"When I think of the glory days of American film, at its speediest and most velvety, I think of Barbara Stanwyck." Anthony Lane
Barbara Stanwyck was born in Brooklyn, New York, 100 years ago this July, and Anthony Lane has penned a substantial homage to her in the April 30,2007 issue of The New Yorker: "Lady Be Good: A centenary season of Barbara Stanwyck." I highly recommend the article.
Back in 2001, La Reina and I started an ongoing movie marathon; we've watched over 1,000 films since then, many of them classics from the 1930s to 1950s . The two biggest discoveries for us among the great Hollywood actors have been William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. They were names we knew, but at the beginning of the 21st century, they just didn't have the same reputation as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, etc. I hope Lane's major article, and the retrospective of Stanwyck's career currently taking place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music cinema, will help return her to the Hollywood Pantheon, because I believe she was something special.
Here's Lane: "To addicts of old Hollywood, as to pining critics, no actress delivered a more accomplished body of work; to the general public, however, her name is fading into the past. All we have of Stanwyck is a collection of films—but what a collection. . . . Was there any other actress who had appeared both in a silent movie—Broadway Nights — and in “Dynasty”? To raise the stakes a little, was there any other actress who encompassed so many chapters of what we take to be the history of Hollywood?"
Lane's central theme of the article deals with Stanwyck's toughness, both on screen and in real life. Here's a bit of biography from the article:
[Stanwyck's] real name was Ruby Katherine Stevens. The last of five children, she was two years old when her mother, Catherine, died after stepping off a streetcar, falling, and cracking her head on the curb. Her father, a bricklayer named Byron, waited a couple of weeks, long enough to see his wife interred, then took off to work on the Panama Canal. With that, he vanished from history.Stanwyck as a Ziegfeld Girl, early 1920s.
Ruby and her brother Byron were taken up by an older sister, Mildred, who shunted them from one foster family to the next. So tough was that upbringing, and such was Stanwyck’s determination not to milk it for sympathy, that, of all the major actresses, she is the hardest to imagine as a child. By the time she arrived in movies, she seemed to know more of the world than anyone around her, enough to make audiences take her on trust.
Mildred was a showgirl, and Ruby liked to follow in her slipstream, picking up the moves. She left school at thirteen, and two years later she was earning her keep in the chorus at the Strand Roof, high above Times Square, shifting soon to a production of “Ziegfeld Follies” at the New Amsterdam.
My only criticism of Lane's thoughtful homage is that he goes on too much about her toughness and misses something essential about her screen presence. It's not vulnerability, but something else. Her Brooklyn street smarts mixed with a kind of animal warmth. It flares up in her eyes. Unlike a typical Hollywood "goddess," with ethereal good looks and an unreachable star quality, Stanwyck managed to stay real and human on the screen. She was more three-dimensional: A tough - and in her comedies, fun - Irish girl from Brooklyn. No small feat in the Hollywood star machine.
I also can't think of any other actress who had Stanwyck's range. Katherine Hepburn comes to mind, because they both moved easily between comedy and drama, but it's hard to imagine Connecticut girl Hepburn in film noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. And she certainly couldn't compare with Stanwyck in westerns. In fact, the Brooklyn showgirl was so good at them, that she was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1973 for "Outstanding Contribution to the West Through Motion Pictures."
Lane talks at length about her variety of roles, and suggests that it may be, ironically, one reason her star has faded: "Stanwyck’s greatest strength, in other words—her range—was also the reason that she is impossible to tie down and tame. No genre was beyond her, and no one movie sums her up."
No, there isn't one movie to sum her up. But I'll offer a few that showcase the special screen presence of one of Hollywood's greatest actresses.
The Essential Stanwyck
The Lady Eve (1941) - Written and Directed by Preston Sturges. With Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest and Eric Blore.
Roger Ebert chose this as one of his 100 Great Movies. I suggest reading his entire review, but here's a taste:
If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve," and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda's hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.Brilliantly written and directed by Sturges, this is one of the greatest comedies of all time. Coburn and Stanwyck as father & daughter card sharks. Henry Fonda as the easy mark - a wealthy but nerdy young man sailing back home after studying snakes in the Amazon. Wickedly funny. And the scene that Ebert describes between Stanwyck and Fonda may be one of my all-time favorites.
