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Barbara Stanwyck - Star of the Month
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Barbara Stanwyck Profile

Late in life, Barbara Stanwyck said of herself, "I'm a tough old broad from Brooklyn. I intend to go on acting until I'm ninety and they won't need to paste my face with makeup." She didn't last quite that long, but she left dozens of nuanced performances that displayed enormous passion, depth, range, and yes, toughness, that would do Brooklyn proud. From her first films made during the early sound era, when she demonstrated a rare naturalness with movement and dialog, to her late work in television, when she dominated the small screen and younger players (at the same time showing them generosity and winning their admiration), Stanwyck never gave less than her best.

Born Ruby Stevens in 1907, she was only four when her mother died and her father deserted the family. Raised by an older sister who was a showgirl, young Ruby quit school at 14, and a year later, she was a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies. At 20, she was starring in a Broadway show, Burlesque (1927) and had a new name. The play, and Stanwyck, earned rave reviews, and Hollywood took notice. Newly married to vaudeville star Frank Fay, Stanwyck headed west to make her first talking film, The Locked Door (1929). Years later, Stanwyck dismissed the film: "they never should've unlocked the damned thing." According to Ella Smith's book Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck (1974), the stage-trained Stanwyck "could not scale her performance down convincingly." Although critics praised her performance, Smith notes that "her intensity draws --even through the discomforts that hinder it--and it may have been this that blinded the critics."

It was not until director Frank Capra began to channel that intensity, and Stanwyck's natural acting talent, in their first film together, Ladies of Leisure (1930), that she became a film actress to be reckoned with. The film won her a contract with Columbia, Capra's home studio. Stanwyck and Capra would collaborate on three more films in the 1930s: The Miracle Woman (1931), loosely based on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson; Forbidden (1932), a "back street" melodrama about a woman involved in an affair with a married man; and another story of forbidden love, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), with Stanwyck playing a missionary attracted to a Chinese warlord. The latter was one of the best of Stanwyck's early films. Her next two films, Illicit (1931) and Ten Cents a Dance (1931) boosted her popularity. She was also a favorite with crews, who admired her professionalism and kindness to them.

Stanwyck's Columbia contract was non-exclusive, and she also signed a non-exclusive contract with Warner Bros. There, she formed another productive creative partnership, with director William A. Wellman. Night Nurse (1931) was the first of five films together, a fast and furious pre-Code cheapie that's a tough and often lurid look at a world of corruption and decadence, and features fine performances by two other notable newcomers, Joan Blondell and Clark Gable.

Shopworn (1932) was a routine melodrama that lived up to its title but was elevated by Stanwyck's performance. It did well at the box office, and quality improved with two more Wellman-directed films, So Big! (1932) and The Purchase Price (1932). After a series of drab roles, Warner Bros. decided Stanwyck needed glamour. "Everyone has glamour but me," she told the New York Sun in 1933. "So I did Baby Face [1933]. Anything for glamour." The studio touted the film as "Stanwyck and thirteen men," and the rollicking story of a woman who sleeps her way to the top was racy, raunchy fun. Her next film, Ever in My Heart (1933), returned Stanwyck to suffering mode, as an American who marries a German shortly before World War I. It was her first time playing tragedy, and she did so superbly.

Over the next two years, the quality of Stanwyck's Warner Bros. pictures declined, and when her contract ended, she went freelance. Annie Oakley (1935), directed by George Stevens, restored luster to her career. In The Bride Walks Out (1936), Stanwyck showed off her flair for comedy. In her first film at M-G-M, His Brother's Wife (1936), she co-starred with Robert Taylor who would become her second husband (she had divorced Frank Fay in 1935).

Stella Dallas (1937) brought Stanwyck the first of four Oscar® nominations as Best Actress. She would never win the award, though she would receive an honorary Oscar® in 1982. At that time, she mentioned her recently-deceased Golden Boy (1939) co-star, William Holden, who had always rooted for her to win the award. What she didn't mention was that Holden always gave her credit for his success. Holden was young and insecure when he made Golden Boy, and just a few weeks into shooting, the producers wanted to replace him. Stanwyck stuck up for Holden, and he was a sensation in the film.

The early 1940s were the most successful years of Stanwyck's career. The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941), another Oscar®-nominated performance) were perhaps her very best comedies. In the former, she found an ideal comedy co-star in Henry Fonda, with whom she would make three films, including You Belong to Me (1941). In her final film with Capra, Meet John Doe (1941), both her genius with comedy and her vulnerability were on full display. Stanwyck tackled her first film noir femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) with a fearless ferocity that won her spectacular reviews and another Oscar® nomination. In 1944, Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the U.S., earning $400,000 that year. Her gallery of noir performances stretched over more than a decade, and included The Strange Love of Martha Ivers <1946>, The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), Clash by Night (1952), and Crime of Passion (1957).

Another genre that Stanwyck excelled at was women's pictures, often elevating standard soap operas with her subtle performances. When such a film offered a strong script, such as one of her favorites, My Reputation (1946), the results were remarkable. Even the lesser ones, such as B.F.'s Daughter (1948) benefited from her presence, especially when paired with another fine actor, in this case Van Heflin. The same could be said of "women in peril" thrillers like Witness to Murder (1954), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1949), which earned Stanwyck her final Oscar® nomination.

In the 1950s, divorced from Taylor, Stanwyck took on one of the few genres she hadn't yet conquered--westerns. Beginning with The Furies (1950), she appeared in a string of low-budget westerns as her movie career wound down, including Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) with Ronald Reagan, and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957). When it became clear that her film-star days were over, Stanwyck segued into television, first with her own anthology series, and then as the matriarch in the western series, The Big Valley (1965-69). She won an Emmy for The Big Valley in 1966, and another for the miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983). More honors came her way, including an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1987. Only ill health prevented her from working in the last few years of her life. She died in 1990 at age 82.

The best part of Barbara Stanwyck's life seemed to have been lived on soundstages and on film. As David Thomson writes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: "While she was alive, she did not seem to be one of the great stars. But at her death, it was clear how widely she was loved. She was honest, sharp, gutsy, and smart. Terrific."

by Margarita Landazuri

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