Even her name sounds strong and sturdy.
Stanwyck sadly passed away this day in 1990. There are some people so vibrant and alive and potent, you forget that they too must shuffle off this mortal coil. She really was a force of Nature. But look, no sad songs today. Today, we raise our glass to her memory with this blogathon: REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK.
She’s one Ruby Stevens, a girl from Brooklyn brought up in foster homes with limited education and OUT on her own at sixteen. She worked burlesque and the chorus line. She married a big Broadway star, goes west with him and gets tapped by Fate. Even then, she didn’t work in the glam factory of an M-G-M or Paramount, but toiled at Poverty Row: Columbia Studios. Newly-minted director Frank Capra saw something in Barbara Stanwyck – she had something. He was willing to work with her. She becomes his muse in picture after picture after picture. And the result? Fifty years of a career. She strides across the stage, head up, shoulders back, posture perfect and stands there, taking in all the love, admiration and applause an audience can give a career well-earned.
How do you want her? Soft and vulnerable or hard-boiled and brassy? She could stride across a ranch in denim and boots or a nightclub in gown and high heels. She cut her teeth on sophisticated / screwball comedies and the darkest of dramas. She’s a reporter or mother; a damsel-in-distress or a cold-blooded murderer. She’s a woman of the West or a burlesque queen. ( Pssst! That’s Theresa Harris in the first Stanwyck photo. )
She’s played the good wife and the adulterer. She can be upper crust or low brow. Stanwyck has an arsenal at her disposal: gun, whip or a pair of scissors. She’s a pre-code chickadee who’ll jerk your tears and she ain’t afraid of no cigar-smokin’ dames either. Her best weapon of mass destruction is her volcanic anger, or worse, her tears and that quivering chin. Be careful…she’ll use ’em on you to get what she wants, or let you know just how she feels.
In our current era of make-overs, Botoxed faces and siliconed body parts…Stanwyck let Nature take its course throughout her career; her hair prematurely grey, she let herself be. She has a 30’s look in the 1930’s, a 40’s look in the 1940’s and a 50’s look in the 1950’s. She was a woman of the times. ( And went to tv, too! )
Stanwyck is a many-faceted actress which you know if you’ve seen her performances. She’s been the envy of many an actress in Hollywood, working with some of the era’s great leading men – among them McCrea, Lancaster, Holden, Ryan, Cooper and Gable. It’s a kick to me that she worked with Henry Fonda…and then years later, his daughter Jane. She probably was the envy of many a woman in America by ( “trading up” from Frank Fay ) marrying the dashingly handsome Robert Taylor with whom she appeared – in three movies. At the end of the day, she was clearly, a hard working actress.
For me, Stanwyck has only two rivals ~ The first one: BETTE DAVIS. They were aware of each other; even appeared in the same movie, once. (“So Big”) Davis is a touch more histrionic in her acting style, while Stanwyck more down-to-earth. I daresay Stanwyck could cut across genres easier than Davis, handling with ease drama, comedy and westerns. ( I love ya Bette, but I ain’t never seen you ride a horse. No…I don’t count “Dark Victory.” ) But she and Davis could shoot a man down with equal venom, and Bette also knew a thing or three about working with the creme de la creme of leading men…actually sharing some of them with Stanwyck:
STANWYCK ……………… “SO BIG” ……………. DAVIS
“The Lady Eve“ ……………… Fonda ……………. “Jezebel“
“These Wilder Years” ………… Cagney ……………. “The Bride Came C.O.D.“
“The Two Mrs. Carrolls“ ……….. Bogart …………….. “Marked Woman“
“Double Indemnity“ ………….. Eddie G. ……………. “Kid Galahad“
“Cry Wolf“ …………………. Flynn …………….. “…Elizabeth & Essex“
“B. F.’s Daughter“ ……………….. Coburn …………….. “In This Our Life“
“My Reputation“ ………………… Brent ………………. “Dark Victory“
“Witness to Murder“ …………….. Sanders ……………. “All About Eve“
“Crime of Passion“ ………………. Hayden …………….. “The Star“
“The Violent Men“ ……………….. Ford ……………… “A Stolen Life“
Stanwyck’s other rival is…her self – striving to do better and more challenging work. She put herself in ( or was contracted to ) the good strong capable hands of Lang, Sturges, Mann. Throw in Wilder and Wellman for good measure. She gives a director what he wants and needs. She acts as if she were talking; not in her beginnings – have you ever seen “The Locked Door”? ) but as she learned and grew, the lines sounded like words and thoughts coming from her head. Very natural. But you know what…I’d have given anything to see Stanwyck and Davis cross swords in the 1940’s ).
