“On Account of Because”: Language and the Law of the Daddies in Ball of Fire
It is puzzling that Ball of Fire (1941) is rarely considered one of Howard Hawks’s best comedies, nor one of the best Wilder-Brackett screenplays. While it remains a steady favorite of fans of classic American comedies, it has received little critical attention. I would argue that it is among the best works of their director and writers, and one of the most semantically integrated and aesthetically unified comedies ever brought to the American screen. It is one those rare Hollywood films in which almost all important elements interlock and reinforce each other so tightly that they produce a comedy of considerable literary complexity and elegance. It is the best example we have from the period of Wilder’s sense that a script is a literary artifact, in which not a word can be changed with impunity. (Wilder attributed his desire to become a director to his anger at Mitchell Leisen’s cavalier attitude toward his script for Midnight.)
Ball of Fire brought together perhaps the most distinctively American of the great comic film directors, Howard Hawks, and one of the most distinctively European screenwriters, Billy Wilder. Hawks’s previous screwball masterpieces, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), were exemplars of what I term “American crazy talk.” Their characters speak a mile-a-minute in distinctively American idioms, without much opposition from any discourse that the audience might have associated with Europe. Wilder, by contrast, began his screenwriting career under the tutelage of Ernst Lubitsch, whose enormously popular and influential films Design for Living (1933) and Trouble in Paradise (1932) established the models for European-style boulevard comedy in American film. In his early American career Wilder collaborated with Charles Brackett, a patrician New Yorker writer and member of the Algonquin Circle, in what came to be considered the premiere writing partnership in Hollywood. Their first screen credits were for Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), Ninotchka (1939), and Midnight (1939) (a project that was originally Lubitsch’s, which he later passed on to Mitchell Leisen).
Wilder had begun his writing career in Vienna and Berlin; he left Germany for Hollywood in 1933. He knew little English when he arrived, and he threw himself into learning the language quickly in order to continue writing for films. He was most fascinated by American popular speech, and became a voracious student of American slang. In the Hawks-Wilder-Brackett creative triangle, Wilder in the early 1940s functioned as the unlikely mediator between the echt Midwesterner Hawks and the Old-Money Yankee Brackett. The energy with which he studied popular speech from the perspective of a working class Jewish émigré raised it in Ball of Fire from humorous patter to a comic-mythic discourse of social renewal.
Ball of Fire is a sex comedy that operates almost entirely in the domain of language. While Hawks’s previous comic masterworks, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, are famous for their frenetic action, Ball of Fire bases its entire fictive world on language, making it not only an atmosphere, but the subject and object of its comedy. It is a comedy specifically about language as comic fetish, a discourse that masks sex and supplements it, indicating a void where it was “supposed to be,” and producing an erotic pleasure of its own – more universal, transferrable, mobile, and encompassing than sexual intimacy itself. Its atmosphere is not only of jouissance, ecstatic excess beyond signification, but of bonheur, the state of happiness in which the ceaseless production of supplements is the source and the point of collective pleasure among discursive beings.
As in all comedy, this genial and generous overproduction of language is a matter of transgression and play. Ball of Fire captures one of the most important qualities of the spirit of social comedy: the joy of discourse playing with itself. It’s instructive here to return to Roman Jakobson’s famous distinction between utilitarian and poetic language. While it is overly schematic for language as a whole, Jakobson’s notion is immensely congenial to comedy. (In this it is like psychoanalysis, a theoretical construct that may not have healed many people but has been invaluable to comic theorists.) Jakobson posits that utilitarian language seeks to deliver a message without surpluses. It gives instructions or conveys simple messages in forms that evaporate as soon as the messages are delivered. Like the solicitation tapes of Mission Impossible, they self-destruct quickly after they are received. Poetic language, by contrast, remains in the receiver’s mind long after its function has been completed. Through poetic figures – chief among them metaphor and metonymy but including all rhetorical tropes – and quasi-musical effects, poetic utterances call attention to their linguistic nature. They remain in memory, they become objects of contemplation, they become spurs to imitation and elaboration. They become play.
Springtime for the Professors. The film begins with a jazzband soundtrack, while the title cards tell us we are beginning a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there was a great tall, forest, called New York.”
It is to be an urbane fairy tale, comfortable with ironic oxymorons: a jazz fable, fiddling burning, Manhattan as fairy woods. (Not to mention the title, which the audience will learn, but already suspects, is a consummate oxymoron: a woman endowed with the best imaginable virile imagery. Whoever has a title like “ball of fire” has the phallus, for sure.) We are told that the professors were somehow enchanted Wise Ones knowing most of what needs to be known, except maybe the most important thing. They knew “what tune Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. But there was one thing about which they knew very little, as you shall see.” That thing they did not know will not be named; even the film’s narrator prefers to leave a lacuna. The entire film is a supplement to that lacuna. The opening promises a sex comedy, veiling the mysterious absent signifier. The characters are ignorant – they are all bachelors, except for the pathetically gentle long-time widower Prof. Oddly; they have not been in the company of an attractive woman for nine years; and their encyclopedia compiling project has only now reached the letter S, the alphabetical zone of desire – the entry zone of slang. Those substitutions for the absent signified – speech and slang – work by insinuation. The audience slyly suspects that it knows what it is that the professors don’t know; it sits poised throughout the comedy waiting for its name, its act, its revelation. Once it has become focused on the absence, the game of misdirection, indirection, and substitution can begin. The greatest maguffin of all can now generate a nearly infinite number of supplements.
Our first shots after the phallic pillar on Columbus Circle and the enchanted castle of the Plaza Hotel across Central Park are of the seven elderly professors marching two-by-two in the park. Comic quasi-cartoon music accompanies them, subtly evoking the highly popular animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released by Disney in 1937. It is springtime, we immediately learn -- a particularly early, warm one. We know – whether or not we have read Northrop Frye on the ritual associations of comedy – that we are in the mythos-world of comic spring. The professors walk side-by-side, in telling pairs: one Yankee beside one European: Prof. Jerome next to Prof. Gurgakoff, Prof. Robinson next to Prof. Magenbruch, Peagram next to Quintana, with an odd man lagging behind, appropriately named Prof. Oddly. The pairings are an early signal that syntheses will be necessary between European and American, high and low, constrained and free. The marching professors’ light pedantic banter about the weather conceals that they are not only – or really – professors, they are familiars of the elements. Like nature spirits in an updated masque, each of them represents an area of pedantic knowledge that “unconsciously” expresses natural fertility and vitality.
