Barbara Stanwyck: From Sweet as Pie to Tough as Leather

STANWYCK, BARBARA1Barbara Stanwyck could easily be the toughest cookie of ’em all; this Brooklyn-born former cabaret dancer forged her durable film career on a series of hardboiled heroines and predatory femme fatales marked with her inimitable brand of indomitability. Life would vest the woman born Ruby Catherine Stevens in 1907 with reserves of flintiness early on; she was two (four in some sources) when her mother died in a streetcar accident, and her laborer father would abandon his five children to work on the Panama Canal shortly thereafter. Her early childhood was spent with an older sister and in a succession of foster homes, and her formal education ended at age 14, when she dropped out to support herself. The lithe youngster put aside what she could for dance lessons, and within two years got her first break as a Broadway chorus girl.

She found steady work through the mid-’20s hoofing in numerous revues, including the Ziegfeld Follies; breakout recognition came with Willard Mack’s 1926 Broadway play “The Noose.” During the play’s road tryouts, Mack spied an old poster promoting actress Jane Stanwyck starring in “Barbara Frietchie,” and Ruby gained her marquee name. Years later she said, “I couldn’t remember my name for weeks. I’d be at the theater and hear them calling, ‘Miss Stanwyck, Miss Stanwyck’, and I’d think, ‘Where is that dame? Why doesn’t she answer?’ By crickie, it’s me!”

Barbara got her first film opportunity soon thereafter with a supporting turn in the 1927 silent drama Broadway Nights. After another NYC stage success with “Burlesque,” the actress married older vaudevillian Frank Fay, and the couple went to Hollywood in search of opportunities. She made her talkie debut in 1929’s The Locked Door, but real traction would keep until the next year’s Ladies of Leisure, with Stanwyck as a gorgeous, gold-digging model who gets a wealthy aspiring artist interested, only to have his parents shun her. The film also kicked off her long and fruitful association with Frank Capra. She’d reunite with the director three times over the next couple of years: as a preacher’s daughter, enlisted by a con artist to pose as an evangelist, who becomes a renowned faith healer in The Miracle Woman (1931); in 1932’s Forbbidden, with librarian Stanwyck falling into a shipboard romance with married, rising politician Adolphe Menjou, only to be squeezed for her secrets by mudslinger Ralph Bellamy; and in the controversial-for-its-time The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), as an American missionary who sojourns to civil war-torn China to unite with her fiancé, but finds herself carried off and courted by charming warlord Nils Asther. Capra remained among her closest friends throughout their careers.

The pre-Code period found Barbara splitting her time between Warner and Columbia, and swiftly endearing herself to Depression-era audiences as a wholly relatable working-class heroine. She was an unlucky-in-love “taxi dancer” in the racy Ten Cents a Dance (1931), co-starring Ricardo Cortez. The following year found the actress overcoming adversity as a Night Nurse (her first screen pairing with Clark Gable); as a Shopworn waitress who catches the eye of rich boy Regis Toomey; and as a gangster’s torch singer girlfriend who flees by becoming a mail-order bride in The Purchase Price. She was one of those Ladies They Talk About in 1933 and slept her way up the corporate ladder of a New York bank that same year in the daring drama Baby Face. Political intrigue was the name of the game when Stanwyck walked down the aisle as The Secret Bride in 1934, and, as The Woman in Red the following year, Barbara witnessed a suspicious death on a playboy’s yacht, in a tale based on a novel that may have been inspired by the controversial 1924 death of pioneering filmmaker Thomas Ince.

Stella Dallas (1937)By 1935, the actress was sufficiently established so that she could freelance for the rest of her career, and her marriage with the fading Fay (a union said by some to have been the inspiration for A Star Is Born) was over. Through the balance of the decade her standing continued to rise, with her title turn as the sacrificing mother in 1937’s Stella Dallas earning Barbara her first Best Actress Oscar nomination (she and the other principal players brought their characters to the airwaves three months later in a Lux Radio Theater dramatization). Years later, looking back on Dallas, her favorite of all her film roles, Stanwyck said, “The task was to convince audiences that Stella’s instincts were fine and noble, even though on the surface she was loud, flamboyant, and a bit vulgar.”

