yes

PCA NO: 7847
Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording

 
Genre: Romantic comedy
Sub-Genre: with songs
 
Subjects (Major): Deception
  Gangsters
  Professors
  Research
  Romance
  Singers
 
Subjects (Minor): Auto courts
  Bachelors
  Conga (Dance)
  District attorneys
  Encyclopedias and dictionaries
  Fights
  Housekeepers
  Justices of the peace
  Kisses
  Language and languages
  Lawyers
  Marriage--Forced
  New Jersey
  New York City
  Newsboys
  Nightclubs
  Police
  Portraits (Paintings)
  Proposals (Marital)
  Rings
  Sanitation workers
  Slang
  Spinsters
  Weddings
  Widowers

Note: The working titles of this film were From A to Z , which also was the title of Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe's screen story, Blonde Blitzkrieg and The Professor and the Burlesque Queen . The onscreen credits conclude with the following written statement: "Once upon a time--in 1941 to be exact--there lived in 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..." In a modern interview, Wilder recalled that he wrote the first draft of "From A to Z" in German, sometime before he came to Hollywood, and that Monroe then helped "Americanize it." Slang expressions featured in the script include "shove in your clutch," "patch my pantywaist," "hottoytoy," "squirrel fever," "corn right off the cob" and "sucker for succotash."
       HR news items add the following information about the production: Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett researched their script by visiting a drugstore opposite Hollywood High School, a pool room, a burlesque house and Hollywood Park racetrack. In Jan 1941, producer Samuel Goldwyn announced that Virginia Gilmore, who had been under contract to him for two years but had yet to be cast in one of his pictures, would appear as Gary Cooper's co-star. In Apr 1941, however, Carole Lombard was announced as the probable female lead. Warner Bros. contract player Phil Silvers also was announced for a role, but he did not appear in the final film. Rosemary La Planche, Miss America of 1941, reportedly was signed for a role, but her appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. Although the picture did not have its official premiere until Jan 1942, it was eligible for 1941 Academy Award consideration, and is listed in most modern sources as a 1941 picture. Ball of Fire received four Academy Award nominations: Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Original Story (Wilder and Monroe); Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Alfred Newman) and Best Sound Recording (Thomas Moulton).
       Modern sources add the following information about the production: Then-aspiring director Wilder spent two months observing veteran director Howard Hawks on the set of the film. Hawks recalled in a modern interview that for the scene in which "Bertram" reveals his feelings about "Sugarpuss" in the darkened bungalow, cinematographer Gregg Toland coated Stanwyck's face with black grease paint so that her eyes would stand out. Considered by some modern critics as the last "Golden Age" screwball comedy, Ball of Fire ranked among the top twenty grossers for 1942. Modern sources credit Julia Heron as a second set decorator and Bill Stephenson as dance director. [ HR news items, however, credit Nick Castle as dance director.] Stanwyck co-starred with Fred MacMurray in a Lux Radio Theatre version of the story on 1 Jun 1942, and on 16 Aug 1951, the Hallmark Playhouse broadcast a version, starring Franchot Tone and Wendy Barrie. In 1948, Goldwyn produced and Hawks directed a musical remake of the story, titled A Song Is Born (see entry below). Mary Field reprised her role as "Miss Totten" in the remake. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   6 Dec 1941.   
Daily Variety   1-Dec-41   
Film Daily   2 Dec 41   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Jan 1941.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Apr 41   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Aug 41   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Aug 41   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Aug 41   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Sep 41   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Sep 41   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Sep 41   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Oct 41   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Oct 41   p. 6.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   6 Dec 41   p. 393.
New York Times   5 Oct 1941.   
New York Times   7 Dec 1941.   
New York Times   16 Jan 42   p. 25.
Variety   3 Dec 41   p. 8.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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