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Film / Ball of Fire

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"Once upon a time — in 1941 to be exact — there live 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..."
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Ball of Fire is a 1941 American Screwball Comedy starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, co-written by Billy Wilder, directed by Howard Hawks with a score by Alfred Newman. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Story, and was then remade into a musical movie in 1948 called A Song Is Born, also made by Hawks.

Loosely based on Snow White, nightclub performer Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Stanwyck) decides to hide in a communal library with a group of professors in order to escape being caught by the police, due to her fiance Joe Lilac's (Dana Andrews) mobster activities.

There, she meets the tall, sheltered and conservative English professor Bertram Potts (Cooper), who is determined to understand the ever-changing colloquialisms of the socialites of today, in order to put it inside an encyclopedia with his other colleagues' work from all sides of the curriculum. With the help of other members of the public he's rounded up, including the garbage disposal man that visits the mansion every day, Potts invites Sugarpuss to work alongside them, remembering one of her nightclub performances that he attended for research.

However, as she is a key witness in the DA's case against Joe Lilac, he is insistent on marrying her as soon as possible, as wives cannot testify against their husbands. Sugarpuss tries everything she can to stop tension in the professors' home and successfully distracts them from her true intentions, but her friendliness soon backfires when Bertram confesses he has a crush on her and pops out an engagement ring.

Hilarity Ensues.


