“We don’t grow older, we grow riper.” –Pablo Picasso
A movie cast that is made up of old men writing an encyclopedia, an energetic burlesque performer, and a mobster tough guy doesn’t need to try to be funny; in the words of Lady Gaga, it was “born this way, baby.” Ball of Fire (1941) shows how Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is recruited by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) to help write an encyclopedia chapter on modern slang. The movie’s posters picture O’Shea (sorry, I just can’t bring myself to call her Sugarpuss) in a bright red dress with the sun forming a red halo around her head, suggesting she is the “ball of fire” referenced in the title. Unfortunately, this color connection is lost while watching the black-and-white film.
Minutes into my viewing experience, I exclaimed, “Clarence!” Henry Travers, most famous for his portrayal of the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, plays one of the aged encyclopedia writers. This troupe of silver-haired geezers was the most hilarious aspect of Ball of Fire. It’s hard not to laugh when a line of men my grandpa’s age attempt to learn the cha-cha from a beautiful young woman. Let’s just be thankful this movie was made in the ‘40s and we don’t have to watch senior citizens take twerking lessons from Miley.
While reflecting on the movie, I realized that many of my favorite comedies feature characters of a wide variety of ages. For example, Secondhand Lions, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Waking Ned Devine and Up would be impossible with a cast of entirely young talent. Stories, whether they are comedies or not, should explore all stages of life, because each stage has something different to offer. Babies are full of curiosity, children are ornery, young adults are passionate, middle-aged folks are experienced, and the elderly are wise…yet inevitably confused about the ways of the new generation. The merging of these different life stages helps make a movie interesting to watch.
The biggest bummer about Ball of Fire is that Professor Potts ends up with a woman, but the seven other encyclopedia writers remain bachelors. Sequels were a little scarcer in 1941, but I would love to see another movie where each of these professors finds a partner. Think Fiddler on the Roof with old men consulting a matchmaker instead of Tevye’s young daughters. I’d watch that.