I read that yesterday was Howard Hawks' birthday -- he would be 110, but he died in 1977 -- and I immediately thought that I had to find and post a photo from Ball of Fire, one of his lesser-known but funniest movies. Turner Classic Movies showed a few films to commemorate the day, but instead of Ball of Fire, selected the weaker and lamer musical remake, A Song is Born. (Fortunately, TCM is showing the real deal on June 30.)

If the above photo doesn't intrigue you into wanting to see Ball of Fire, let me summarize the plot: Barbara Stanwyck is Sugarpuss O'Shea, a nightclub singer whose gangster boyfriend is in trouble and forces her to hide out from the law. She ends up in a gloomy mansion occupied by eight professors engaged in writing an encyclopedia. Seven are played by well-known character actors such as S.Z. Sakall (Casablanca), Henry Travers (It's a Wonderful Life), and Richard Haydn (Young Frankenstein). The eighth professor is Gary Cooper, who is surprisingly believable as a nerdy bookworm. The script was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; Wilder claimed that he spent a lot of time on the set of Ball of Fire, watching Hawks at work, learning to be a director so he could direct his own movies.

Ball of Fire is chock-full of hilarious dialogue: Cooper's professor is studying current slang terms, which provides a lot of humor, and Stanwyck could make any line sound wittier than it was. The cinematographer was Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), and the scene in which Sugarpuss, in her sparkly nightclub dress, sashays into the professors' shadowy workroom and lights the place up is simply gorgeous. I also have a soft spot for Stanwyck's defense of Cooper at the end of the film, but I'm a terribly sappy romantic sometimes. Ball of Fire is out of print on DVD, so try to catch it on TCM or elsewhere when you can.