MAGENBRUCH (gesturing air into his mouth): Make the same. It's good for you. Spring air.
ROBINSON: The way you're gulping it up, there won't be enough left to go around.
JEROME: Isn't it very hot for so early in April, Dr. Gurkakoff?
GURKAKOFF: I'm not surprised. This recent bombardment by ions from the sun. You see, temperature is due to the quantity of molecular...
JEROME: Hey, hey. Stop, stop, if you don't want me to retaliate by reciting all the tributary branches of the Amazon. Incredible that only last week we were drawing lots for our hot water bottle.
ODDLY: Observe the forsythia or golden bell. I never knew it to bloom so early.
One by one they speak as nature spirits: Prof. Magenbruch’s Air revels in the fresh spring air; Gurkakoff’s Fire invokes the sun; Jerome’s Water threatens to invoke (and thereby does invoke) the fertile tropical Amazon; Oddly’s Earth peruses the early blooming forsythia. Holding up the rear is the tall, handsome, utterly unlikely Prof. Potts, his absent-minded professor status marked by his nose deep in the pages of a book, where it has presumably been throughout the entire constitutional walk.
Here we get our first misdirectional gag, a pregnant one. At a fork in the park path, the professorial troupe marches one way, while Potts heads in another, seemingly unaware of where his comrades are headed. The absent-minded professor stands before us. It is worth revisiting Bergson’s notion of comic absent-mindedness and its central importance for his theory. For Bergson, the two most defining aspects of the laughable are automatism and absent-mindedness. Automatism refers to the feeling that one is observing “the mechanical encrusted on the living.” That is, we see something that is alive and that should manifest the flow and flexibility of a free and living creature, yet acting rigidly, bound to habits, customs, and physical tics that make them seem like will-less machines. From within such comic agents, this automatism is not willed; it is not conscious. The comic character is not aware that it has become a creature of routine and habit. It is not aware of its rich and complex environment, of others, or of its own thoughts. The internal cause of what appears to be automatism is absent-mindedness. For Bergson, this concept extends beyond the obvious humorous rigidity of characters’ behaviors to nature itself. Nature itself can be absent-minded sometimes – as when it “forgets” that it has infinite creative potential, and produces repetitions instead of new creations.
It turns out quickly that it is not Potts who is the absent-minded professor, despite his appearance, but the old guys. Potts reminds them that they must go back to work or they will lose valuable time compiling their encyclopedia. So now we know not only that the youngest of them, the handsome and (since it’s Gary Cooper) the virile one, is the leader, he’s the one most committed to the project. And he is not absent-minded, after all – he knows exactly where he is, what time it is, and what he must do today, unaffected by spring fever. The old guys “forgot” their mission in order to enjoy the spring – but it’s clear it’s not a case of real absent-mindedness; they were intentionally so, they were pretending to be absent-minded professors in order not to be truly so, which is what not paying attention to the world and natural vitality would be. In that reflected light, we suspect that Potts’s commitment and presence of mind is actually to a higher absent-mindedness: not paying attention to the real, but to a rigid, unreflective ideal. The real in this case is, of course, springtime, and so it promises to be a mythic dream-world with powers of enchantment, in pedestrian clothing. That is a hard world to ignore. It’s clear from this moment that Potts’s commitment to ideals makes him a hero – but he’s going to need to get out more.
Potts orders his gang back to work at the Totten Foundation. They have only three years of work left to do. If they don’t apply themselves, they will get bogged down in the letter S.
POTTS: Gentlemen. Gentlemen. It's 8:46, gentlemen.
PROFS: Oh, Potts.
PROF. JEROME: Just once more around the park.
PROF. ROBINSON: Before we go back to our mausoleum.
PROF. ODDLY: I saw a scarlet tanager which must have flown all the way from Florida just to enjoy it.
PROF. JEROME: 1,500 miles.
PROF. ODDLY: Yes.
POTTS: Our constitutional has taken up too much time already. We're working under pressure. After nine years of effort we are, as the race track enthusiast might say, in the home stretch. Three more years and our encyclopedia will be finished. Let's not bog down in the middle of the letter "S."
PROFS: All right. All right. That's done it.
POTTS: It's now 8:49, gentlemen. I, for one, am going back to work.
DIVERS PROFS: Teacher's pet! Bertram Potts, the incorruptible. The eternal no-no man. Back home. Back home. Oh, well, it may be raining this afternoon, anyway.
Deep in the Letter S. They head back to their “mausoleum,” led by their ostensible Malvolio, “the eternal no no man.” As they enter the building, we see the plaque for the Totten Foundation. The bilingual joke may be lost on many viewers, but all the same it’s there. Tot = death in German. Back into the crypt they go, underworld spirits herded back out of life. But S is a magical letter. The most important things start with S, including spring, swing, strawberries, sugar, and slang.
The scene bodes ill. The most virile man in Hollywood is a killjoy, leader of the servants of Totten. But an interesting thing leaks out. Potts, full of energy and enthusiasm for the presumably dry-as-dust labor, employs a slang phrase for their closeness to the finish: “as the race track enthusiast might say, in the home stretch.” It is our first hint that Potts is deeply engaged with his entry on slang. He speaks it as if he’s learning a foreign language, but he’s finding use for it. The surprising racetrack phrase also shows us his energy; for him, the nine-years’ labor is not a slow grind; for him, they have not been plough-horses, but thoroughbred stallions.
The library/mausoleum is controlled by the heavy hand of Miss Bragg, a.k.a. “Crabapple Annie,” immediately recognizable as the Heavy Mother, blocking the professors from access to joy and freedom. She combines several character functions simultaneously – she is a prude, a churl, a usurper, a jailer.
MISS BRAGG: Gentlemen, before you get down to work, I have got something to say. One of you made off with a jar of strawberry preserves from my pantry last night. I located the empty jar on the shelf behind The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That seems to indicate our historian, Professor Peagram.
PROF. PEAGRAM: I did no such thing, Miss Bragg.
MISS BRAGG: I'm not accusing anybody, but until it's cleared up, I think we'll dispense with jam for breakfast.
PROF. ODDLY: Miss Bragg.
MISS BRAGG: Yes, Professor Oddly.
PROF. ODDLY: I am the one. I was writing about strawberries when suddenly I got a horrible craving.
MISS BRAGG: A crime confessed is half atoned.
