Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks (1941)

Sublime. Hawks directs, Wilder wrote, Cooper and Stanwyck star, plus — icing on the cake! — S.Z. Sakall! and, even better, Dan Duryea as the small-time hood Duke Pastrami! It’s really just too good.

A group of seven old professors (think hi ho, hi ho) and one young one, Cooper, are holed up in a NYC townhouse are writing an encyclopedia. They’ve got two problems: their funding’s running out, and their isolation from the outside world has left them fatally uninformed about the realities of contemporary life. In other words, they’re professors.

Meanwhile, Stanwyck (as Katherine ‘Sugarpuss’ O’Shea), has problems of her own: the bulls are after her. The solutions are as elegant as they are absurd: the professors/dwarves give Sugarpuss/Snow White refuge, and she gives them a thrilling education in up-to-the-minute slang.

Hawks and Wilder get all that set up in about fifteen minutes, leaving them free to spend the next hour to revel in the possibilities, like Stanwyck looking around at the professors’ library and saying, “Whee, that’s a lot of books! All of them different?”

Needless to say, Stanwyck winds up wanting the square but sincere professor more than the flashy gangster. A movie to bring hope to every nerd who’s ever lost out to a bad seed.

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