Let me take a little look at a couple of Stanwyck films that stir my heart.
Now we’re talkin’! Now we’re getting into it! Now we’re getting down to brass tacks! The heart of darkness. Film noir. Scheming, betraying, murder. What’s a girl to do? Sometimes it’s the only way out. Stanwyck shines in the dark. Or is that the gleam from her gun?
“DOUBLE INDEMNITY” ( 1944 ) ~ I’ll never get used to that godawful wig. But her Phyllis Dietrichson is brilliant; she entraps basically smart-ass, good guy Fred MacMurray in a way that’s delicious to watch. Really, like a spider. I think this is Stanwyck’s first foray into real darkness. The Code demands heads, but not before emotional mayhem ensues. I love Eddie G. in this. He’s the heart and soul that Walter lost and Phyllis probably never had.
“THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS” (1946) ~ One of my absolute favorite favorites, I love how the story unfolds and covers you like a dark heavy blanket. I’m now at peace with Van Heflin, ( I didn’t use to be crazy about him but I am now ) one of the few actors I now think can, frankly, handle Stanwyck. Pouty husky-voiced victimized sultry noir siren, Lizabeth Scott is also featured. (Sadly, she’s gone just about a year now). She’s the antithesis of Stanwyck’s Martha. I think Kirk Douglas hits it out of the park in his first movie, standing toe-to-toe with the Mighty Stanwyck. But it’s Her picture all the way. I love her look – elegant, kind of hard but not brittle. At times domineering and vulnerable, her character’s trapped by circumstances and must live with the heavy weight of lies. I wind up feeling sorry for her, but of course she has to pay.
“SORRY, WRONG NUMBER” ( 1948 ) ~ What’s it like not to be able to get out of your own way. Stanwyck does it here and pays the price. I always want her to have the upperhand. Lancaster’s in it, castrated, by her and her rich Daddy. ( Ann Richards appears in this one, too. ) Stanwyck: strong-willed, pitiable, bitch, victim; painful to watch. She’s a spoiled woman with psychosomatic issues. Get outta that bed Leona. She won’t. She can’t.
“CLASH BY NIGHT” ( 1952 ) ~ She’s moved into her 1950’s phase, still trying to live life on her characters’ terms. In “Clash…” she marries a man she’s no good for and lusts after a man who’s no good for her. You know, your typical female conundrum. Stanwyck can do it.
“CRIME OF PASSION” ( 1957 ) ~ I always thought this was an interesting feminist picture. Alright alright, get back here. Don’t run away. Don’t let that word scare you. What I mean is that this is an object lesson in what can go wrong when a woman is not allowed to follow her own ambition. When Stanwyck is not allowed to be all that she can be as a journalist, she has to resort to her real job…getting a husband. So she marries the big blonde hunky very unambitious Johnny Guitar ( Sterling Hayden ). But love is not enough. She can’t hang out with the husbands after dinner for cards and politics. She’s got to go into the kitchen with the wives and gossip. Her ambition has no where to go. She must project her drive onto husband Sterling Hayden…with a little Raymond Burr on the side. ( Well, not so little. ) You got it…a wonderfully twisted recipe for disaster.
“THE GAY SISTERS” ( 1942 ) ~ I like this movie. She looks great – ultimate 1940’s, she’s the matriarchal patriarch of her two sisters and they’re fighting for their father’s inheritance. She’s stubborn and driven and paired again with her great co-star, George Brent. ( See “So Big” ). She doesn’t have a hard edge in this one, but she is strong-willed.