The game of joyous not-naming begins, paradoxically, with Miss Bragg. In a line that would be equally at home in a hokum song or a Renaissance lyric, she announces: someone stole her strawberry jam from right out of her pantry. Miss Bragg is, of course, unaware of her double-entendre, but she is well aware of the power of stolen strawberry jam to destroy civilizations. She found the emptied jar hidden behind the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, an appropriate place for a sin of such magnitude. She is well aware of the association of pedantic history with the illicit, perverse pleasure of reading about Roman declines. She accuses Peagram, the historian whose book it must be, and threatens to withhold all future jam from the boys. No jam for you if you don’t confess. Oddly confesses that he is the jam thief; writing about his zone of the letter S led to a “horrible craving.”
Prof. Magenbruch, cherublike and not remotely sexy, then notices that his work on sex (everyone is in the letter S together) is missing.
MAGENBRUCH: Miss Bragg. Miss Bragg. I had some material here. What happened to it?
MISS BRAGG: What happened? I blushed for my duster when I did your desk. You'll find everything in the middle drawer, face down.
MAGENBRUCH I'm just starting my article on sex, Miss Bragg. Any objections?
MISS BRAGG: No, I trust you have more control of yourself than Professor Oddly.
Magenbruch here dares to name the absent S-word, in a straightforward challenge to the Heavy Mother, who has concealed the offending knowledge face down in a desk drawer, in case it might radiate its corrupting influence even where no one can see it. Miss Bragg’s job as a blocker is both to prevent the professors from getting diegetic pleasure, and also to point to the sources of pleasure behind the screen for the extradiegetic audience. In her prudery, she talks sexy. “I trust you have more control of yourself than Professor Oddly.” She’s a mother, she knows what boys do when they read about sex and don’t control themselves. (That is, unless Prof. Magenbruch plans to steal some jam for his own from her pantry.)
The professors may be bogged down in the letter of the letter S, but its spirit does not bog one down. In a comedy of fetish-language, a letter is not necessarily a place for getting bogged down. It is a scene of pleasure. Miss Bragg’s blocking of the energy places her among Frye’s impostors and usurpers. She is not the profs’ mother, and she is not their nurse (though she explicitly analogizes herself into being one later in the film). Potts appears to be the least perturbed by her disapproval; he corrects her for her “crime against language” of splitting infinitives. (What the God of Grammar has joined together, let no mortal break asunder.) But it has no purchase. His pedantry is no force against her prudery. It’s a draw.
Into this scene enter Miss Totten and her lawyer, Lambert.
They are the worldly blockers, embodying money-power. Miss Totten appears mousy, a bit witchy, but not predatory. She has no love for the encyclopedia project, which was endowed by her father, whose frowning portrait hangs over the conclave, combining many alazon types: Heavy Father, churl, vain fool. He had endowed the project out of resentment against the Brittanica for leaving him, the inventor of electric toaster, out of the encyclopedia. The profs promise to give their benefactor’s memory some space – “three quarters of a page.” They also know that Miss Totten is sweet on Potts, whose unlikely sex appeal (he is Gary Cooper, after all) is their leverage point for keeping their funding. They nudge Potts forward to make nice with her. As he does so, Prof. Gurkakoff gives him one last fateful, word-obliterating shove.
POTTS: Maybe I'm a little inarticulate, but I've always regarded you as a...
MISS TOTTEN: Yes, Professor?
POTTS: Always regarded you as a... (Gurkakoff nudges Potts forcefully from behind)… whoop!
MISS TOTTEN: Oh, Professor!
POTTS: You know what I mean, Miss Totten.
MISS TOTTEN: Yes.
Miss Totten seems to understand what whoop is – but Potts is in no position to take it back. After all, he neither meant to say it, nor does it mean anything to him, the professor of language. But it saves the professors’ work for a while longer. This is the first instance in the film of a wordless-word, a category of language that will have enormous, subtle meanings and power in this world of talkers
POTTS: Who are you?
THE GARBAGE MAN: I’m the Garbage Man.
The Garbage Man. In a fortunate entrance engineered by the Comic Spirit itself, the Garbage Man intrudes on the dusty but highbrow space of the profs, speaking Brooklynese, seeking knowledge. He arrives bearing an allegorical name: the man from the base, from the dirt and trash thrown out into the world. For Miss Bragg, he is filth, contamination, a low other.
MISS BRAGG: Young man, did you come through my kitchen?
GARBAGE MAN: That's right, sister.
-MISS BRAGG: I'm not your sister, and you get out
PROF. ODDLY: Please, Miss Bragg, we find this intensely interesting. Go on, please.
MISS BRAGG: You can't tell me he's not infested with germs.
PROF. ROBINSON: Then go and get your gas mask. Now, shoo, scat, skedaddle.
Prof. Robinson (who will later procure the jazz records for a conga lesson) is already using slang, connecting more with the Garbage Man’s world than with the prudery of Miss Bragg’s.
To the profs, The Garbage Man is a godsend, an emissary from the other world, a working man with the gift of gab, a slang-slinging Hermes. He comes in with new language in exchange for knowledge, and sets going the main intellectual/spiritual action, the acquisition and integration of words from “below” polite discourse, not in order to tell “the truth” but to enrich the reservoir of euphemisms for sex (the sexual play of language) — and ultimately to conjoin the classes in their shared erotic joy. The Garbage Man asks the profs for knowledge to win the Quizzola. To win, one needs two things: box covers, which he has galore from his rich trash-collecting “opportunities,” and knowledge, which he has come to acquire from the profs. As he begins the process of exchanging street knowledge for book knowledge, he sets up one of the most elegant, and creative, equivalences of the film: the profs and garbage men deal with two versions of the same thing: trash and knowledge, both pretexts for language and jouissance.
The Garbage Man’s first quizzola question regards how Cleopatra met her demise. Prof. Jerome produces the knowledge:
PROF. JEROME: Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, daughter of Ptolemy Xlll, born 69 BC, killed herself on the 29th day of August, 30 BC, by placing an asp to her bosom.
GARBAGE MAN: A what?
PROF. JEROME: An asp. A small snake.
GARBAGE MAN: Well, patch my pantywaist.
It’s a ribald little moment typical of Wilder-Brackett scripts and Hawks films. The Garbage Man turns the asp into a sexy schoolboy pun (“A what?”), and we’re off. The Garbage Man needs knowledge, but he can supply the matter: “Maybe you got the brains, but I got the boxtops.” And both have language, which they are beginning to intertwine.
