Monday, July 16, 2007


Centennial Tributes: Barbara Stanwyck

By Edward Copeland
The tributes to Barbara Stanwyck this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the year of her birth, started early and frequently. Dammit, she deserves it. Still, I saved my salute until today, the actual 100th anniversary of her birth. Stanwyck was nominated four times for best actress Oscars, but never won, though she did receive an honorary Oscar in 1981. If I controlled the Oscars, she would have four statuettes, though interestingly not for two of the films she was nominated for where she played more victimized characters. Stanwyck was too strong a presence to make those roles convincing to me.


Some of Stanwyck's most interesting work came early in her career with a pair of 1931 films, which couldn't be more different. Neither really portrayed her as a truly malevolent schemer as many of her best roles would, but they were fascinating. The Miracle Woman was fascinating, not only because of its early introduction to Stanwyck, but because it was one of Frank Capra's most un-Capra outings. Florence Fallon starts as a bit of plotter, but is sparked by vengeance. When her preacher is fired from the church where he's preached for years, she teams up with a con man (Sam Hardy) to become a fake faith healer. Of course, this is Capra after all, so when she meets a decent blind man (David Manners) she soon recovers her lost faith and reforms. Regardless, The Miracle Woman remains a fine piece of work with Stanwyck's great performance as its crucial center.

Her other 1931 offering, William Wellman's Night Nurse, gives Stanwyck a more heroic role as she's assigned to care for two ailing children and begins to think that someone is trying to let the kids die for nefarious reasons (among the bad guys, Clark Gable), so she teams with a man of shady origins himself (Ben Lyon) to get to the bottom of the plot and save the young ones' lives. Night Nurse also offers great work from Joan Blondell as one of Stanwyck's pals. 1933 brought Stanwyck her first truly great femme fatale role as well as a part in yet another odd entry in the Capra filmmography. The first was the very odd Capra film The Bitter Tea of General Yen, where Stanwyck played a young woman coming to Shanghai, China during the middle of its civil war to marry a missionary. Once there though, she gets separated from her fiance and becomes involved with a a Chinese general (Nils Asther). Is she prisoner? Is she there willingly? Will there be romance? The film hedges around all these issues, but it is a curious artifact both of old Hollywood stereotypes and pre-Code filmmaking. According to IMDb, this film was the very first to play at Radio City Music Hall.

Stanwyck's other 1933 offering certainly pushed the pre-Code boundaries and it manages to still induce some shocks today. Baby Face concerns Lily Powers (Stanwyck), who literally sleeps her way from floor to floor in a New York office building, leaving many damaged men in her wake. Of course, Lily will have to pay a bit before the movie's end, but her maneuvering and single-mindedness is breathtaking, especially in the hands of Stanwyck. You can see a little of Phyllis Dietrichson being born in Baby Face. One other note of interest: The movie also has John Wayne in a small role. In 1935, Stanwyck got to have a little bit of fun starring as the title character in George Stevens' Annie Oakley. Of course, it's not the musical telling like Annie Get Your Gun, but it is nearly as romanticized, but Stanwyck has fun with it.

Two years later, Stanwyck finally landed her first Oscar nomination for the landmark weepie Stella Dallas. I'm not a big fan of this one, whose most positive attribute I find is that it makes Bette Midler's 1990 remake look even shittier. King Vidor's melodrama tries its best and Stanwyck is good, but I like my Stanwyck to be strong. It doesn't help that the then 30-year-old Stanwyck is eventually supposed to be the mother of the awful Anne Shirley, who was 19 at the time. Still, Stanwyck was better than the winner, Luise Rainer pretending to be Chinese in The Good Earth. Still, if the Academy would have opted for a melodramatic tearjerker that year, they should have picked Greta Garbo for Camille, though I imagine I would have voted for Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. The final Stanwyck offering from this decade that I got to see was Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific, an overlong but still entertaining account of the railroad race to the West Coast. Stanwyck even does a half-decent Irish accent in a cast whose every member seemed destined to become a Preston Sturges regular (Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff). She's torn between her love for two men — McCrea and Robert Preston, but there is never much doubt who will get her in the end or even how they will get her.


