She was born Ruby Stevens. To friends, she was “Missy” But for decades, filmgoers knew her by her screen name of Barbara Stanwyck.
A recent book, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True: 1907-1940 (Simon & Schuster), takes an intimate look at the first part of her life. Written after years of research by Victoria Wilson, this 1000-plus page book delves into the actress’s early days, covering her difficult upbringing, fractured family life, breakthroughs in theater and films, and failed romances. The second part is slated to be published sometime in the future.
To fete Missy would be to celebrate one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, adept in just about every genre. She delivered pretty much all of the time, usually playing tough, independent women with a strong sexual side and, although her warmth shone through in many parts, she was always capable of being duplicitous and/or ruthless.
Said critic David Thompson in A Biographical Dictionary Of Film: “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly attractive independent woman in a man’s world than Stanwyck’s career revealed.”
Right from her start in show business, the Brooklyn-born Stanwyck drew attention. An orphan at an early age, she made her way to speakeasies where she performed, then onto Broadway, where she debuted in 1926 as a dancer in The Noose. Other parts in plays led her to early screen roles in silent films, but at the behest of her new husband, comedian Frank Fay, she got some work at Columbia. Frank Capra enlisted her in 1931 for Ladies Of Leisure, an all talking drama of New York’s Night Life, in which she played a party girl hired as a model by wealthy artist Ralph Graves. Critics gave the movie so-so reviews, but Stanwyck got rave notices and Harry Cohn signed her to a Columbia contract.
But Warner Brothers, who originally rejected the actress as a contract player, borrowed her that same year for Illicit, a drama rife with pre-code “adult” material, in which Stanwyck, draped most of the time in a sexy kimono, plays a woman who refuses to marry her live-in boyfriend (James Rennie) because she opposes the idea of marriage. Photoplay Magazine called the role “another big triumph for that perfectly grand actress.”
Stanwyck’s star was obviously on the rise and, after Ten Cents A Dance (1931), in which she played a taxi dancer under Lionel Barrymore’s direction, she sued Columbia for more cash. The settlement allowed Stanwyck to be under concurrent contract with both Columbia and Warner–something pretty rare in Hollywood history. She seesawed for years between the studios, making such Capra films at Columbia such as The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933), and such scandalous Warner social dramas as William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931) opposite Clark Gable, and Baby Face (1933), in which she plays a barmaid who becomes a no-nonsense golddigger upon moving to the Big Apple.
Throughout the rest of her career, the four-time Oscar nominee Stanwyck–who was married to actor Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951–was a star to be reckoned with, both on the silver screen and, later, on TV in The Big Valley, The Colbys and the miniseries The Thorn Birds.
Here are ten memorable performances in which Missy shines:
Stella Dallas (1937): A classic soap opera with the Oscar-nominated Stanwyck as a floozy who marries a man of high social standing, and eventually threatens the marriage and the love of her 13-year-old daughter by hanging out with undesirable locals. Alan Hale, John Boles, and Anne Shirley back Stanwyck’s moving performance, in which she’s asked to age several years and milk the most out of high class melodrama. King Vidor directs.
Union Pacific (1939): In this Cecil B. DeMille production, Stanwyck is given a romantic lead, playing the postmistress for the titular railroad who falls in love with line construction head Joel McCrea. Gambling, robbery, and an Indian attack are encountered by Ms. S., along with the affections of McCrea and gambler Robert Preston.
The Lady Eve (1941): Preston Sturges’ wry screwball farce showcased Stanwyck as quite the farceur. She’s the con artist out to bilk amateur snake expert/wealthy heir Henry Fonda out of his dough while on a cruise ship, with help from conniving papa Charles Coburn. Typical of Sturges’ great farces, the film features terrific interplay between the leads, wonderful support (William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, and Melville Cooper) and sharp, rapid-fire comic dialogue.
Meet John Doe (1941): Underrated Frank Capra story with Stanwyck again the conniver, this time as a newspaper reporter who fakes a letter denouncing the state of the world in order to keep her job. When the letter brings attention, she must find someone to portray the author. Her pick is down-on-his-luck baseball player Gary Cooper, who goes along with the charade–until he discovers the motives of unscrupulous newspaper owner Edward Arnold.
Ball Of Fire (1941): A screwball classic from Howard Hawks, screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and producer Sam Goldwyn, this wacky saga offers a loopy variation on Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Here, linguist Gary Cooper, one of seven professors working on a new encyclopedia, enlists showgirl Stanwyck to teach him about contemporary lingo. With the cops trying to get her to turn state’s witness against gangster beau Dana Andrews, Stanwyck decides to hide out at the academics’ bachelor digs, and she and Coop soon fall for each other. There’s plenty of great support from Dan Duryea, Henry Travers, and Richard Haydn amongst others, as well as a performance bit from legendary drummer Gene Krupa.
Double Indemnity (1944): Billy Wilder’s great film noir offers Stanwyck as the ultimate femme fatale. She’s the wife of a once-prosperous oilman who enlists the help of insurance salesman Fred MacMurray to kill her hubby and collect on his policy. But not all is what it seems in this crackling suspenser, with Stanwyck stunning as the duplicitous dame, and Edward G. Robinson terrific as the determinedly dogged investigator from Fred’s firm.
Christmas In Connecticut (1945): Breezy farce with Stanwyck proving once again she could straddle the line between sleazy and endearing. She’s a popular domestic life columnist who purports to offer tips about marriage, cooking, and romance from her New England abode, even though she’s single, can’t boil an egg and lives in Manhattan. Stanwyck is put on the spot and has to scramble when sailor Dennis Morgan, a big fan, is invited to spend Christmas at her Connecticut cottage. Also prominent are Sydney Greenstreet as her pompous publisher and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the restaurateur who feeds her recipes.
The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946): Set in a small Midwestern town during the late 1920s, this crackerjack noir stars Stanwyck as woman with a troubled, secret past married to district attorney Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut). When old acquaintance Van Heflin returns home, the secrets of the past begin to surface. Stanwyck shows off her spit and charisma in this gothic suspenser.
Clash By Night (1952): Fritz Lang’s melodrama of doomed romance stars Stanwyck as a woman who returns to the fishing town of Monterrey after a long absence only to cause all sorts of reverberations among inhabitants like fisherman Paul Douglas and his cynical projectionist pal Robert Ryan, who both become attracted to her; and Marilyn Monroe, girlfriend to Stanwyck’s macho brother Keith Andes, who longs for the sophisticated life Stanwyck is accustomed to.
Forty Guns (1957): Samuel Fuller directed this wacked-out western that gives Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar a run for its money in Freudian symbolism. Stanwyck is the clad-in-black matriarch of an Arizona county who has a legion of gunmen at her disposal. When U.S. marshal Barry Sullivan falls for her, and her brother (John Ericson) guns down his brother (Gene Barry), look out. Shot in glorious Cinemascope on a meager budget in days, this film was applauded by French filmmakers-to-be like Godard and Truffaut, and proved Missy was still a force to be reckoned with at age 50.