Once the compact has been established, the Garbage Man launches into a joyous slang rap, a brilliant jazzy moment of jouissance, a rhythmic spinning off of supplements to sex that are enjoyed precisely because they are supplements. The fetish of language is not only the condensed word, but its opposite, the flow of play. The Garbage Man, surrounded by the profs who act as a comic querying call-and-response chorus, performs a kind of dance like a performer on a stage, with little jive gestures, prefiguring Sugarpuss’ Drum Boogie act soon to come.
GARBAGE MAN: Well, I certainly am obliged. I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week.
PROF. ODDLY: Mouse?
GARBAGE MAN: What a pair of gams. A little in, a little out, and a little more out...
PROF. ODDLY: I am still completely mystified.
GARBAGE MAN: Well, with this dish on me hands and them giving away 25 smackaroos on that quizzola.
PROF. ODDLY: Smackaroos? What are smackaroos?
GARBAGE MAN: A smackaroo is a...
POTTS: No such word exists.
GARBAGE MAN: Oh, it don't? A smackaroo is a dollar, pal.
POTTS: Well, the accepted vulgarism for a dollar is a buck.
GARBAGE MAN: The accepted vulgarism for a smackaroo is a dollar. That goes for a banger, a fish, a buck or a rug.
PROF. ODDLY: Well, what about the mouse?
GARBAGE MAN: The mouse is the dish. That's what I need the moolah for.
GARBAGE MAN: Yeah, the dough. We'll be stepping. Me and this smooch... I mean, the dish, I mean, the mouse. You know, hit the jiggles for a little rum boogie.
DIVERS PROFS: Please, please, not so fast.
GARBAGE MAN: Brother, we're going to have some hoytoytoy.
PROF. ODDLY: Hoytoytoy?
GARBAGE MAN: Hoytoytoy. Yeah, and if you want that one explained, you go ask your papas.
That's Archie. His water's getting hot. Well, thanks again, gents.
The speech is worth a close look. It is a flood of figures, metaphors, neologisms, neosemes, solecisms on the beat, a cornucopia of words for money, girls, and sex from a world where one word for anything is not enough. It knows no class hierarchy – “the accepted vulgarism for a smackeroo is a dollar.” It reaches its ecstatic climax in one of the film’s three magic words, “hoytoytoy,” which, like “yum-yum” and “boogie woogie,” sounds like nonsense, but evokes wonder for its power beyond words to designate pleasure beyond words. It is one of the street’s names for jouissance. Like the artist that he is, the Garbage Man calms down his rational delirium with a phrase that braids the figurative back into the literal: his fellow garbage man Archie’s “water’s getting hot.” He’s been waiting a long time out there on the street with his motor running.
Out Into It. The Garbage Man’s rap leaves the profs in a state of euphoric wonder. It hits Potts, however, like a thunderbolt.
POTTS: … it's catastrophic, gentlemen, catastrophic.
ALL: Why? How so?
POTTS: I've just finished my article on slang. Twenty-three pages compiled from a dozen reference books. Eight hundred examples.
PROF. GURGAKOFF: Well?
POTTS: Everything from the idiotic combination "absotively" to the pejorative use of "zigzag." I traced the evolution of "hunky dory,” tracked down "skiddo" from "skedaddle." Eight hundred examples and I may as well throw it in the waste basket. Three weeks' work.
PROF. ROBINSON: Potts, you're hysterical.
POTTS: Outmoded. Based on reference books 20 years old. Take "smooch." Take "dish." Take...
PROF. ODDLY: Hoytoytoy?
POTTS: Hoytoytoy. Not one of them included. Living in this house cut off from the world, I've lost touch. And it's inexcusable. That man talked a living language. I embalmed some dead phrases.
Like an experience of trashy satori, Potts has become conscious that he can’t know slang by reading books. He has been an undertaker for the mausoleum of language, while “living language” speeds off without him. He forcefully directs Miss Bragg to break his routine and to supply him for a trip into the field: “Out to collect new data, to tap the sources of slang, the major sources. The streets. The slums. The theatrical and allied professions.”
It is not difficult to discern the obvious motivations for comic action. Potts and the professors, isolated in their ivory tower of dead knowledge, are suddenly, fortuitously, shown a language of experience that is sexy, energetic, and fun. Potts realizes that he has been his own blocker, and must remedy his self-imposed ignorance by – bravely, idealistically, and committedly – going into the field among the natives to collect the words and phrases, like an ethnographer. Subtly underlying this ostensible comedy of word/phrase creation is that they live in rhythm. The Garbage Man’s speech plays with its beats. Potts’s reaction almost swings, too, with syncopated beats all just right: “Take dish. Take smooch. Take…hoytoytoy.” In a musical, these moments would be songs (as they were in Hawks’s 1948 remake of Ball of Fire, A Song is Born). It could have been a song; this trajectory of action, Potts’s data-collection in the field, reaches its telos in Sugarpuss’ song “Drum Boogie,” but that is the only song in the film. By protecting it from outright music, Hawks, Wilder, and Brackett maintain the link to classic comedy, as in Shakespeare and Molière, where important speeches develop distinctive rhythms of their own.
In subsequent scenes, Potts visits a variety of venues where distinctive slang is used. He listens in on a conversation between two young women on a subway train, a newsboy hawking papers, the crowd at a baseball game, a group of college kids, a brawly pool hall, and ultimately the acme of it all: the Drum Boogie Club. Throughout, the scenes are accompanied by an inventive jazzy score played by a full swing band in nightclub richness, each micro-scene with its own distinctive style. The sequence reaches its true destination in the most famous scene of Ball of Fire: Sugarpuss O’Shea’s performance of the tune “Drum Boogie,” backed by the Gene Krupa Band. The smoother swing accompaniments of the preceding scenes swell into the wilder, driving rhythms of Krupa’s jazz.
Drum Boogie. The scene is immensely rich. The order of Potts’s data-gathering sequences makes it clear that the apex of the slang hierarchy is the hipster jive of the jazz world. In the club, Potts enters a society in which everyone communicates in jive terms. Where the Garbage Man was a solitary informant accidentally penetrating the Ivory Tower, here Potts is an intentional – albeit innocent -- interloper, eagerly trying to record the lingo of the privileged tribe of jazz hounds. Hawks’s non-linguistic choices dominate in this world, over and above Brackett and Wilder’s language games. The choice of Krupa’s band to play the scene is significant. “Drum Boogie” was a recent popular hit by the band, and it is an effective pretext for introducing Potts to his second magic word: boogie-woogie. The word is much more specific than the other two enchantment words, hoytoytoy and yum-yum. In this world it has the same meaning as they do, but it is explicitly a word for jazz music and rhythm, and so again a little piece of jouissance. As a jazz word it also explicitly introduces the dimension of race, which has been absent from the film until this point. (It has been prepared, nonetheless, quite emphatically by the soundtrack’s swing bits scattered throughout the film.) Krupa had a well-established reputation of being a white hipster, completely immersed in jazz culture and its language, and one of the first white jazz drummers to adopt the drumming styles of virtuoso black drummers/band leaders like Chick Webb. He was, following the lead of his band-leader mentor, Bennie Goodman, one of the first white jazzmen to include African-American musicians in his band – and the performance of “Drum Boogie” features a short solo by Roy Eldridge, the great trumpet player who was a member of Krupa’s orchestra at the time. For the purposes of contemporary Hollywood, Potts had entered the Real Thing, the living world’s equivalent of the Totten library.
