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Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Barbara Stanwyck
    Book Description:

    Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) rose from the ranks of chorus girl to become one of Hollywood's most talented leading women-and America's highest paid woman in the mid-1940s. Shuttled among foster homes as a child, she took a number of low-wage jobs while she determinedly made the connections that landed her in successful Broadway productions. Stanwyck then acted in a stream of high-quality films from the 1930s through the 1950s. Directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra treasured her particular magic. A four-time Academy Award nominee, winner of three Emmys and a Golden Globe, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy.

    Dan Callahan considers both Stanwyck's life and her art, exploring her seminal collaborations with Capra in such great films asLadies of Leisure,The Miracle Woman, andThe Bitter Tea of General Yen; her Pre-Code moviesNight NurseandBaby Face; and her classic roles inStella Dallas,Remember the Night,The Lady Eve, andDouble Indemnity. After making more than eighty films in Hollywood, she revived her career by turning to television, where her role in the 1960s seriesThe Big Valleyrenewed her immense popularity.

    Callahan examines Stanwyck's career in relation to the directors she worked with and the genres she worked in, leading up to her late-career triumphs in two films directed by Douglas Sirk,All I DesireandThere's Always Tomorrow, and two outrageous westerns,The FuriesandForty Guns. The book positions Stanwyck where she belongs-at the very top of her profession-and offers a close, sympathetic reading of her performances in all their range and complexity.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-184-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-4)

    This book is a heartfelt appreciation of Barbara Stanwyck’s work in movies. While there have been many studies and biographies on female film stars of equal stature—stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo—comparatively few books about Stanwyck have appeared. Of these, Al DiOrio’s mid-eighties biography is small but serviceable, while Axel Madsen’s 1994 biography paints a grim, insensitive picture of Stanwyck’s personal life, relies heavily on gossip, and pays only cursory and inexact attention to her films. Back in 1974, Ella Smith brought outStarring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, which is stuffed with...

  4. Orphan of the Storm The Locked Door, Mexicali Rose
    (pp. 5-16)

    Barbara Stanwyck had a hard childhood, that’s certain. She didn’t linger over it, and I’m not going to, either, but it’s worth mulling over some of the available information and considering what it might tell us about her. We’ll never be sure just how hard this childhood was and what experiences might have scarred her for life. In his memoir, Robert Wagner writes that he thought she had been “abused” in some way, and maybe she was abused in all ways imaginable. When pressed about this issue late in life, Stanwyck put on her toughest mask and said, “Alright, let’s...

  5. The Capra Miracle Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Meet John Doe
    (pp. 17-35)

    Judging by Joseph McBride’s surely definitive biography of the director, Frank Capra lied about a lot of things, appropriating credit whenever he could, but he could also be brutally frank about others and about himself. There’s something of Elia Kazan about him—but even messier, less calculating. An Italian immigrant, Capra was filled with hate and resentment, and these served as fuel for his work and as a link to Stanwyck, whose own hatred was the slow burning, quietly bitter kind. Capra was more open about most of his feelings. “Mr. Capra was not afraid to show emotion,” she said....

  6. The Rough-and-Tumble Wellman Five Night Nurse, So Big!, The Purchase Price, The Great Man’s Lady, Lady of Burlesque
    (pp. 36-45)

    In the same years she was laying the groundwork for her career with Frank Capra, Stanwyck made several films with another director, William “Wild Bill” Wellman, an adventurous teller of tall tales so rip-snortingly vigorous and “manly” that in interviews he almost comes across as a parody of a take-no-prisoners brawler. His reputation as a filmmaker has always been shaky; he made movies fast and furiously and was not always well suited to the subjects he took on. Though his filmography is filled with missteps, it also contains neglected, hardboiled classics likeWild Boys of the Road(1933) andSafe...

  7. Pre-Code Sex Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, Shopworn, Ladies They Talk About, Baby Face
    (pp. 46-55)

    There’s been a lot written about movies made before the censorious Production Code cracked down on Hollywood in 1934—probably too much, so that the talkies made from 1930–34 are now endlessly packaged at New York’s Film Forum repertory theater and on DVD as “dirty” old movies, quaint novelties that hint about the more relaxed sexual mores of the time, a relaxation that really began in the twenties, with the first flappers, women like Colleen Moore and Clara Bow. In her early years on screen, Stanwyck found herself in several of these so-called pre-Code items, one of which,Baby...

