Sugarpuss: [After asking the biology professor to check her throat] SLIGHT rosiness! It's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore!
* * *
Sugarpuss: [looking through Potts' books] Oh, "Greek philosophy!" I got a set like this with a radio inside.
* * *
Prof. Potts: Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.
* * *
Prof. Potts: I made an ass of myself and I know it.
Prof. Jerome: Oh, well, we all have, Potts.
Prof. Potts: Yes, but I was the lead donkey.
Ball of Fire (1941)
What is it about a tough-talking girl with a good heart, great legs, and a healthy romantic appetite? If that girl has a sense of irony and enough self-confidence to floor a room full of academics, then I'm sunk. This is exactly how Barbara Stanwyck ruined me for other women as Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea, bespangled nightclub singer, in the great Howard Hawks/Billy Wilder romp, Ball of Fire.
In a Victorian mansion on the quiet side of town, eight rumpled academics are hard at work on a new encyclopedia. They are older, socially-awkward professors, each with his own area of specialty. The youngest among them is Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), a linguist who is charged with updating the "slang" section. Potts has been gathering regular Joes from around town to help with his research: taxi drivers, garbage men, you know, Allen Jenkins types (and he's one of them). He goes to a nightclub one evening in search of some really good words and tries to recruit the club's headliner, Sugarpuss (Shugie). She refuses point blank.
At that moment, however, Shugie's boyfriend, handsome mobster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), has been up to something especially mobby and has to beat it out of town. Before she has time to rip up Prof. Pott's card, Lilac's goons, Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma (Ralph Peters), yank Shugie out of the club and tell her to lay low until things cool down. Ding! What better place to hide than a house full of Abercrombies?
Still in her costume, Shugie shimmies her way through the front door, and since none of these guys have ever seen spangles up close like this, they're completely on board,
So Shugie settles in and makes friends with all the fellas, teaching them how to dance and mix cocktails and such. She even helps Prof. Potts with his slang research on the regular and begins to take an interest in his work. For his part, Potts has begun to take an interest in her -- not just for the spangles, but on accounta because (that's a pleonasm) she is intelligent and curious. And he is young and healthy and not blind or dead.
Shugie also has eyes that see and has not failed to notice that Prof. Potts is one hot philologist. They develop feelings for one another: hers conflicted (she still has Dana Andrews in the wings, remember); his sincere and marriage-minded.
Speaking of the mobster boyfriend, Joe Lilac has been apprised of Shugie's doings and whereabouts by his goons -- who, by the way, are great goons. Dan Duryea is at his high, quiet slippery best and Asthma (the other one) looks like he was born with a machine gun in his hand. Lilac's lawyer advises him to marry Shugie so that she won't be able to testify against him in his upcoming racketeering trial. Posing as Shugie's father, Lilac phones the encyclopedia house to tell her to meet him in Jersey to get married. Potts takes the opportunity to ask "Mr. O'Shea" for his daughter's hand, which Lilac obviously grants, because now he can use the cover of eight professors to sneak Shugie out to meet him right under the cops' noses.
Poor Shugie. If she refuses Lilac, he'll have everybody killed. Also, with a choice between a guy who "gets more bang outta you than any dame he ever knew" and another who quotes Shakespeare, she'd rather stick with Potts, with whom she has, in spite of herself, fallen in love:
"Yes, I love him. ... Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he's the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn't know how to kiss, the jerk!"
She agrees to marry Potts, knowing she'll break his heart and humiliate him in front his colleagues, who are also her friends. He gives her the world's smallest ring with the world's sweetest inscription. Once they've safely delivered Shugie into Lilac's hands, however, Lilac tosses Shugie a million carat diamond ring, socks Potts in the eye, and sends them all packing back to their encyclopedia, Because he knows Shugie is actually in love with Potts, Lilac also sends Pastrami and Asthma along to guard them until the marriage is official.
Back in their library under the watchful guns of Lilac's goons, the professors realize that the ring Shugie gave back to Potts was Lilac's ring. According to the psychology professor in their midst, this means she kept the one she truly wanted: the one Potts gave her. Emboldened by love and hope, Potts and his friends science their way past the gunmen and rescue Shugie just in time.
And they lived happily ever after, see?
I love Sugarpuss O'Shea for the same reasons Professor Bertram Potts does: she's tough, sweet, smart, and sexy. She had us both at "yum-yum."
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
I get a special feeling when I see the early Warner Bros. opening credits with stars posed in character — chewin' gum, givin' a copper the hairy eyeball, lightin' a cheroot — and those are just the girls. It's a good feeling, make no mistake, and all the better when the picture involves women's prison.
That's where we find Barbara Stanwyck about 20 minutes into Ladies They Talk About, a great tale of two kids from the same hometown, one the deacon's daughter (Stanwyck), now a gun moll, and the other a populist running for district attorney, who was the son of the town drunk (Preston Foster). Nan Taylor is arrested for helping some of her thuggier friends (such as Lyle Talbot) rob a bank and is sent to prison, thanks to her hometown acquaintance, David Slade (Foster). In a weak moment (it was the smallest of moments) she had confessed her involvement in the robbery to Slade — just when he was about to get her released — so he wound up turning her in and testifying against her.
Slade loves Nan, but wants her to reform in prison. She does not quite feel the same way. In the slammer, though, she makes fast friends with Linda (Lillian Roth) who shows her the ropes; who to avoid and who's on the level. Nan settles in fine, but soon learns that the two goons who pulled the bank job have been arrested on a different charge and are now serving 20 years in the men's ward on the other side of the wall. She agrees, like an ass, to help the men escape in an absurd plan that could do nothing but fail, which it does. Nan is caught and gets an extra year added to her sentence. For pretty good reason, she blames the extra time on Slade.
When Nan gets out, she seeks revenge. That's where you'll have to pick it up.
It's classic pre-Code Warner Bros. excellence. Highly recommended.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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