Around half a year ago, I watched Funny Face (1957) for the first time. As a fan of Stanley Donen, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, I expected to love it, but found myself put off by its anti-intellectual point of view. Then, a few months later, I saw My Fair Lady (1964) in the theater. Having enjoyed it as a child, I was surprised to find that it hadn’t aged well for me. Like Funny Face, it stars Hepburn and deals with intellectualism, but it suffered from the opposite problem. It seemed to side with Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) despite his snobbery and awful treatment of Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle. Ultimately, I came away from these viewings thinking that a wonderful film about the subject existed somewhere in between these two films’ viewpoints. Now, I’m convinced that that film is Howard Hawks’ 1941 rom-com Ball of Fire.
Ball of Fire is a modern take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It tells the story of a group of eight professors who live in a house together, combining their different intellects to create an encyclopedia. The group’s grammarian Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is stumped when he realizes he has to update the section on slang words, and attempts to find streetwise people to coach him on the subject. Nightclub singer Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) refuses to help him, until police begin looking for her in connection to her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) and she needs a place to hide out.
Much of the film’s charm comes from a witty script written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, as well as the professors, who are at least as lovable and endearing as the seven dwarves. Cooper and Stanwyck are obviously terrific, with Stanwyck’s sexual energy (so strong you’ll need to put a wet cloth on your neck) playing off of Cooper’s calm and studious performance.
But the film’s view on intellect is what stands out for me. Unlike Funny Face’s cynical view of philosophy and My Fair Lady’s classist perspective, Ball of Fire ascribes to the idea that, while being a genius is fine, you can’t know everything. The professors all use their different areas of expertise many times throughout the film, and they’re all indispensable because of their individualism. In the end, while being held captive by Lilac’s men, they put their different knowledges together and prove that brains triumph over brawn.
It’s also not snobbish enough to limit this to the professors, though. Sugarpuss has a lot to teach them, and rather than responding to her in a condescending and cruel way like Henry Higgins, they warmly receive what she has to teach, proving that someone’s knowledge being less academic doesn’t make it less valuable. And in the final scene, she’s not sure she deserves to be with Potts. “Remember, Pottsy, no women aboard,” she says, “and now, above all women, you want to take a dizzy dame like me.” Potts convinces her by utilizing something she’s taught him, standing her on a stack of books and kissing her. She’s not such a dizzy dame after all.
Ball of Fire isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s charming, funny, houses memorable performances and is a textbook example of academia without elitism. In the end, everyone knows something you don’t, and feelings of superiority can only limit knowledge.