Pretty good getting, for a gal that came up the hard way


At the Totten Foundation, a scholarly establishment on the Upper West Side, a professor of English bids farewell to a young lady who has been assisting him in his research. “Make no mistake,” he says, “I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”

I have always taken these lines to be the high-water mark of American Cartesianism. When we consider the duality of body and mind, we assume that the two can be trusted to get along; that our minds can go about their noble business without being diverted by the physical forms in which they are encased. This theory holds firm up to the exact point at which it bumps into Barbara Stanwyck. It is to her that those regretful words are spoken. The movie is “Ball of Fire”—released in 1941, directed by Howard Hawks, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and starring Stanwyck as a night-club chanteuse called Sugarpuss O’Shea.

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