  8. Drama Grab Bag, 1930s Ever in My Heart, Gambling Lady, A Lost Lady, The Secret Bride, The Woman in Red, Red Salute, A Message to Garcia, Banjo on My Knee, Internes Can’t Take Money, Always Goodbye
    (pp. 56-66)

    As she worked out her contract at Warner Bros. and then acted at 20th Century Fox, Stanwyck found herself in some bread-and-butter program pictures and a few bizarre ventures into political intrigue.Ever in My Heart(1933) is a total downer, a bold, somewhat crude but forceful look at bigotry during wartime. The movie is barely known, though it gets eulogized in Ella Smith’s Stanwyck book. It suffers from uninspired direction by Archie Mayo and a short running time that doesn’t allow the various outrages of the plot to gather momentum. But in a way these shortcomings add to the...

  9. Screwball Stanwyck The Bride Walks Out, Breakfast for Two, The Mad Miss Manton, You Belong to Me, Christmas in Connecticut, The Bride Wore Boots
    (pp. 67-72)

    Comedy is not something that came easily to Stanwyck, but she stuck to it and eventually mastered the genre. Early on, she professed that she found light material “a vacation—I was playing, not working.” But later, being interviewed by John Kobal, she confessed, “I am not really a comedienne, per se. I’m not very good. But when they are written as well asThe Lady Eve or You Belong to Me(1941) . . . both of those films are with Henry Fonda, whoisa wonderful comedian . . . or if it is a situation comedy, I’m...

  10. Private Lives Fay’s End, Robert Taylor (His Brother’s Wife, This Is My Affair, The Night Walker), Robert Wagner
    (pp. 73-80)

    Oscar Levant described Frank Fay’s influence over Stanwyck during their marriage as “suffocating and total.” In a drunken rage, he once threw their adopted baby, Dion, into their pool. When he knocked Stanwyck down in front of a screaming Dion (after she had admitted going to a burlesque show), she finally felt that enough was enough and asked for a divorce in 1935. There was a custody battle for Dion, and when Stanwyck won it, Fay seems to have lost interest in the boy. Fay would sometimes drunkenly call and plead with Stanwyck to come back to him; she finally...

  11. The Scratch and the Itch Stella Dallas
    (pp. 81-98)

    Olive Higgins Prouty wrote her bestseller,Stella Dallas, after her three-year-old daughter died of encephalitis. Known today mainly through this novel and a story about another misfit that would become the Bette Davis vehicle,Now, Voyager(1942), Prouty was also the model for “Philomena Guinea,” the famed author of syrupy tales skewered by Sylvia Plath inThe Bell Jar. By 1961, Prouty had fallen so far out of favor that she couldn’t find a publisher for her memoirs and had to have them printed herself. The novelStella Dallasdoesn’t circulate much; I had to read the one non-lending copy...

  12. Stage Stanwyck The Plough and the Stars, Golden Boy, Clash by Night
    (pp. 99-108)

    Kenneth Tynan wrote that Greta Garbo couldn’t be considered a great actress, finally, because she had never put herself to the test in major theater roles; she had never given us her Hedda Gabler, her Masha inThree Sisters, her Mrs. Alving inGhosts. This idea that an actor can only truly prove her talent by scaling the heights of classical theater roles is perhaps an old-fashioned one, tied more to British than American tradition, but stage success is certainly helpful, if not infallible, as a gauge of acting ability. Bette Davis is every bit the equal of Katharine Hepburn...

  13. Sturges/Stanwyck Remember the Night, The Lady Eve
    (pp. 109-120)

    As we get farther and farther away from the classic Hollywood period of the old studio system, where so many disparate talents flourished, the case of Preston Sturges as writer and director only seems more exotic and unexplained. According to Sturges, he didn’t do much up to the age of thirty, though he helped run the cosmetics business belonging to his mother, Mary Desti. The estimable, bohemian Desti (whose real last name was Dempsey) was best friend and confidante to the flamboyant modern dancer, Isadora Duncan. The prototypical culture vulture, Desti merrily led young Preston around to every museum in...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. Stanwyck Soap and 1950s Drama The Gay Sisters, Flesh and Fantasy, My Reputation, The Other Love, B. F.’s Daughter, East Side, West Side, To Please a Lady, Titanic, Executive Suite, These Wilder Years
    (pp. 121-133)

    There were times when Stanwyck cast an envious eye over the kind of material Bette Davis was making her own at Warner Bros. She very much wanted to play inDark Victory(1939), which went to Davis, and she also lusted forMildred Pierce(1945), but her pal Joan Crawford snagged that one. Stanwyck wasn’t especially suited to the woman’s picture of this era, but, as was the case with many another genre, she got several chances to make this type of movie her own. As she had done in other genres, she tackled—and ultimately conquered—the soap opera...