  • All Men Are Perverts: Bertram tries the best he can to defy this trope around Sugarpuss. He assumes she is naive and shy, and doesn't want to scare her off.
  • Apron Matron: Miss Bragg runs a tight household, with her apron and bun in place.
  • Badass Bookworm: The professors and Bertram, when it comes the time to take a step up.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: After getting into a fist fight with Lilac (and possibly having his backside handed to him in most of it), Bertram escapes unscathed, apart from a black eye.
  • Big Ball of Violence: Bertram's attack on Lilac is implied to be this. Although shown off-screen (albeit below the camera view showing the amazed reactions of Sugarpuss, the neighbours, and the rest of the professors), you can see legs spinning about, clothing flying everywhere, and dust kicking up.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: Lilac's henchmen Asthma (chubby) and Pastrami (thin).
  • Book Dumb: Sugarpuss. She says that after sleeping over at the professors' mansion, she spent a lot of the evening (and after she woke up the next day) reading from their bookshelves.
  • Bruiser with a Soft Center: The most dangerous gangster Joe Lilac, who is engaged to Sugarpuss (to an extent, however, considering that she's no innocent woman, either.)
  • Burlesque: Sugarpuss doesn't necessarily strip for the crowd in the nightclub, but her costume is very skimpy by the movie's standards, as a crop top and a skirt with several slits to show off her legs.
  • Camp Straight: Professor Oddly is a rather mannered and slightly effeminate old gentleman (presumably due to having come of age in a more formal era), but he's the only one of the professors to have any previous romantic experience with women.
  • Character Development: Being a screwball comedy film, the characters learn to change each other for the better.
    • Bertram turns from a tall, uptight and socially-awkward workaholic that spends time with older men with no sense of the changing world, to a man that could have relationships with other people his age and balance out his working life too.
    • Sugarpuss dreaded her time in the mansion with the professors, desperately wanting to be with her fiance, but then empathises with them when her fiance threatens them at gunpoint, as if they kidnapped her.
    • The professors learn to have fun.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The professors, sans Bertram.
  • Clueless Chick-Magnet: Bertram, who is unable to notice that not only Sugarpuss is interested in him, but Miss Totten as well, considering how nervous she acts whenever they talk to each other.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Miss Bragg (in a non-romantic way) becomes cold towards the professors when she discovers that Sugarpuss is living with them, even threatening to resign from being their housekeeper. Bertram refuses to evict Sugarpuss, but Miss Bragg continues working, with some of the professors calling her bluff. She discovers Sugarpuss' true identity when she "accidentally" searches through her luggage, confronting her when she walks in the room.
  • Daddy's Girl: Miss Totten. Her father died prior to movie events and was the professor behind the encyclopedia project. She would do anything to help the professors get their research finished but regretfully attempts to cancel it once she discovers that they've become preoccupied with the Sugarpuss scenario.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lilac, Miss Bragg, and Sugarpuss. Bertram gets moments, but not as often as the aforementioned.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Sugarpuss attempts to write one in her hotel room for the professors, but can't bring herself to do it because of her guilt.
  • Defrosting Ice King: Bertram. This is mostly down to his interactions with Sugarpuss, who manages to turn him from reserved to open. He sternly admits that he's attracted to her but then calms himself down, however, this is soon changed once Sugarpuss plants a few kisses on him, turning him into a relaxed man that's smitten with a nightclub performer.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Sugarpuss's habit of saying "on account of because", much to Bertram's annoyance. She reads his books and correctly diagnoses this as a pleonasm.
  • Determinator: When it looks like the professors might fail to meet the deadline of their work, Bertram gives them all a rousing speech.
    Bertram: After nine years of effort, we are, as the racetrack enthusiast might say, in the home stretch. Three more years and our encyclopedia will be finished. Let's not bog down in the middle of the letter S.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Bertram tries oh so hard to defy this trope, but it all falls apart when he tells Sugarpuss about how much he is attracted to her, allowing Sugarpuss to tease him into making her stay around him more.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Sugarpuss' real name is Katherine. We don't find this out until she is facing the priest with Lilac. It also makes one wonder whether Bertram and the professors even know (and/or ever find out) her real name.
  • Expy: The other seven professors for the seven dwarfs. Lilac even calls them this, making Sugarpuss correct him with "eight".
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Bertram is devastated that he was studying outdated slang and throws his work in the bin. The professors try to convince him that he's overreacting.
  • Femme Fatale: Sugarpuss is a deconstructed version. She saves her seductive methods for the youngest professor, Bertram, but acts as an Innocent Fanservice Girl to everyone else (the only person who isn't convinced is housekeeper Miss Bragg). However, this backfires horribly, because she eventually feels guilty when she tries to ditch them, Bertram develops feelings for her and proposes, and then she realises her fiance's determination to kill the professors so they don't go to the police.
  • Fish out of Water:
    • Bertram during his time researching slang.
    • Sugarpuss, used to the crazy nightlife with her gangster boyfriend, living with the sheltered professors.
  • Foreshadowing: There is a brief moment of Sugarpuss dabbing the back of her neck with a cool flannel after kissing the smitten and newly-consensual Bertram, hinting that strong feelings for him are developing, despite being engaged to someone else.
  • Freudian Slip: Not a verbal one, but when Sugarpuss mistakenly gives Joe's ring back to Bertram, Professor Gurkakoff claims this means she loves Bertram because she kept the ring she truly wanted.