Preston Sturges. Howard Hawks. Frank Capra. Billy Wilder. All in one year to boot. That's a helluva run for anyone and 1941's triple Stanwyck feature truly astounds to this day. The weakest of the three, Meet John Doe, is a more conventional Capra, especially given her previous work with the director, and it's also a lesser Capra when compared to his classics such as It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. Still, Stanwyck is great fun as the Janet Cook of her day, who concocts a suicidal, jobless man for a newspaper story then has to rush to find someone to pretend to be him, which she finds in the form of a man hard up for cash (Gary Cooper). The charade ends up launching a political movement that even Stanwyck's reporter comes to believe in. However, Meet John Doe wasn't the best Cooper-Stanwyck teaming of 1941. That honor goes to the sublime Ball of Fire, which earned her a much deserved Oscar nomination that she lost to Joan Fontaine for Suspicion. Directed by Hawks with a script by Wilder and Brackett from a story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe, Ball of Fire is a hilarious twist on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, only Snow White (Stanwyck) is a gangster's moll named Sugarpuss O'Shea and the dwarfs are cloistered professors out to create a dictionary of slang. Stanwyck's other comic gem from 1941 put her to work with Preston Sturges opposite Henry Fonda and the inimitable Charles Coburn as Stanwyck's con artist father who travels with his daughter, bilking the gullible on cruise ships until Stanwyck makes the mistake of falling for their latest mark (Fonda).

Of course, 1944 brought Stanwyck her third Oscar nomination and the one she was robbed the most for, perhaps her greatest role: Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder's classic Double Indemnity. The sultriness and seductive powers she wields as Phyllis really set the mold for all femme fatales to come. It's easy to see how Fred MacMurray would get suckered into her trap: The web she weaves is so sticky, I doubt any human no matter how smart or strong-willed would be able to avoid it. Phyllis truly is a wonder to behold, as is the movie itself, which is a must-see to this day. Ingrid Bergman was good in Gaslight, but she had nothing on Stanwyck's performance here and the film's loss of best picture to Going My Way and the lack of nominations for MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson are some of Oscar's biggest all-time blunders. Two years later, she had the title role in an odd little noirish tale, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The tale is almost too complicated for its own good as Martha's former lover (Van Heflin) returns to town after many years to find Martha wed to a powerful D.A. (Kirk Douglas) and tortured by her past — or is she? Stanwyck's final Oscar nomination came from Anatole Litvak's adaptation of the radio play Sorry, Wrong Number and it plays as if it was meant for the radio, since it's practically a one-woman show as Stanwyck plays an ailing woman alone in a house who overhears a murder plot on the phone and becomes convinced that she is the intended victim and that her missing husband (Burt Lancaster) may be involved. Stanwyck does what she can, but being the victim was never what she did best, even when flashbacks start to make the case that perhaps she's more manipulative than helpless. Still, the entire enterprise really ends up being so murky, it's hard to find a solid character for her to grab a hold of in there.


The Hollywood of old is not unlike the Hollywood of today and as Stanwyck reached her 40s, her roles became either smaller or in far less important works. Still, she managed to find a gem still now and then, such as in Fritz Lang's 1952 film Clash By Night, which would seem to be noirish but really is more of a straight-forward romantic triangle with Stanwyck playing a woman returning to her home in a fishing village and marrying, almost on a whim, the decent Paul Douglas, while being tempted by the devilish Robert Ryan. The following year, she played a commoner turned socialite who wed Clifton Webb and ends up on the Titanic. Their relationship is even chillier than the iceberg the ship is headed for, but this still is the second-best film telling of the story after A Night to Remember and though nearly as melodramatic as James Cameron's version, it seems positively profound in comparison and does it in half the time.

1954 brought two roles: A smallish turn as the daughter of a corporation's largest shareholder and founder who is wooed by competing interests in Executive Suite and a venture into the West she soon will seem trapped in opposite Ronald Reagan in the programmer Cattle Queen of Montana, which manages to show both positive portrayals and negative sterotypes of Native Americans at the same time. Thankfully, her next trip out of West gave her a role more in tune with her greatest works. 1955's The Violent Men cast her as Martha Wilkinson, the Lady MacBeth of the prairie, only without the guilt or loyalty to her husband. With Edward G. Robinson as her crippled husband and Glenn Ford as the good-hearted rancher out for revenge, The Violent Men is quite an underrated find. Her 1957 Western proved to be even odder as she took the role of Jessica Drummond in Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns. It's almost a Western noir as Jessica runs roughshod over an Arizona county with the help of hired guns, though the ending seems to want to have it both ways with her longing for the good guy. It's an interesting movie but one that would have been better if the actors surrounding Stanwyck weren't such a collection of stiffs.


