You hear the rhythm rompin’.
You see the drummer stompin’.
It really is a killer.
The drum boogie woogie.
So begins the siren song by “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (played to perfection by the one and only Barbara Stanwyck) to her soon-to-be-smitten beau, Professor Potts. Sugarpuss, a nightclub singer mixed up with the wrong crowd, is not only the titular “Ball of Fire” but also the “drumboogie” itself – a “rhythm rompin'” force to be reckoned with.
Like the best comedies, Ball of Fire is more than a witty script, but features a genuinely funny story. Potts is one of eight scholars (all older, stuffy men) who have been living in virtual exile for years compiling a new encyclopedia. Working A to Z, alphabetically, they’ve come to “S” and Potts (the youngest of the bunch, a roughly 40-year-old Gary Cooper) realizes he is out of touch with Slang. He hits the streets, train cars, and a nightclub (where Sugarpuss is performing) to study the contemporary jargon of the day.
After the memorable number “Drumboogie” (performed by Gene Krupa & orchestra), rich with language Potts doesn’t comprehend, he visits Sugarpuss in her dressing room, requesting her help in his studies. She’s in a jam herself, a witness and possible accomplice to criminal Joe Lilac and his gang. She agrees, as a means to keep herself off the radar of the police.
As the professors, especially Potts, fall more in love with her, she grows increasingly weary of her plot with Joe Lilac to jump ship and abandon the old men. Her true alliance is the heart of the drama and leads to a warm and truly satisfying ending.
Beyond its two terrific leads (Stanwyck a well-rounded leading lady and the well-meaning buffoon Cooper) Ball of Fire also features a strong supporting cast of characters, including the charming seven professors (many of whom you may recognize) plus Dana Andrews playing “tough guy” Joe Lilac. These “types” all culminate in a manic finale sequence that would make Preston Sturges and his notable ensembles proud.
While Ball of Fire loses some steam by the end, its clever premise and genuine characters strike a chord through all the narrative chaos. This is a screwball comedy with real heart, further cementing Stanwyck as a true Ball of Fire in classic Hollywood.