The episode is perhaps even more interesting for what it does not show. Ball of Fire is based on a number of comic transgression with significant social implications for the time. It relies on the transgressions of gender norms typical of screwball comedy. It relies just as heavily on transgressions of class. Traditional class distinctions, shown in sharply demarcated form in the meeting of the professors and the Garbage Man, are all but removed. Age is also subtly problematized, as the romance between Potts and Sugarpuss is repeatedly hinted to extend to the Potts’s elderly cohort. One transgression, however, never occurs, even though the film intimates its inevitability. The absent transgression is, of course, race.
Slang itself is not necessarily coded for race in the film. Potts’s working-class “faculty” is entirely white, and many of the terms he picks up were widely used and of diverse provenance in slang-obsessed early 1940s America. Yet the prominence of swing jazz in the soundtrack and the trajectory of Potts’s field-research implies that the House of Slang, the navel of its creative power, is the jazz club. The intensity of the Krupa performance in the film, compared with tamer swing of the other jazz accompaniments, indicate that this is the center of energy. This is the home of hipster jive, smoking music, and sassy, sexy babes. Krupa was as black-identified a white jazz star as could be imagined in the America of the time. His music was considerably “wilder” than most American jazz orchestras (in the spirit of Chick Webb’s and Bennie Moten’s black bands), and this is prominent in his performance here. Boogie-woogie was unambiguously treated as a black musical style, as dubious for the white bourgeoisie as rock and roll would become later. And all these factors were associated with freer sexual mores, both by its critics and its purveyors.
Sugarpuss’ appearance in a sexy, glittering costume to sing the pièce de resistance, “Drum Boogie,” should be the capstone of this buildup. But in the film, it is singularly tepid. Stanwyck’s performance throughout most of the film is brilliant, but this moment, which should be a climax, is unnervingly flat. Stanwyck’s assets as a romantic star at this point in her career included her beautiful “gams” and her earlier history as a chorus girl. But her performance of “Drum Boogie” is stiff and uninspired. Her voice is dubbed by Martha Tilton, Benny Goodman’s star singer of the late 1930s. And her quasi-dance moves seem awkward and unsure. It may seem petty to focus on a single uninspired moment of an otherwise stellar performance. I feel, however, that this is a significant moment of absence – not just a glitch, but an aporetic lacuna that reveals a great deal about the comic universe of Ball of Fire.
In my view, given the rigorous logic of comic transgressions in the film and the centrality of slang and jazz, Stanwyck’s stiff jazz performance signals that the role intentionally bypasses the matter of race, precisely at the moment when race begs to be spliced into the mix of topsy-turvy play. Sugarpuss’ role, to be explicit, was made to be played by a black actress-singer. Speculative as it may be, one can easily imagine Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge in the role. (Neither Horne nor Dandridge were yet the stars they would become a few years later, so I am dreaming here.) Of course, Sugarpuss O’Shea is not defined in the film by her role as a jazz singer and dancer; she’s a gangster’s moll, and that role is not coded for race. Still, it is not trivial, given the increasingly swinging rhythms of the words uttered by nearly all the characters by this point in the film, that the culminating transgression in Potts’s quest for slang-data would be for Potts to be smitten by a high-yellow African-American showgirl representing the elite nightclub culture of Harlem, in the city of Potts’s work and quest. Such a move would have been so impossible at the time that it could not even have been contemplated; but it is not impossible that Wilder, a veteran of Berlin bohemia, where he was a taxi dancer for a while, and an ardent believer in civil rights in the US, would imagine such a thing. In any case, it is worth dreaming about how such a comedy would have worked, and what a different world it would have worked in.
When Potts knocks on Sugarpuss’ stage door to invite her to join his working group on slang, Sugarpuss is in the company of the crime boss Joe Lilac’s henchmen, Pastrami and Asthma, who are urging her to leave to avoid being nabbed by the District Attorney’s office in an investigation of a murder ordered by Joe. This is the first moment when the gangster plot and the Potts plot intertwine.
One of Bergson’s privileged comic techniques is “the reciprocal interference of series.” Two completely independent series of actions are fortuitously entangled (the Comic Spirit at work again). Usually, the characters are unaware that actions in their own series are interpreted very differently by characters in the other series, since they are unaware that there actually are two distinct series. This unconscious intersection creates confusion and mistaken identities for the diegetic world, while the audience knows everything. Often the point of intersection, and hence of long-range confusion, is misinterpreted language, and this is especially true in a language-dominant comedy like Ball of Fire. Sugarpuss has been warned by Pastrami and Asthma that she is a subject of the D.A.’s investigation into Joe Lilac. Through the door, Potts tells Sugarpuss that he wants to consult her in his own “investigation.” Sugarpuss misinterprets at first, thinking that Potts is a cop. She quickly gets things right, but the connection remains structurally, and will lead to some subtle wordplay later.
The scene creates an extended series of reciprocal interferences – not only in the action, but in Potts’ and Sugarpuss’ intertwining discourses. Sugarpuss is surprised to hear that the other seven “investigators” (i.e., the professors, whom she still thinks are cops) are probably at home in bed at 9 p.m.
SUGARPUSS: Say, are you a bull or aren't you?
POTTS: Well, if bull is the slang word for professor, then I'm a bull.
In this moment of Shakespearean multilevel punning, in which both characters are unaware of the implications of their misunderstandings, Potts good-naturedly believes he is interpreting a new slang phrase for professor. Unconsciously, he has also adopted the role of the virile hero – a status he will not fully enjoy until much later in the film. At this moment, Sugarpuss simply understands Potts is not a “bull,” i.e., a cop. Potts, on the other hand, enjoys the identification of himself with the bull – and his gradual transformation from a “no no man” into a “yum-yum.” (Cooper’s worldly reputation for sexual prowess added extradiegetic credibility to the pun.)