Barbara got her gun to play Annie Oakley in 1935’s somewhat fictionalized biodrama of the legendary Wild West sharpshooter, and in the gripping (and also factually suspect) Spanish-American War tale Message to Garcia (1936), she played opposite Wallace Beery and John Boles. Stanwyck co-starred with Joel McCrea in the romantic comedy Banjo on My Knee (1936) and with soon-to-be-husband Robert Taylor in the following year’s intriguing historical suspenser This Is My Affair. Also in ’37, she learned that Internes Can’t Take Money (That’s not a typo – it’s the way “interns” is spelled in the original Max Brand story), in the first entry in MGM’s popular Dr. Kildare series, and as The Mad Miss Manton (1938), Barbara is wonderfully funny as a society girl who’s convinced she’s uncovered a murder after stumbling upon a dead body in an abandoned house. The decade’s close found her torn between frontier charmers Joel McCrea and Robert Preston in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 railroad epic Union Pacific, and later that year she starred opposite longtime close friend William Holden when he made his screen debut in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy. Holden, who played the title role on Broadway, always claimed that Stanwyck saved his nascent film career when she stood up to studio bigwigs who were considering dropping him from the project. Upon accepting her lifetime achievement Oscar in 1982, she remembered the actor (who died just a few months earlier) and stirred the audience by saying, “A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish.”

Miss Stanwyck (known to her close friends as Missy) would be at the crest of her popularity and power over the WWII years, as evidenced by her turns as the shoplifter put in prosecutor Fred MacMurray’s holiday-season care in 1940’s Remember the Night; the cynical reporter promoting put-up populist Gary Cooper in Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941); the cardsharp targeting rich patsy Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941); and as a brash showgirl who turns stodgy academic Cooper’s life around in Howard Hawks’ 1941 comedy Ball Of Fire (Rumor had it that she got the part, which garnered her a second Best Actress Oscar nomination, only after Ginger Rogers dropped out). 1943’s Lady of Burlesque was a hoot, with Barbara starring as a burlesque queen who teams with comic Michael O’Shea to determine the murderer of a young woman strangled by a G-string. Some audience members weren’t ready for Missy’s role in this entertaining whodunit when it was discovered the story was based on a mystery novel by real-life ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. In a much less sympathetic performance–but one that landed her a third Best Actress nom from the Academy–calculating housewife Barbara lured insurance salesman MacMurray into a murderous scam in Billy Wilder’s hit noir thriller Double Indemnity. It’s worth noting that MacMurray’s career wasn’t going as well as Stanwyck’s at this point, and it was this against-type role, which just about every Hollywood leading man had already turned down, that got him back on track. It also cemented a lifelong friendship between the two leads. Barbara later reminisced about filming and said, “During Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray would go to rushes. I remember asking Fred, ‘How was I?’ Fred’s response was ‘I don’t know about you, but I was wonderful!’ Such a true remark. Actors only look at themselves.”

The post-war period found her continuing to click with audiences, although the critical response would be uneven. Among her key performances during this time were the perennially popular holiday-themed comedy Christmas in Connecticut (1945); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), which introduced audiences to Kirk Douglas; and My Reputation (also ’46), where she’s a widowed mother of two whose friends disapprove when she falls for Army officer George Brent. As one of The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Stanwyck realizes husband Humphrey Bogart has a dark secret, and that same year she was again in danger in the offbeat and intriguing thriller Cry Wolf as a recently widowed woman who travels to her husband’s family estate, where she learns that sinister patriarch Errol Flynn is hiding more than a few skeletons in the clan’s closet. Her final Academy Award nomination came for her turn as Burt Lancaster’s invalid housewife, who believes she has eavesdropped on a plan to kill her, in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Also in ’48, she helped bring to the screen John P. Marquand’s topical drama B.F.’s Daughter as a wealthy industrialist’s daughter whose husband (Van Heflin) makes no secret of his disgust over Stanwyck’s decadent and privileged lifestyle. Then, in 1949, East Side, West Side found Barbara and husband James Mason experiencing trouble from gorgeous Ava Gardner.