  16. Wilder/Stanwyck Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity
    (pp. 134-150)

    Before moving to direction, Billy Wilder, like Preston Sturges, turned out a lot of screenplays (Wilder’s were usually co-written with Charles Brackett). A prickly Austro-Hungarian refugee from Germany, Wilder’s smart-aleck voice as a writer comes through loud and clear in his scripts for Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen. Wilder had a weakness for lines of often-questionable taste; Lubitsch and Leisen could put some of these lines over, but not all. For instance, when Greta Garbo’s Soviet commissar is asked about the Moscow show trials in Lubitsch’sNinotchka(1939), she solemnly intones that “there will be fewer but better Russians.” It’s...

  17. Stanwyck Noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Cry Wolf, The Lady Gambles, The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own, The Man with a Cloak, Jeopardy, Witness to Murder, Crime of Passion
    (pp. 151-170)

    Double Indemnityheralded a new era, one where Stanwyck dominated many a shadowy thriller, some of them failures, some of them overlooked gems, and some likeThe Strange Love of Martha Ivers(1946), which is a qualified success on its own limited terms. The ad campaign forMartha Iversimplores us to only “whisper her name!” If that sounds a little corny, it suits the serpentine, simmering yet often ramshackle movie itself, directed by Lewis Milestone, with a script by Robert Rossen, who later directedBody and Soul(1947) andThe Hustler(1961).

    Rossen worked his way up writing socially...

  18. Ordeal for Oscar Sorry, Wrong Number
    (pp. 171-177)

    Because Stanwyck never worked at one studio for long, she never had studio backing in the annual Oscar race, and so she went home empty-handed four times, the last time for a movie versionSorry, Wrong Number, an expanded adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s well-known radio play. Stanwyck made no bones about her disappointment at not winning an Oscar. When she lost in 1937 forStella Dallas, she was quoted as saying, “I put my life’s blood into that one. I should have won.” Certainly she should have won over that year’s winner, Luise Rainer, for her mostly silent, victimized Chinese...

  19. Two for Sirk All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow
    (pp. 178-185)

    There is no cinema reputation that has made a more dramatic turnaround in recent years than the work of Danish-German émigré Douglas Sirk. In his most productive period, the 1950s, his Universal soap operas and melodramas were looked down on as tearjerker money makers marked with the opulent vulgarity of their producer, Ross Hunter. But in the seventies and ever since, audiences and writers have looked closer at Sirk’s supposed lowbrow “weepies” and discovered their irony, their levels of social criticism, their flamboyant consciousness of sex and neurosis, and their magisterial, often downright icy visual style that traps people in...

  20. Wild West Stanwyck Annie Oakley, Union Pacific, California, The Furies, The Moonlighter, Blowing Wild, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Escape to Burma, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, Forty Guns
    (pp. 186-205)

    When asked about the western, which was probably her favorite genre, Stanwyck sighed happily, “Oh, I love to do them. I just love to do them.” She owned ranches for most of her life and also raced horses. Wide-open spaces agreed with her. “Well, I’m particularly fond of reading about the early West,” she said. “I think it was a very romantic era in our country.” In the heyday of her initial years of stardom, the 1930s, westerns were usually relegated to B and Z picture programmers and were rarely major features, but that started to change in the mid-to-late...

  21. Aftermath The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Walk on the Wild Side, Roustabout, The Big Valley, The House That Would Not Die, A Taste of Evil, The Letters, The Thorn Birds, The Colbys
    (pp. 206-222)

    When film roles started to grow sparse in the late 1950s, Stanwyck was eager to get into television with a western series. She appeared on several Zane Grey Theater presentations, but the networks wanted her to parrot Loretta Young’s successful anthology show, where Young swirled on camera in a designer gown, introduced each episode, and then proceeded to act in most of them. For the 1960–61 TV season, Stanwyck succumbed and attempted a similar format withThe Barbara Stanwyck Show. The worst part of the format was that she had to introduce each story as Young did; deprived of...

    (pp. 223-237)
    (pp. 238-240)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 241-252)