Sugarpuss, needing a hiding place until Joe Lilac can secret her out of the city, decides to accept Potts’s invitation to participate in his “investigation.” She arrives late at night, to the great surprise of the professors, all glamor, wearing a thick fur coat, her hair incandescent.
She is certain that she can sexualize Potts’s project with her erotic allure long enough to allow her to hide out until she is fetched by Asthma and Pastrami. Earlier in the nightclub she had rejected what she thought were Potts’s veiled advances:
POTTS: Would you object if I used you for observation and study?
SUGARPUSS: No. Out. Shove in your clutch.
POTTS: “Shove in your clutch." Exactly the kind of thing I want.
They misunderstand each other in their own distinctive ways, Sugarpuss thinking that Potts is using a euphemism for “moving in on” her body, while Potts is unaware that he has reinforced her suspicions, since he doesn’t understand that he has given Sugarpuss to believe that he has added a new meaning to the phrase, “shove in your clutch.” (Typical of Wilder’s and Brackett’s multilevel wordplay, the phrase has acquired three distinct meanings: one literal, and two very different figurative ones.) Sugarpuss, for her part, can’t believe that Potts is not speaking metaphorically, as slang generally does, but metalinguistically, turning the figurative phrase into an object of thought and study.
After gaining entry to the library, Sugarpuss plots to use Potts’s attraction to her, which she erroneously inferred in the club, to disarm any potential suspicion of her motives. Potts had earlier revealed to his colleagues that he did not notice whether Sugarpuss was a blonde or brunette, but that her words were “so bizarre, they made my mouth water.” It is her tantalizingly perverse words that turn him on. Sugarpuss quickly gets him finally to pay attention to her body, removing her coat to reveal a dazzling showgirl’s costume, and displaying her (i.e., Stanwyck’s) famous legs. She had understood that Potts was interested in her language, but it only gradually dawns on her that he wasn’t interested in her body, as she had thought: “This is the first time anybody moved in on my brain.” In a dialogue that nicely prefigures the famous opening dialogue between Phyllis Diedrickson and Walter Neff in Wilder’s later Double Indemnity (1944), Sugarpuss lays on the double entendres as she tries to persuade Potts to allow her to stay the night, in order to join his slang seminar the next morning.
“You don't think we could sort of begin the Beguine right now?”
“Oh, foo, Professor, let's get ourselves a couple of drinks, light the fire maybe, and you can start working on me right away.”
“Listen, I figured on working all night.”
“I want you to look at me as just another apple, Professor Potts.”
The ribald innuendoes have no effect on the innocent Potts, who is more worried about appearances than he is about seduction. The audience, moreover, can’t be sure whether the showgirl is only trying to seduce Potts, or whether she simply can’t speak any other way. Sugarpuss is Potts’s ideal informant precisely because everything she says is a form of slang-figuration. This is why Potts is attracted to her. And we have already seen that Potts’s attraction to popular speech is increasingly influenced by its inherent energy and rhythm, which reaches a “boiling point” at the jazz club with Sugarpuss’ performance. Unbeknownst to Potts’s conscious mind, Sugarpuss combines the creative vitality of slang language with what it constantly supplements – the sexual energy now embodied in Sugarpuss, who speaks jouissance.
Sugarpuss is not the only fluent and creative user of slang – the gangsters are perhaps even more creative, since they never lapse out of their hipster lingo – but the difference between Sugarpuss and the gangsters is that she grows willing to make a symbolic exchange: she gives Potts her words, and he will give her his knowledge, just like the deal made with the Garbage Man. The gangsters, however, never show any desire for an exchange; they rely on their isolation, both comic and violent, for their power.
On Account of Because. The symbolic exchange of knowledge and linguistic registers that began with the compact between the professors and the Garbage Man expands into a full-fledged “seminar,” as Potts invites his diverse street-informants into the library. Sugarpuss is the only woman among them, but their camaraderie transcends gender. Together, they form a group solidarity. As Potts focuses on the various meanings and uses of “corn” (“is it synonymous with baloney?” he asks), they enjoy the group privilege of representing the modern against the staid, exclusionary, old-fashioned elite language. Even more, they are aware that they have been included in valuable knowledge-work. Potts’s interest has given them respect. They are being heard. They are doing the teaching. As the newsboy puts, they are now “faculty.” Potts had gone out to the streets to study a “living language,” and has repaid his informants with “a new interest in life.” The exchange is symmetrical, reciprocal.
As the “seminar” systematically unpacks the figurative system of slang – we see a comical derivation-tree of “corn” on Potts’s blackboard – the film’s comic opposition of received knowledge and living language shifts to a deeper level. Displaying her other store of knowledge, Sugarpuss has shown the elder professors how to dance the conga. They try to reconstruct the steps from memory, but they get it all wrong.
They have chalked what they believe are the steps on the library’s Persian carpet, and Prof. Gurkakoff has also chalked a mathematical formula, “using compound fractions.” Prof. Oddly, the least likely dancer among them, is their guinea pig, as they move him mechanically into one absurd position after another. Although Prof. Gurkakoff insists that “mathematics can never be wrong,” Prof. Oddly insists that “it doesn’t feel right.”
PROF. ODDLY: Possibly it isn't right.
PROF. MAGEBRUCH: There was two "humphs." Humph, humph.
PROF. GURKAKOFF: Well, that would make it right. Humph, humph.
PROF. PEAGRAM: You're wrong, my dear Gurkakoff.
PROF. GURKAKOFF: Mathematics can never be wrong. Look here, I'll show you.
PROFS: Stay there, Professor Oddly. Show him. One, two.
One, two, three. Humph, humph.
SUGARPUSS: Just one.
PROF. MAGENBRUCH: The expert is here. We need you.
SUGARPUSS: What's the trouble?
PROF. QUINTANA: Well, that dance you showed us last night.
PROF. PEAGRAM: Perhaps we’re just not very bright.
PROF. ODDLY: Professor Gurkakoff has been trying to reconstruct it by compound fractions.
SUGARPUSS: You'd better relax, lover.
PROF. ODDLY: Me? Oh, thank you.
PROF. GURKAKOFF: I can't find the common denominator between the steps and the music.
SUGARPUSS: You bet you can't, you're playing a polka, and I taught you a conga.