By the early ’50s, Stanwyck’s 12-year marriage to Robert Taylor had ended; the still-trim and attractive actress had no shortage of projects through the Eisenhower era, as best evidenced by a trio of 1950 efforts: the terrific noir tale The File on Thelma Jordon, reminiscent of her Double Indemnity turn; Anthony Mann’s moody Western melodrama, The Furies;  and the compelling mystery, No Man of Her Own (based on an oft-filmed Cornell Woolrich novel), with Barbara excelling as a single, pregnant woman who befriends a newlywed pair on a cross-country train and, after a train crash that kills the couple, poses as the dead man’s widow to his wealthy family. The actress once again found herself in jeopardy as the star of–naturally enough–Jeopardy, a 1953 drama where she tries to convince her kidnapper to help save the life of her trapped husband (played by her real-life friend Barry Sullivan).

TITANIC 1953Also in ’53, Titanic found Barbara and estranged husband Clifton Webb among the passengers and crew trapped on board the doomed luxury liner after its fateful encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. 1954’s Executive Suite bolstered her ability to play the power struggle game, as a manufacturing company’s ruthless chief shareholder, in the still effective boardroom drama. She rode hell-bent for leather as the Cattle Queen of Montana in ’54, seeking revenge when her rancher pa is killed by Indians, getting help from Ronald Reagan along the way. Continuing her Western period, she was the perfect picture of ambition as Edward G. Robinson’s wife in The Violent Men (1955); Joel McCrea, as U.S. Cavalry Trooper Hook (1957), protected Barbara from ruthless renegade Indians; and in the Samuel Fuller-penned Forty Guns (also ’57), she was a tough rancher ruling over a small Arizona town with the help of 40 hired gunmen (as a trivia tidbit, her character’s name in that film was Jessica Drummond, the same as her role in My Reputation 10 years earlier). When the press asked about her four-year hiatus from the big screen after Forty Guns, she simply said, “Nobody asked me. They don’t normally write parts for women my age because America is now a country of youth. We’ve matured and moved on. The past belongs to the past.”

As with many in her peer group, the inevitable transition to TV work came; her eponymous omnibus drama series that ran a season on NBC over 1960-1961 garnered Stanwyck an Emmy. The next several years brought more episodic small-screen work, along with the occasional movie project. She was a New Orleans bordello madame in 1962’s Walk on the Wild Side, with Jane Fonda and Laurence Harvey, and was the traveling carnival head honcho who made Elvis Presley sing for his supper in 1964’s Roustabout. 1964 would also see Barbara make her final big-screen appearance, opposite ex-husband and co-star Robert Taylor, in shock impresario William Castle’s chiller The Night Walker. The following year  marked the start of a four-season run as ranchland matriarch Victoria Barkley in the popular ABC western The Big Valley, a role which resulted in another Emmy and two more nominations.

The early ’70s saw a few telefilm efforts before she entered a decade away from performing. Not being beholden to any one studio in her heyday gave Stanwyck autonomy, but the lack of one’s backing probably cost her a competitive Oscar; She was sometimes referred to by her peers as “The Best Actress Who Never Won an Oscar.” The situation was finally rectified with an honorary Academy Award in 1982. Back in the spotlight, she returned to TV for the 1983 mini-series The Thorn Birds (resulting in her final Emmy) and a one-season stint in 1985 on the Dynasty spin-off The Colbys. She packed it in after that, devoting herself to charity work before passing away from heart failure and pulmonary ailments at 82 in 1990. Prior to her death, the iconic star left some pretty good advice for future actresses taught to her by director Frank Capra. “Eyes are the greatest tool in film,” she said. “Mr. Capra taught me that. Sure, it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting – watch the eyes!”