  • Gentle Giant: Bertram. He only uses his height to his advantage when he goes to rescue Sugarpuss at the altar with the rest of the professors, Miss Bragg, and the garbage disposal man.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: One of the professors, Magenbruch (S.Z. Sakall), is writing the encyclopedia's articles on sex, and even refers to it by name; when Bertram goes out to research modern slang, he jokes that perhaps he should go out to "research" sex. In a movie from 1941, when Section II of the Hays Code banned even the mention of sex.
  • Gibberish of Love: Bertram stammers and averts his eyes a few times when he asks Sugarpuss to kiss him again.
  • Got Me Doing It: When the garbageman calls Miss Bragg "sister" early in the film, she retorts, "I am not your sister!" Later, when they're part of the group being held hostage by Asthma and Pastrami (who are shooting up the place):
    Garbageman: Looks like they'll be a lot of trash tomorrow, sister.
    Miss Bragg: If there is a tomorrow, brother.
  • Grammar Nazi: Bertram, being the grammarian in the encyclopedia group. He particularly likes to harp on the split infinitive rule, that favorite of pedants. After getting to know Sugar, he doesn't have as much of a problem with it since he is focused on understanding how slang has changed the world.
  • Hands-On Approach: In order to convince Bertram to make her stay in the mansion longer, Sugarpuss decides to demonstrate what a "yum-yum" is instead of explaining. She kisses him three times and it works like a charm.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Pastrami relays a message to Sugarpuss from Lilac that he "gets more bang outta' you than any dame [Lilac] ever knew".
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: All eight of the professors live together in a mansion where they keep their work. This is possibly due to the urgency of having their encyclopedia finished so they don't have to leave their homes to go to work.
  • In Love with the Gangster's Girl: Bertram. Since this is a comedy, he gets the girl instead of getting a bullet between the eyes.
  • In Love with the Mark: Sugarpuss, much to her own surprise.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: The other professors drag Professor Oddly out of the room when he tries to tell Sugarpuss and Bertram to take it slow.
  • Lipstick Mark: A non-infidelity example. The professors realise that a romance might blossom between Bertram and Sugarpuss when they notice that Bertram is Covered in Kisses and grinning when he was supposed to be forcing Sugarpuss to move out their mansion.
  • Loving Details: The famous scene of Sugarpuss telling Lilac all the things she loves about Bertram. It was famous enough to be nominated for American Film Institutes' 100 Movie Quotes list.
  • Luminescent Blush: Bertram blushes "right up over his ears" when he's embarrassed, according to Sugarpuss, which is one of the things she likes about him. This is more of a Take Our Word for It since the film is monochrome, so we don't know how she discovered this. She more likely discovered this when:
    • She passionately kissed him thrice when she was showing him what a "yum-yum" was, making him rush out of the room to calm himself down, and also when he shyly asked her to kiss him again through stammering;
    • All the times he was admitting how smitten he was with her, or when he was acting smitten around her;
    • Possibly all of the above.
  • Manipulative Bitch:
    • Sugarpuss uses several tactics to try and stay with the professors until she can elope with her gangster fiance, mostly by flirting with the reserved Bertram. It soon backfires when he falls for it, followed by her falling for him as well.
    • Miss Bragg, once Sugarpuss came onto the scene, making her threaten resignation if Sugarpuss wasn't thrown out.
  • Meaningful Name: Being a professor of the English language, Bertram works out that "Sugarpuss" is made up of two words — "sugar" and "puss". "Puss" is slang for "face" and sugar is sweet, meaning "Sugarpuss" = "sweet face". Considering how easily Sugarpuss tricks everyone into liking her, her stage name might have something to do with it.
  • Moll: Sugarpuss is a subversion. She and Lilac actually love each other and there's no implication that Lilac is leading her on.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Sugarpuss, especially in her stage costume, which has a skirt that flashes her long legs.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The professors' improvising skills to stop Sugarpuss' marriage to Lilac, such as knocking out a gangster with a microscope and a painting, while distracting him with their knowledge on their studies.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Sugarpuss soon realises that she has feelings for Bertram and lists all of his anti-social traits that she finds endearing to Joe Lilac when she's trying to tell him that she doesn't love him anymore.
  • Nice Guy: All the professors. It's the reason why Sugarpuss feels guilty when she's planning to ditch them to return to her life as a gangster's moll.
  • No Social Skills: Bertram is portrayed by the movie as the most surprising of them all (despite the rest of the professors being like this) because he's the youngest.
    • The surprise on people's faces when they see him eavesdropping on their conversations in the street, as well as one nightclub employee assuming he was joking when he asked what a "boogie" was, shows this entirely.
    • Also, he tells Sugarpuss how much he has a crush on her, down to the most explicit detail of dabbing himself with a cold flannel to calm himself down. Sugarpuss is flattered.
  • Not So Above It All: When Larsen (Miss Totten's lawyer) and Miss Totten are riding on the back of the garbage truck as the professors race to get Bertram down to New Jersey to stop Joe Lilac and Sugarpuss' wedding, Larsen complains they shouldn't be doing this, but Miss Totten, who has only let the encyclopedia continue because of her feelings for Bertram, says she hasn't had so much fun in years.
  • Oblivious to Love: Bertram at first.
  • One Head Taller: Even in heels, Sugarpuss needs to stand on a couple of reference books to kiss Bertram.
  • Post-Kiss Catatonia: Bertram, after he's smooched several times by Sugarpuss. He cools himself down with cold water, gets kissed again, and then wanders about in a daze with a large grin on his face. It's powerful enough to make him change his mind about throwing Sugarpuss out.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: As a gangster, Joe Lilac lavishes luxuries on Surgarpuss. As a professor, Bertram doesn't make much money, but genuinely loves and respects her. After Bertram gives her his engagement ring, she slides the simple band with a heart-felt engraved message next to the glamorous, definitely stolen, diamond ring Joe gave her.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Bertram's sensitive guy vs. gangster Lilac's manly man.
