Be it the sophisticated Screwball comedies, the turgid dramas, or the shadow filled Film Noirs, for more than five decades Barbara Stanwyck strode above her peers , and was subordinate to no one. “Career is too pompous a word. It was job, and I had always felt privileged to have been paid for doing what I loved doing”, she told Hedda Hopper, “attention embarrasses me, I don’t like to be on display!”
More than any of the “classic” actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Era, Barbara Stanwyck personified the “tough guy” images attributed to her male counterparts. Often deceiving, but never deceived, she was the match for any of them! Orphaned at age four and shuttled from one foster home to the next, tough, Brooklyn born Ruby Stevens promised herself never to be anything but her very best.
The result… Barbara Stanwyck, eternal star whose glamour, talent, and professionalism both on and off the screen delighted millions. She was my absolute favorite, more than Crawford, more than Davis! For the memories she imparted to me, this page is dedicated.
Enduring, thoroughly professional star who, despite her share of wicked or malignant characters, remained one of America’s most-loved screen personalities. Originally a stage and cabaret dancer, Stanwyck moved to Hollywood with her first husband, vaudevillian Frank Fay. She made impressive appearances in films such as Frank Capra’s “The Miracle Woman”,(1931), William Wellman’s “Night Nurse”,(1931) and, particularly, King Vidor’s classic woman melodrama, “Stella Dallas”,(1937), and was a full-fledged star by the end of the 1930s. Stanwyck hit her peak in the 1940s, alternating between comic roles, in classics such as “The Lady Eve (1941) and “Ball of Fire”,(1941), and tough femme fatale parts in “Double Indemnity”,(1944) and “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”,(1946). Most of her characters were strong-willed and feisty, holding their own against, and even dominating, their male counterparts in films such as “Annie Oakley (1935) and “Cattle Queen of Montana”,(1954)
Though her big screen career had faltered by the late 1950s, she remained popular on TV, with shows such as “The Barbara Stanwyck Show" (1960-61) and “Big Valley”,(1965-69), both of which won her Emmys. She was lured out of semi-retirement in 1983 to co-star in TV’s The Thorn Birds”, for which she won another Emmy, and “Dynasty II: The Colbys”,(1985-86).Married to second husband Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951.
In “Baby Face”, Barbara Stanwyck plays a mantrap cut from common clay, her screen persona in the early 1930s. When she throws open the window of her Erie, Pennsylvania, shanty in the opening scene and blows the soot off the geraniums in the window box, there’s no question Barbara has got to be reckoned with. In those days she also was striking a blow for every working girl who had her own nose pressed against the window pane but came to the movies to escape. For the male moviegoer, she had even more to offer. Often shopworn but usually sincere, she was an earthy temptress, the variety that screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz defined as “ideal”. He wrote, “I dream of being married to her and living in a little cottage in Beverly Hills. I’d come home from a hard day at MGM and Barbara would be there to greet me with an apple pie she had cooked herself… and wearing no panties”.
Upgrading her image in the 1940s, Barbara landed better scripts. The blue-collar days were over, but she remembered all the tricks of the trade and still got her way. In Preston Sturges’s “The Lady Eve”, playing a cardsharp vamp who passes for an English lady, Barbara creates a deliciously cunning character. Her victim is a gullible herpetologist named Hopsy Pike (Henry Fonda), who gasps: “You’re certainly a funny girl for anyone to meet who’s been up the Amazon for a year”. Barbara’s other great role around this period was the deadly, peroxided Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s chilling “ Double Indemnity”, in which she ensnares a weakling (Fred MacMurray) in a scheme to knock off her husband and collect the insurance. These roles, the light side and the dark of the American breed of desirable femme fatale, demonstrate what critic Richard Corliss said: “When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was terrific”.
This self-made star calls herself “a tough old dame from Brooklyn”. She began life in 1907 as Ruby Stevens, the youngest of five children. She lost her mother when she was two, and her father, a bricklayer, deserted his family two years later. Ruby knew four or five foster homes before she was 10, though sister Mildred, a show girl, looked after her when she wasn’t touring. Mildred’s boyfriend, James “Buck” Mack of the vaudeville team of Miller and Mack, taught little Ruby how to dance. (He lived with Barbara into the 1950s.) By 13, she had eluded the truant officers and was working full-time-store clerk, receptionist at Vogue, a stint at the phone company. Lying about her age, Ruby was soon dancing at the Strand Roof. She rode an elephant in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies, and during those “cold-water flat” days one producer gave her some good advice: “Go to the zoo and watch how the animals move”. Legend has it that Ruby studied the panther with its long, powerful stride. The Stanwyck walk, authoritative and assured, would become a trademark. The big chance came on Broadway in “The Noose”, followed by her silent film debut in “Broadway Nights”, and then a personal triumph in “Burlesque” in 1927. If she had not met and married Frank Fay, the comedian who was on his short-lived stardom kick in the movies, Barbara might have been a major stage actress. Instead, she followed Fay to Hollywood, where the worst happened. His career nose-dived, hers skyrocketed. Fay became a drunk, they fought often and openly in public, went through an ugly divorce and custody battle over an adopted son.
Just as the theater was the salvation of her unhappy childhood, the movies became a refuge during those bleak days. A workaholic, Barbara existed only on the sound stage, her friends the crew and technicians. When she fell in love with Robert Taylor in 1936, it looked as if personal happiness was at hand. For a while it was. But when they divorced in 1952, Barbara retreated into her work again and made six films in a year. She also fell in love with Robert Wagner while making “Titanic”, but a 23-year age difference sank this romance. In print Hedda Hopper accused her of being a bitter recluse, while Barbara herself faced the years frankly. “When an actress reaches a certain age, then she’s got to know where she stands”. But television during the 1960s and her four-year run in “The Big Valley” brought the Stanwyck personality to a new generation of fans. Her last success was winning the Emmy for best actress in 1983 for her role in The Thorn Birds as the matriarch who lusts after priest Richard Chamberlain. Picking up her award, she singled out Ann Margaret in “Who Will Love My Children” as more deserving of the Emmy that year.
In 1982, when the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored her, Barbara confessed she thought they had made a mistake and wanted Barbara Streisand. Frank Capra, who directed Barbara in five films starting with her first movie hit, “Ladies of Leisure”, told the 2,500 guests, “It’s this gift of hers to communicate the truth of a role which has made Barbara the great actress she is. She’s played them all-big-city dames and cattle queens, adulterous wives and dewy-eyed ingenues. Her many faces are all different, and all dazzling”. Earlier that same day at the photo session with Horst, this shy star said she wanted only one thing. “It would be nice to work as long as I can. I always said I was never much for hobbies”.
1James Watters: “Return Engagement” 1984