“MY REPUTATION” ( 1946 ) ~ A different kind of Stanwyck…very little self-assurance. ( Her character makes me think a little of Davis in “Now, Voyager”). She’s got great support here from Eve Arden and one of her favorite leading men, George Brent. And yes yes it’s a “woman’s picture” ( and I do put that in quotes ) but that’s okay. I know Stanwyck can play fierce, strong and independent…but I like that, in this movie, those traits are buried under the quivering chin of a frozen virginal widow who needs permission to live and love. And big ol’ stalwart Brent is just the guy who can cajole and thaw her. The gender politics of it all is, oh dear, very dated. But I don’t laugh. I put myself in another time…another place…another mindset. I watch Stanwyck play that woman very well, even though I know she was not of it. Please read my guest writer’s ( TRUDY RING’s ) take on “My Reputation.” Thanx!
It looks like I’m giving short shrift to Stanwyck’s comedies…but there are plenty of blogathon entries that will cover her filmography in depth. “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire” both from 1941, are two of her bonafide classics. We can see she can handle light-hearted material; she gets the satire of Sturges. She’s playful ( “Come on Potsie, Hook on!” ) Love sort of sneaks up on her in both films in different ways. She’s calculating in one film, purposefully setting her sights on the poor innocent and in the other one, while spending time with sweet Coop, love takes her by surprise even though she’s controlling events.
A great romantic drama of hers is “Remember the Night” teaming her in the first of four films with Fred MacMurray. She was very good as a street-wise gal who transforms when shown kindness and love. She’s wonderful in this.
I’d like to see Dale Evans or Bette Davis do that!
With arms akimbo it’s a pretty powerful stance: aggressive…power and done with contempt. “Hey, whaddya think you’re pullin’ around here?! You’ve got the wrong baby!”
She and Taylor owned a ranch with horses so we can see her comfort and skill around them in films. Stanwyck reigns as Queen of the West with “Forty Guns” “Annie Oakley” “The Maverick Queen” “The Violent Men” “The Furies” and later on tv’s “The Big Valley”. A gun…a whip…her tongue, no matter. Whatever. She’ll hit her mark. She’s in charge.
Yes, she’s a product of her time and could back down and be soft for the right strong man. But underneath it all I do believe she let him believe he was the boss. At the end of the day, I would’ve given my eye-teeth to see Stanwyck match up against Crawford in “Johnny Guitar.” They were friends off-camera, as well.
Many many years ago, Stanwyck was honored at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Yes, I was there. I attended the ceremony sitting all the way in the back of the auditorium watching film clip after film clip, after movie star praise the actress. She was sitting up in those fancy side balcony seats – box seats – and was finally introduced to the crowd. I, along with a couple of brave souls, ran down to the front of the auditorium when she came onstage. I snapped a few pictures of her, praying to the gods of Kodak that they would come out. I used slide film and the pictures did come out. Yes, it was still far away and she looked a little like a cotton-top, but the somewhat blurry pictures came out. Thing is, I actually saw her with my own eyes.
Barbara Stanwyck is a ball of fire who sometimes likes to walk on the wild side. She won’t ever cry wolf because she is as straight-shootin’ as Annie Oakley. If a man with a cloak gets sick, Stanwyck will play night nurse for him. But don’t get her wrong. There won’t be anything illicit about it. If he wants to please a lady, he just has to be patient for that breakfast-for-two with Stanwyck. You can’t accuse her of having no man of her own. If she is to meet John Doe, he’ll have to pass muster with her gay sisters. But that should be easy as long as you don’t treat Stanwyck like a lady of burlesque. And if you move a little too fast with her and she gives you that withering Stanwyck glare, have no fear. There’s always tomorrow. WHEW!! …And all titles are hot-linked within that paragraph, too. Well how many titles can YOU work in?
Does fifty-plus years feel like fifty-plus years when you’re working your way to the top? Heart breaks and heartaches, crushes and estrangements, hurt feelings, disappointments and regrets…A Human Life. But there were accomplishments and triumphs that probably went beyond Stanwyck’s wildest dreams. She could vicariously live many lives through the women she played and I believed most everything she did. I can only hope she didn’t measure herself against anyone but herself. And even doing that probably caused her sleepless nights.
If you want to catch up with the other entries made on Stany’s behalf…please click on this banner to read more great entries. Thanks for hosting this, Crystal:
( H O M E )