  • Serious Business: The professors need to have their encyclopedia as accurate and up-to-date as possible. If not, they will be fired by Miss Totten, the daughter of a dead former colleague.
  • Seriously Scruffy: Bertram, who is focused on the encyclopedia with his other colleagues doesn't have time to worry about how his suit looks. Sugarpuss comments that he always has his waistcoat buttoned wrong and how endearing she finds it.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: All of the professors. Parodied when Bertram, who needs to stall for time to get the drop on a couple of mooks, launches into a long lecture that consists of a lot of gibberish, but with very fancy words.
  • Settle It Without Weapons: Sort of. After the good guys have already captured the bad guys and the cops are on the way, a thoroughly pissed-off Bertram gives his gun to Larsen and challenges Joe Lilac to a fistfight.
  • Shipper on Deck: The professors. They enjoyed Sugarpuss' company (despite her manipulating them in order to hide from the police) and do everything to convince Bertram that abandoning her will be the biggest mistake he'll ever make, even using the psychological analyses of Freud to win him over.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Lilac and Sugarpuss' marriage just as Sugarpuss begins to show doubts towards the relationship until Bertram and the professors infiltrate.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Bertram recites a speech from Richard III when giving Sugarpuss the engagement ring. The monologue he quotes is written on the inside of the ring.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Sugarpuss falls for Bertram, a bookish, kindhearted professor, rather than bad boy gangster Joe Lilac.
  • 6 Is 9: A poorly secured 9 on the front door of a motel cabin falls over and becomes a 6. This causes Bertram to enter the wrong cabin (thinking it's Professor Oddly's room) and accidentally pour his heart out to Sugarpuss, reciting a Love Confession speech he's planned beforehand. While sitting in the darkness feeling guilty about planning her escape, Sugarpuss is moved to tears by his words.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The garbage man played by Allen Jenkins. He's only in three scenes, but in his first scene, it's his use of slang that makes Bertram realize his knowledge of slang is outdated and sets forth the events of the plot. Also, in his final scene, when talking about the quiz he's trying to solve, it's his questions that give Bertram and the other professors the idea of how to overpower Lilac's men.
  • Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace: Lilac and Sugarpuss' arranged wedding is soon interrupted by the professors, all armed with guns, to rescue Sugarpuss.
  • Spousal Privilege: Joe decides to marry Sugarpuss so she can't testify against him in court.
  • The Tease: Sugarpuss, towards Bertram.
    • To convince him to allow her to live in the mansion, she takes off her heels and stretches out her leg to him to feel how cold and wet her feet are from the rain.
    • Then much later, after Bertram admits that he becomes aroused whenever the sunlight sits on her hair, she rushes across the room and stands in front of a sunny window, leaving Bertram in a stammering mess.
    • The page image summarizes this dynamic too.
  • Third-Act Misunderstanding: Sugarpuss fails to tell Bertram that she's already engaged when he gives her a ring at breakfast, because she is called on the telephone. The professors convince Bertram to try and meet her parents before choosing a wedding date, so Bertram takes the phone from Sugarpuss to talk to her father, ironically being fiance Lilac (in disguise) arranging to smuggle her out of their house. This leads to the team getting ambushed by the gangsters at a hotel, with Bertram discovering that Sugarpuss was already preparing to get married behind his back. He breaks up with Sugarpuss in her room, leaving her sobbing on her bed.
  • Tickle Torture: The professors uses this (with a feather) on Pastrami, one of Joe Lilac's mooks, to get him to say where Lilac is going to (try to) marry Sugarpuss. It works.
  • Title Drop: A newspaper headline refers to Sugarpuss as the "ball of fire" the professors unknowingly smuggled past the cops.
  • Took a Level in Badass: All of the professors near the end, and Bertram in particular.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: Sugarpuss the burlesque performer throws a wrench into the life of cloistered professor Bertram.
  • Verbal Tic: Sugarpuss' clicking of her tongue. Becomes an Ironic Echo at the end of the movie when the professors do it.
  • Weakness Turns Her On: Sugarpuss, through listing Bertram's "strange" personality quirks that she finds cute.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Sugarpuss kisses Bertram, the plot of Bertram's grammar classes aren't seen again in the story, however, it can be argued that they still happened off-screen. The only characters from that slang group that reappear in the story are Sugarpuss and the garbage disposal man. The man from the pub, the college student, and the paperboy aren't seen again.
  • Why Can't I Hate You?:
    • Sugarpuss slowly realises that she is enjoying her stay with the professors, despite manipulating them so that she can betray them and elope with her gangster boyfriend. She struggles to try and tell them her true intentions, and cannot bring herself to write them a letter explaining why she's ditched them at the hotel when she and Bertram were supposed to get married.
    • More importantly, she cannot bring herself to loathe Bertram, because he's a nice and innocent man that's trying to get his work done. When she's convincing Joe that she loves Bertram, she lists all of his shortcomings and anti-social traits that she finds endearing, from his dated fashion sense to how easily she can make him blush.
  • William Telling: The professors get a gangster to stay seated in a chair by challenging him to hit a coin held by one of them in his fingers so that they could knock him unconscious with a painting hanging above his seat.
  • Zip Me Up: Sugarpuss asks the professors to zip up her skirt. Consternation predictably ensues.


Video Example(s):


Ball of Fire

Bertram admits to Sugarpuss that he is attracted to her as he is asking her to leave on short notice. When he admits that he became aroused when the sunlight hit her hair, a smug Sugarpuss responds by standing in front of a sunny window.

How well does it match the trope?

4.86 (7 votes)

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