Post Academic

The Alcoholic Horndog Tenured Professor Stereotype on Film: Ball of Fire

Some movies in the “Horndog” series have been better than others, but most of them suffer from a single plot point–the assumption that academics do not, under any circumstances, interact with others beyond their limited sphere. The comedy classic “Ball of Fire” draws on that assumption but then cracks it wide open by smashing academia up against the mob underworld. Plot-wise, a singer hides out from mobsters by camping out with professors, and hilarity–real, honest-to-goodness hilarity rather than stiff ironic hilarity–ensures.

Meet the Professors: Bertram Potts, who sets out to study the language of “real people,” as opposed to the fake people in the academy. Whatever. Run with it. It’s worth it.

The Professor Posse (Gurkakoff, Jerome, Magenbruch, Robinson, Quintana, Oddly, Peagram): These guys are based on the Seven Dwarfs. Cue the jokes about how the ivory tower dwarfs growth in certain areas, unless they get to meet singer/gangster’s moll Sugarpuss O’Shea, played Barbara Stanwyck.

Hot Pepper Rating: Gary Cooper. Spicy.

Likelihood of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: Low. The beauty of this film is that, like “Doctor Detroit,” the professor is introduced to life outside and mixes with individuals unlike himself. As a result of this willingness to mingle, he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

(New!) Likelihood of Having a Side Arm: High. Then again, they aren’t very good at it, and they declare an “up-stick” instead of a “stick-up.”

Boozing and Drugging Quotient: Some of the seven dwarfs clearly like to tipple.

Mental Condition: Gary Cooper’s character is completely unaware of his own hotness, which is a mental condition in its own right.

Financial Fakery: All these professors are saving money by living together! It’s so cute that none of them attempt to throttle each other. Part of the reason the professors live together is that they are trying to finish an encyclopedia, which is funded by the daughter of the man who invented the toaster. Of course, the professors must do everything they can, including pimping out Professor Potts, in order to retain that money.

Teaching Talent: The dwarfs are pure researchers, and Sugarpuss proves to be a better teacher as she shows a bunch of old guys how to rock a conga line.

Quotations: “In three years, our encyclopedia will be finished. Let’s not get bogged down in the letter ‘s’!”
“We are not the slapping together kind. We have started an encyclopedia, and we shall finish it as thoroughly as humanly possible.”
“Who decorated this place? The mug who shot Lincoln?”
“You better relax, lover!”
“Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”

Conclusion: Adorable in a way that isn’t cloying, “Ball of Fire” satirizes two worlds and reveals that each one has its own lingo. Best of all, it imagines a universe in which the two can get along. I’d love to imagine an update in which Professor Potts gets a load of!