In this humorous scene, the professors – infected first by spring, and then by Sugarpuss’ charms – try to come out of the inflexibility of age and their staid world by dancing the conga. First, let’s note that the conga does not begin with letter S – they are deviating from the program. Without Sugarpuss, however, they can’t tell a conga from a polka. Sugarpuss becomes a teacher in her own right – a teacher of dance. And fun. Particularly interesting in this scene is the language-move so subtle it can escape notice. As the professors attempt to reconstruct the conga steps by counting out the rhythm, their main dispute is about how many humphs they need, each humph accompanied by an outbump of the hips. It’s a funny sound, especially coming from the once-fastidious professors, but is not just that. Like Potts’s whoop early in the film, the professors’ humph is a transcendent non-word, expressing expression itself. Like whoop, it is physical, kinetic, and just a little bit erotic (it’s the instruction for the hip bump, after all).
The professors, like the slang faculty, have gained a new interest in life. Potts finds them all in a conga line, with Sugarpuss leading the dance, now humphing to the right beats. (Prof. Robinson, who has shown more interest in slang than the others – and not because he is writing an entry on it – arrives from downtown, dressed in elegant ‘20s attire, with 78s of “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” and “Shoot the Sherbet to Me Herbert.” It’s notable that Prof. Robinson, to the eye a stiff Yankee, knows his conga records.) The professors have abandoned their labor, and even their words, to dance and humph in rhythm. Music is defeating language. As befits a jazz comedy.
Returning to his original role as blocking killjoy, Potts halts the music and insists that Sugarpuss must leave. She has disrupted the routine. Miss Bragg has momentarily also regained her prude-power. “That is the kind of woman who makes whole civilizations topple,” she tells Potts, echoing her early disapproval of stealing strawberry jam.
Sugarpuss had earlier received a big diamond engagement ring from Joe Lilac to keep her from testifying against him, and is pulled emotionally away from the professors toward “the major league” of a crime lord. But she must, as Pastrami puts it, “stay in the icebox like a good little salad.” To persuade Potts to relent and allow her to remain until Asthma and Pastrami come for her, she introduces him to the third magic word of the film (after hoytoytoy and boogie): yum-yum.
SUGARPUSS: I came on account of because I couldn't stop thinking about you after you left my dressing room. On account of because I thought you were big and cute and pretty.
SUGARPUSS: Yeah, I mean you. Maybe I'm just crazy, but to me, you're a regular yum-yum type.
SUGARPUSS: Yeah, don't you know what that means?
POTTS: No, we never got to that.
SUGARPUSS: Well, we've got to it now, and I'm glad it's out. I don't give a whoop whether the others went for me. You're the one I'm wacky about, just plain wacky.
One kiss is a yum. A second, more ardent one is the second yum. A kiss so passionate it makes Potts fall back is a yum-yum. Like the other magic words, it captures the essence of Ball of Fire’s slang: jouissance.
Up to this point in the film, Potts has been on the receiving end of the symbolic exchanges. The Garbage Man received some help for his quizzola, and the slang faculty received respect. But Potts has not yet given back any linguistic power to match the power of the discourse he has received. And he has received a great deal. His slang informants and Sugarpuss have loaded him down with new words and perspectives. He has been enchanted by the magic words. He has been whooped, boogied, and yummed. It appears that working language has completely eclipsed the professors’ language. But with yum-yum comes a turning point.
Potts believes that Sugarpuss’ seductive move was a sincere statement of her affections, and he buys her an engagement ring. Compared with the ring she received only a few hours earlier from Joe Lilac, it is a paltry thing. Delivering it to her, he begins to deliver language worth listening to, as well.
POTTS: I walked in the park till the sun came up over the East Sixties. It took me all that time to gather my thoughts, to analyze my impulses and clarify our relationship.
SUGARPUSS: Have we got one of those?
POTTS: It's a very important moment, a new chapter. In fact, for me, it's the first chapter. For what has my life been up till now? A preface. An empty foreword.
SUGARPUSS: You couldn't talk a little plainer, could you?
Potts has “analyzed” and “clarified,” and returns with metaphors of his own. But the power of his discourse comes out in full force when he recites the words he could not have completely engraved on the ring.
POTTS: There wasn’t room for all the words.
SUGARPUSS: What words?
POTTS: Well, they go like this, quote, “Look, how this ring encompasseth thy finger. Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart. Wear both of them, for both of them are thine.”
SUGARPUSS: Unquote, I suppose.
POTTS: I hope you don’t think it’s too corny.
The scene is stunningly elegant. Until this point, the exuberance of supplementation has all been about the absent signified of sexuality and vitality. From slang to swing, from whoop to yum, all the poetic pleasure has come at Potts and his colleagues, invivifying them, embedding them in springtime, raising the sap, producing figuration at a delirious pace. In the proposal scene, Potts responds with The Bard’s words. It is a quiet, serene, but emotionally rich supplement, perhaps equal in worth to everything that Potts has so far received. Its fetish is the ring, which stands, as it has for centuries, for an unutterable bond. It’s too small for the words, so they too are absent. That they aren’t Potts’s own words doesn’t matter. Slang doesn’t belong to anyone, either. Signifying the power of poetry to transcend time, and to express the inexpressible, the absent engraving shows Sugarpuss – and the audience – the value of what Potts and his high culture can offer in the symbolic exchange.
A lot of mahaha. The two engagement rings put Sugarpuss in a bind. The scene is interrupted by a call from her “Daddy,” Joe Lilac. At this point, the action moves rapidly along a trajectory set up by the intertwining of the gangster and professor plots. Potts mistakes “Daddy” for “Father,” and Joe persuades Sugarpuss to pretend to accept Potts’s proposal.
Believing that they are headed to a wedding at Sugarpuss’ home, Potts and the professors help convey the fugitive Sugarpuss across the Hudson to New Jersey, where Joe awaits. She will be “taking him for a ride.” Once there, Joe will marry her instead of Potts, and he will have evaded the law.
In New Jersey, Potts acknowledges his physical desires for Sugarpuss, and informs her of it, by accident. Sugarpuss, already feeling guilt for deceiving and exploiting her “Pottsy,” is overcome with remorse. Joe Lilac then arrives to take ownership of Sugarpuss and to humiliate Potts. Detecting lipstick from Sugarpuss on Potts’s face, Joe slugs him. It’s a small moment in the action, but an elegant one. Joe – whose language is usually a consistent, colorful, menacing gangster patter – explodes in wordless jealousy, the exact opposite of enthusiastic figuration. Joe is the dangerous blocker – the Heavy “Daddy” -- precisely because he resorts to mute violence instead of delirious discourse. Joe forces Potts to tell Sugarpuss he has arrived. Here it’s worth noting another striking invocation of aporia. Sugarpuss attempts to write a note explaining and apologizing for her betrayal, but she can’t find words, and leaves it blank. She hands it to Potts:
SUGARPUSS: Here are all my excuses.
