Around the Island

Warm up with ‘Ball of Fire’ at the library

Courtesy photo Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Ball of Fire.’
Courtesy photo
Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Ball of Fire.’

A pre-Christmas bonbon will be shown on Tuesday, December 9 at 7 p.m. as the concluding feature of Movies at the Library for 2014.

It is the 1941 “Ball of Fire,” inexplicably one of the lesser known of the era’s celebrated “screwball” comedies.

It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper and a collection of Hollywood’s best supporting players. She is Sugarpuss O’Shea, a sexy, wise-cracking nightclub chanteuse who is hiding out with boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), a mobster suspected of murder. Cooper is Professor Bertram Potts, a naïve English professor who, with the help of seven colleagues, is up-dating his encyclopedia of American slang.

When he meets her, he realizes she is the perfect source for contemporary usage and she realizes they are the perfect cover to protect her from the authorities who think she knows enough about Lilac to put him away.

Potts and his crew of lexicographers work at a foundation and cannot believe their luck when Sugarpuss wants to stay for a while. She’s lucky because she finds an unlikely hideout to lay low in. They, in turn, fall in love with her and she falls for the bookish Professor Potts.

The film is from a story concocted by the great Billy Wilder, who conceived it while still in Germany and who sold it to MGM when he relocated to Los Angeles. Early on, he partnered with Charles Brackett, who had been a drama critic for the New Yorker and a short story writer.

They became two of the most celebrated screenwriting partnerships in Hollywood, known for their intricate scripting and witty, sardonic dialogue. They wrote “Ninotchka” before “Ball of Fire” and went on to write 14 screenplays as varied as “Five Graves to Cairo” and “Lost Weekend.”

Their last film was one that seemingly has nothing in common with “Ball of Fire,” a classic of a different stripe, “Sunset Boulevard.”

Howard Hawks directed and it is only one of his brilliant comedies, which includes “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday.” It is also distinguished by inclusion in the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies.

Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for Best Actress in 1941 but lost to Joan Fontaine in a more serious role. It must have been a real disappointment as she had lost a few years earlier when nominated for “Stella Dallas.”

Among the seven professors are Oscar Homulka, Henry Travers and Aubrey Mather. Dan Duryea appears as a cohort of Lilac’s, mobster Duke Pastrami. The film is that kind of comedy and aspects of the Seven Dwarfs are not unthinkable.

It was produced by Samuel Goldwyn who, it turns out, was least likely for such a project. Learn more in the introductory remarks before the movie’s screening.

So mark your calendars for December 9 and don’t miss this terrific little film. See you at the library!