Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941) seems to be one of those movies that everybody loves. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s sweet, it’s romantic, it’s funny and it’s got Barbara Stanwyck singing ‘Drum Boogie’, not to mention the ‘yum-yums!’
In it, a group of professors have been working on an encyclopedia for a few years while living together in the same house. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), professor of English, decides to take a day trip around New York in order to update his modern American slang. He goes to a joint where he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer who is wanted by the police. Not knowing this, he lets her stay at their residence, and soon their lives begin to intertwine. Sugar’s street-smarts and carefree attitude is a wonderful contrast to the booksmart nature of the professors (in particular, Potts), and the conga scene is the best example of this: summoned by Prof. Jerome (Henry Travers), Sugar comes down one morning to find the professors trying to learn new dance moves, chalk markings on the carpet and all. Prof. Gurkakoff (Oscar Homolka) tells her he can’t figure out the ‘common denominator between the steps and the music’, to what she says is because they’re trying to learn the conga while playing the polka. She then proceeds to show them the moves, to the right beat, in a moment that is both funny and endearing.
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, Ball of Fire might just be one of, if not the sweetest screwball ever, which is saying quite something for a picture that has gangsters in it – Dan Duryea and Dana Andrews, no less!