POTTS: The handwriting of a... What would be your word for it? (Potts leaves.)
SUGARPUSS: A tramp.
The page is blank, however. There is no handwriting on it. The page is the supplement of Sugarpuss’ inexpressible feelings. The “ball of fire” who is never at a loss for a new colorful figure of speech is speechless. But because there is no handwriting, she is also not a tramp.
Potts and the profs return to the library to resume their labor, and to expunge Sugarpuss from memory. In a plot design familiar in boulevard farces, the scene reprises many elements of the opening scenes in the library. Miss Totten and Mr. Lambert return to shut down the encyclopedia project. (The professors have made the tabloids -- "Night club babe hides out in Totten Foundation.") The Garbage Man reappears to ask a new quizzola question about the Sword of Damocles. And Pastrami and Asthma, who had delivered Sugarpuss to the Foundation at the beginning, arrive as well. Joe has sent them to threaten Potts and the professors until Sugarpuss relents from her refusal to marry Joe. She has professed her love for Potts, and though she expects never to see him again after her betrayal, she respects him (and now herself) too much to marry the crime boss.
Potts realizes that Sugarpuss still loves him, and in this climactic scene he decides he must battle the hoods to save her. His weapon is language. He engages the henchmen in a dialogue that is one of the funniest in all of screwball comedy. Ostensibly answering the Garbage Man’s question, Potts explains the Sword of Damocles, having noticed that the weighty portrait of the Heavy Father, Mr. Totten, is suspended by a cord directly over Pastrami’s head. Through pedantic allusions to classical history and moral philosophy, Potts conveys a plan of action to his colleagues. Like Archimedes using mirrors to set the Roman fleet ablaze, they will direct sunlight via a mirror of a microscope toward the cord holding up the portrait of Mr. Totten. When the cord is burned through, the portrait will fall and bean Pastrami. A classical aphorism and some pointing make the profs understand they should pull the literal rug out from under Asthma’s chair at the moment the portrait falls of pastrami. To gain time for the cord to be burned through, Potts distracts the hitmen with a delirious word-salad of a lecture:
POTTS: Gentlemen, you see your inferiority is a question of the bony structure of your skulls.
PASTRAMI: What's the matter with our skulls?
POTTS: Now, just listen, please. Let us take the glandular syncopation of your eyes. Kindly look at me, both of you. It's very important. They are the doliocephalic and the brachiocephalic with a somewhat Mediterranean estrafuge. Now try to follow me closely. Now, the double smorgasbord of your chins, for instance, convexing into the cataclysmic protoplasm... Am I boring you?
PASTRAMI: I don't get it.
POTTS: Now, the latest centrifugal research as performed by Bronxville scientists has proven that syllogism is enigmatic to prolonged resistance, especially in the cavalry. Now take your ears. The totalitarian mastoid of their basic lobes prematurely extricated from the paranoiac agriculture and molecular cadenzas...
PASTRAMI: Get down to it.
ASTHMA: What's wrong with us?
POTTS: Nothing. You're just fine. Everything's fine. Now, on one hand we have the sword of Damocles, and on the other hand we have... Professor Quintana, would you look up something in Tate's Oriental Philosophy for me? I think I saw it last on your desk.
PROF. QUINTANA: Yes, yes.
POTTS: Line one, chapter seven.
PROF. QUINTANA: Yes.
POTTS: Do you mind?
ASTHMA: Hey, this mixed-up talk is giving me a headache.
PASTRAMI: All that book talk. That's a lot of mahaha.
POTTS: I assure you this is not a lot of mahaha.
Potts, the grammarian pedant, who thought that the only thing he could love “was a grammatically correct sentence,” for whom splitting infinitives is a crime, sets his discourse free into what Bergson terms “dream language,” “syntactically cogent nonsense.” The “true” meanings of the words are not important; in fact, it isn’t important that they be real words. Using them like notes in a jazz improvisation, Potts deceives the ignorant thugs (who, it must be said, are among the most colorful talkers in the film – it makes sense that they would be fascinated by Potts’s language, even though Pastrami insists that he “talk so they can dig it”) with “20 dollar words” that mean nothing. They are figures of nothing. They are pure examples of language that does not connect with an objective world; they are language as pure invention pretending to be science. Potts has learned to deceive with language, and to have delirious fun doing it. Pastrami invokes his own magic word, mahaha, but it doesn’t take. (Apparently, mahaha actually was a word meaning useless nonsense in slang circulation in the 1930s and 40s.) Potts knows that his nonsense is not nonsense.
At the film’s conclusion, Potts saves Sugarpuss from Joe, whom he knocks out with an undisciplined haymaker, and throws him and his toughs into the Garbage Man’s truck, in which they are returned to New York. Sugarpuss is delighted to rejoin Potts and the profs, but she cannot completely accept the comic inevitability of a marriage. The profs promise a full array of scientific explanations for this inevitability; but the most persuasive argument is yum-yum. As Potts and Sugarpuss embrace, the profs move to leave the room, then turn back as one, and, beaming, click their tongues. The end.
Now, this final moment has a special comic beauty. Throughout the film, Sugarpuss has employed this tongue-click as a sign of sassy, winking, in-the-know complicity. She uses it to taunt Miss Bragg, and to encourage the profs when Potts threatens to evict her. In the hierarchy of the film’s language, it is the consummate wordless word. Unlike its fellow-nonsense sounds, whoop and humph, it can’t be tied to sexuality alone. It is sexy, but it is also ironic, applicable in any situation, for any meaning.
Ball of Fire is a comedy of language as sex, sex as language. It is a comedy of linguistic jouissance, words that exceed their meanings. It is a dialectical comedy, in which the protagonists learn to play with each other by producing language that gives pleasure. Potts and the profs must learn to release the inflexibility of their pedantic, positive, “scientific” language and world-view. They must acquire the mobility and shape-shifting energy of slang. In symbolic exchange, they offer fixed, reliable knowledge and crafted poetry. The slang-slingers must learn the vertical power of poetry, whose words remain constant, but whose meanings change with each situation and person. Beyond the working figures of speech of slang, the profs must also learn the magic words that exceed their own meanings – words that have no references, other than their own energy. And ultimately, at the end of the line, are the pure nonsense sound words – like comic koans – that are the final destination of language, the signifiers of Bonheur.