The Unlikely Romance of Sugarpuss O'Shea and Bertram Potts

The idea of "opposites attract" is nothing new for a romantic comedy. Two completely different people meet. They somehow keep running into one another. Eventually, after spending some time together, they realize they aren't so dissimilar. Slowly they begin to mirror each other -- a shared phrase here, a slight gesture there -- until their feelings can no longer be denied. It's a story we've seen time and time again, one which we will likely still be seeing for years to come. It takes a really special romantic comedy to take such a stale concept and turn it into something with genuine heart and laughter (and maybe a few tears).

Ball of Fire is such a romantic comedy.

 Nightclub singer Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) and Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) do not belong together at first glance. They would point that out to you themselves. Upon meeting, there are no butterflies in the stomach, no lilting string music in the air, no fluttering heartbeats. If anyone is enamored of Sugar, it is the seven professors who live and work with Potts. When she chooses their place as a hideout until her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), can retrieve her, the naive professors believe she is only there to assist Potts in learning about modern slang for the encyclopedia they've spent years creating.

Right away, we know that Sugar is the breath of fresh air these men need. From the second she steps into their home, the film makes this obvious: everywhere she goes, her dazzling, risque costume never stops catching the light. Her sparkling presence wins the professors over immediately, but it isn't until a few days later that we learn "Pottsie" has been taking notice as well. After sheepishly admitting to Sugar that he has felt attracted to her, she decides to take advantage of him by pretending to reciprocate his feelings in order to prolong her stay.

While this is a terrible thing to do, we never hate Sugar for what she does. Because of Stanwyck's beguiling, heartfelt performance, we know that Sugar doesn't lie out of maliciousness. When she first barges into the professors' house, she thinks she will only be there for a day. The longer she is with them, though, the more she likes them, which is something she didn't see coming. When Joe's goons (Dan Duryea and Ralph Peters) show up to give her an update, Sugar is itching to leave, supposedly because she is dying to see Joe. However, you have to wonder if her true motive is that she wants to go before she and the professors become any more attached to one another than they already have. Her conundrum becomes more complicated when Joe's men give her a giant ring and say that Joe wants to get married. For him, it's a tactic to keep Sugar from testifying against him; for her, it's a chance to move up in life, thanks to Joe's wealth.

The crassness of Joe's proposal is soon contrasted with the earnestness of Potts's. Gary Cooper is so darling in this moment as Potts, adorably nervous and unmistakably smitten, delivers a sweet proposal that knocks Sugar for a loop. The differences between Joe and Potts are always overwhelmingly clear, but they're especially prominent when we see the ring the professor has chosen for Sugar. Whereas Joe's is a $7,000 piece of gaudiness, Potts's $40 ring is unassuming yet thoughtful, inscribed with a lovely Richard III quotation. Reflecting on how his entire life has been focused on academia, Potts admits to Sugar, "People like that, dust just piles up on their hearts and it took you to blow it away." "Yeah, but I didn't mean to blow it smack into your eye," she truthfully responds. Simultaneously confused, charmed, and guilt-ridden, Sugar recognizes that her plan has gone too far, the complexity of the scene illustrated by Stanwyck's subtle facial expressions.

The beauty of Potts and Sugar's relationship is that they inspire one another to grow intellectually and emotionally. Sugar starts to become interested in Potts's English books, and realizes that she deserves the love and friendship that Pottsie and the professors promise. Potts, meanwhile, learns there is so much more to life as he studies modern slang and experiences the vivacity and romance that Sugar brings.

When Sugar first arrives at the professors' house, their cranky housekeeper Ms. Bragg warns Potts, "That is the kind of woman who makes whole civilizations topple!" Although Ms. Bragg means this as an insult, this is exactly what Sugar does: she turns the house upside down as she reminds the professors that life should be lived with joy and confidence, which gives them the courage to defeat Joe and his machine gun-carrying henchmen at film's end. While they save Sugar from a forced marriage to Joe, she saves them from, in the words of Potts, letting too much dust pile on their hearts.

It is often mentioned that Ball of Fire is a loose interpretation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The fairy tale that screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett weave presents a cynical, street-smart princess; a tough-talking gangster for a villain; a group of gentle, elderly scholars as the dwarfs; and a quiet, bumbling, wonderfully nerdy Prince Charming. Even the kiss that awakens the princess is changed into a demonstration of seduction, fittingly nicknamed "yum-yum," that symbolically rather than literally opens both the princess and prince's eyes.

Regardless of whether you see it as an offbeat fairy tale or a delightful comedy, though, Ball of Fire emanates warmth and romance as it portrays how love and kindness will ultimately win the day. If that doesn't melt your heart, I don't know what will.


This is my contribution to The Queen of Sass: Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer. You can read all the other tributes to this magical woman here.


  1. Great post! I saw this movie a few years ago, and it is one of Gary Cooper's that I really love! So much fun all around.

    1. Thank you! It is such a blast to watch. I had to miss the opportunity to see it on the big screen a few years ago and I'm still smarting over it!

    2. I saw this movie a few years ago too and I have to say this is one of the best pictures that I have ever seen. Thank you for your post, it is really touch me!

  2. Your heartfelt assessment of Ball of Fire and Barbara Stanwyck's timeless performance has moved me to my core. It is a wonderful companion piece to the film itself.

    1. Paddy, you're too kind! I spent so many hours banging my head against the wall while writing this, and I'm still not satisfied with it completely, so your comment is very much appreciated.

  3. Definitely need to add to my must-see list!

    1. Oh yes! It's such a hilarious and clever film. I haven't met anyone who disliked it.

  4. Loved your review! This film has been written about a lot, but your take feels fresh – and it makes me realize I need to see this one again soon.

    You make a good point about the professors need saving as much as Barbara S. does. She and Gary Cooper make a fabulous pair. Did they make only two movies together?

    1. Aw, thanks, Ruth!

      I had that same question as I was writing this piece! I thought they only did this film and Meet John Doe, but apparently they made a western-type drama in the '50s called Blowing Wild. I had never heard of it before, but I'm quite intrigued now!

  5. A great review of one of my favorite movies - my favorite Stanwyck comedy, anyway. It's lovely how Sugar and Potts change and help each other find balance. And there is no doubt we root for Sugar and forgive her mistakes because it's Stanwyck playing her.

    1. Thank you! It might be my favorite Stanwyck comedy, too. I do have to wonder, though, what the film would be like if first choice Ginger Rogers had accepted the part of Sugar.


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