Once the 1960s arrived, Stanwyck's film work was less and less frequent, especially once she took on the role as the Western matriarch Victoria Barkley on television's The Big Valley from 1965-69. Among those playing her children on the show were Lee Majors and Linda Evans, whose path she would cross again in 1985 in her final role on the Dynasty spinoff The Colbys. Before she was primarily relegated to television though, she did get one last great role in the villainous vein in 1962's Walk on the Wild Side as Jo Courtney, the vindictive New Orleans madam who may have had more than a passing interest in one of her best call girls (Capucine), who intends to leave. Of course, Jo's husband also didn't have any legs and was forced to roll around on a little board with wheels that seem better suited for Tod Browning's Freaks. She also had one more lark of a roll, playing the matriarch of a traveling carnival who crosses paths with Elvis Presley in Roustabout. Television though gave Stanwyck her final triumph (and an Emmy) when she played the manipulative Mary Carson in the miniseries The Thorn Birds in 1983, once again getting to play the type of role of women you should not mess with that Stanwyck did better than anyone else.

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Ed, you knew I'd show up sooner or later. You mentioned two of my favorite words in the English language: Barbara Stanwyck.

I think I enjoyed Forty Guns more than you did, and while I also think she's less convincing as a victim than a perpetrator, I enjoyed Stella Dallas for the weepie that it was.

What a woman! And what versatility! She could be funny, terrifying, sexy, or hateful. I think she should have won for Double Indemnity, but if I had to pick a fave Stanwyck, I have to go with Ball of Fire. It's a toss-up between that and The Lady Eve, but the coin lands in Fire's favor more often than not.

As I said in my piece for the House Next Door, she filled the screen with the promise of sex. Not many actresses today seem as comfortable with being the complicated, complex woman she was in her films--and she had the censor with which to contend. Imagine R-rated Barbara Stanwyck. Maybe I'd better not...

This is a great piece about a grande dame.
Glad to see you back again and thanks for the kind words. I'm sure our faithful readers look forward to the next time you're able to give us something to mull.
A better, more natural, fiercely intelligent and commanding actress never lived and maybe never will. This woman is a legend among legends and it frustrates me greatly that she isn't better known today (almost as much as it frustrates me that she was relegated to TV soaps while many far less talented women - and men for that matter - kept getting movie roles).

Though she's made several substandard movies, I don't think she's ever given a bad performance (though through no fault of her own she did indeed come close in Sorry Wrong Number). And it's hard to say which one of hers would be my favourite.

For the chutzpah alone, her work in Baby Face has to rank highly on any list of great Stanwyck performances. I wasn't a fan of Meet John Doe, though I adored her in it. I was a big fan of Strange Loves of Martha Ivers and I adored her in it. But when it comes to pronouncing the greatest two hours of Barbara Stanwyck, I'm torn. She was priceless in The Lady Eve and staggering in Double Indemnity. I saw the latter more recently, so I'm edging towards Phyllis Dietrichson, though I'm sure that as soon as I get another chance to take a look at The Lady Eve, that will become my favourite Stanwyck performance once again.
Have you seen Crime of Passion? It's a film that I think has not been given its due. By the way, I wrote about Roustabout over on my site.
A good case can be made for Stanwyck as the single greatest actress the cinematic medium ever produced. Neither her onscreen persona nor her performance style were as flashy as those of Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis - whereas her contemporaries tended to preen for the camera, Stanwyck simply inhabited each role with a no-frills approach remarkable for its uncanny exactitute; rather than carry on like a star (which she never thought she was), she conducted herself as an actress who existed in service to character. Her instincts were unimpeachable, and she accomplished her effects with astouding economy - there was nothing showy about her, but whether plying her talents to hard-boiled noir, screwball comedy, or overripe melodrama, she always stopped the show. There are so many moments to treasure - the horrific mixture of revulsion and vicarious thrill that flickers across her twisted face as MacMurray kills her husband in Indemnity, standing on a stack of musty volumes while putting Gary Cooper wise to the joys of "yum yum" in Ball of Fire, twirling Henry Fonda's har while telling him that her fantasy mate is a short little bald man with tons of money in The Lady Eve, standing outside her daughter's wedding in the rain, peering through the window and biting on her glove in Stella Dallas....the depth and breadth of her body of work was astonishing. There's a small handful of actresses - Hepburn, Davis, Bergman, and perhaps a few others - who were as good as Barbara Stanwyck was. But none were ever better.
"This is yum..and this is yum-yum."
"I've got half a million and I'm not stopping til I get the other half!"
"I need him like the axe needs the turkey!"
Just a sampler of Stanwyck's more memorable movie lines, delivered with a flinty glint in the eye and a lecherous curl of the lip that makes her irresistible, irreplaceable and ageless.
Thank you for the post and links. A dissenting opinion: Her perf as "Stella Dallas" is perfection.
Great post and great comments. No matter what film she appears in, even the weaker material, Stanwyck is inevitably the most fascinating thing about the film. I could watch her in a cereal commercial, which she would probably have done if offered one just because she loved to work.
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