Stanwyck plays an adventuress who has lured a rich but unworldly young bachelor to her cabin on an ocean liner, and is skillfully tantalizing him. She reclines on a chaise. He has landed on the floor next to her. "Hold me tight!'' she says, holding him tight -- allegedly because she has been frightened by a snake. Now begins the unbroken shot. Her right arm cradles his head, and as she talks she toys with his earlobe and runs her fingers through his hair. She teases, kids and flirts with him, and he remains almost paralyzed with shyness and self-consciousness. And at some point during this process, she falls for him. . . .Although the movie would be inconceivable without Fonda, "The Lady Eve'' is all Stanwyck's; the love, the hurt and the anger of her character provide the motivation for nearly every scene, and what is surprising is how much genuine feeling she finds in the comedy. Watch her eyes as she regards Fonda, in all of their quiet scenes together, and you will see a woman who is amused by a man's boyish shyness and yet aroused by his physical presence. At first she loves the game of seduction, and you can sense her enjoyment of her own powers. Then she is somehow caught up in her own seduction. There has rarely been a woman in a movie who more convincingly desired a man.
Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Starring Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and E.G. Robinson.
"I'm crazy about you, baby." Fred MacMurray to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
One of the first and best examples of film noir. Also chosen by Ebert for his 100 Great Movies. Read his review. Even in a horrid blonde wig, Stanwyck is the ultimate femme fatale. Her ankle alone is enough to drive insurance salesman Fred MacMurray to murder for her, and, hell, I probably would've done the same. The two come up with a great plan, but E.G. Robinson, as MacMurray's boss at the insurance firm, smells a rat. Superb filmmaking and a great ride.
Ball of Fire (1941) - Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Starring Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and S.Z. Sakall.
Sugarpuss O'Shea and the studious professors
Okay, this one's not on Ebert's list of 100 Great Movies, but it is on mine. It's also one of American Film Institutes 100 Greatest Comedies, and Anthony Lane talks about it a lot in his article. Several professors have been living a mostly secluded life in a New York townhouse for the past nine years, working on a major encyclopedia. Professor Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper, is in charge of language and grammar, and he's discovered that his section on slang has already gone out of date since the project began. He decides to venture out into the city to copy down the new slang he hears, eventually winding up in a nightclub, where he encounters Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). She happens to be engaged to a mobster who's just been arrested. The police are looking for her, so the mob guys need to hide her away. What better place than among a bunch of nerdy old bookworms?! Except, of course, that one of them happens to be Gary Cooper. Especially fun and funny film for people who take their encyclopedias and word usage seriously. This was Billy Wilder's last screenplay before he began directing his own films, and he and Charles Brackett crafted a gem. Howard Hawks also directed Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), an amazing hat trick of screwball comedy that has never been equaled.
Here's a great clip from the movie, the scene that Anthony Lane talks about at the opening of his article.
Some Other Great Stanwycks
Meet John Doe (1941) - The second movie Stanywck and Cooper made in 1941, this one a classic directed by Frank Capra. An excellent film about politics and the media.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) - You don't have to wait until Christmas to watch this delightful comedy. Stanwyck at her most charming. I wrote about it in my Christmas Meme a few months ago.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) - A brooding and underrated film noir. Kirk Douglas makes his film debut, playing an alcoholic D.A. married to the scheming Stanwyck. Van Helfin and Lizabeth Scott round out the cast.
To Please a Lady (1950) - Clark Gable was the King, the He-Man of He-Men. He's plays a struggling race car driver in this one. Stanwyck plays a journalist. Whatever the King dishes out, Stanwyck gives right back. Not a great film, but it's a lot of fun watching these two work together.
Executive Suite (1954) - William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck are reunited in this excellent big business thriller. The all-star cast also includes Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Shelly Winter and Paul Douglas. Directed by Robert Wise, written by Ernest Lehman and produced by John Houseman. An unheralded gem.