The Sunday Dozen: Barbara Stanwyck

Ruby Stevens DBA Barbara Stanwyck was underrated in her day because at her best she underplayed everything. Hams win Oscars: Stanwyck was nominated four times but didn’t take a statute home until she received an honorary one in 1982. The Emmys were kinder to Stanwyck: she won three. Oh well, what the hell.

Stanwyck’s reputation has grown since her passing in 1990. The primary reason is the advent of TCM in 1994. She was a particular favorite of lead host Robert Osborne who frequently showed and praised her work.

I first encountered Stanwyck on the small screen in the sprawling family Western, The Big Valley. I asked my mom why she was billed as Miss Barbara Stanwyck. She explained that it was a sign of respect for a great actress who was once a major movie star. That led me to seek out Stanwyck’s films on the late, late show. How did I survive without TCM?

Barbara Stanwyck did it all: drama, comedy, Westerns, thrillers, and films noir. If she played any ditzy chicks, it was in the early days of her career. In her prime, she played smart, tough, sassy, and sexy women. Starting in 1944, she was the Noir Queen.

This list started off with 25 films. The winnowing wasn’t easy. She did some glossy big budget flicks after World War II, but I prefer her films noir, so they’re better represented than big budget flicks like East Side, West Side and Executive Suite.

The Barbara Stanwyck Dozen is in order of preference with quad movie posters before each brief entry. At least I hope they’re brief. I do go on…

Enough with the preliminaries, on with the show this it.

Double Indemnity is the grandpere  (grandmere?) of film noir. It has impeccable hard-boiled credentials: novel by James M. Cain; screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Stanwyck played one of the nastiest femme fatales ever. I’ve already written at length about it in my Billy Wilder Dozen.

One of the secrets to Stanwyck’s success was working with the best screenwriters and directors. She hit the jackpot with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. Stanwyck played a con artist who first flim flams then falls for Henry Fonda. It features fabulous supporting performances by Charles Coburn and William Demarest.

Ball Of Fire is a screwball comedy in which Stanwyck plays a night club singer who hides out in a house occupied by brainiacs who are writing an encyclopedia. It’s a swing era Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with Gary Cooper as Doc. What’s up, Gary?

I mentioned Stanwyck’s luck with scripts and directors. Ball Of Fire was written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Howard Hawks. It doesn’t get better than that.

The Furies is a classical tragedy in western drag. It features Walter Huston’s final performance. He played Stanwyck’s tyrannical cattle baron father. Think King Lear with spurs and saddles.

Director Anthony Mann said it reminded him of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. Tres hifalutin.

I wrote about Christmas In Connecticut in my Black & White Christmas Movie Dozen. It’s Stanwyck at her most charming as she plays a magazine writer who creates her life story out of whole cloth. That gets her in trouble with her bombastic boss, Sydney Greenstreet. Hilarity ensues. It’s not just for Christmas.

The Miracle Woman is a Frank Capra film that was ripped from the headlines. Stanwyck played an evangelist based on the notorious Aimee Semple McPherson. It’s one of the most underrated films in both the Capra and Stanwyck canons as well as one of Stanwyck’s most flamboyant performances.

The cult of writer-director Samuel Fuller didn’t begin until directors like Terrence Malick, Brian DePalma, and Quentin Tarantino cited him as a major influence. Forty Guns is a Fuller Western anchored by a typically great performance by Stanwyck. Ride ’em cowgirl.

Remember The Night is another outstanding Christmas movie. Stanwyck and MacMurray have one of the best meet cutes ever: she’s a defendant and he’s the lawyer prosecuting her.

It morphs into a road picture artfully written by Preston Sturges. Disagreements with director Mitchell Leisen led to Sturges directing his own scripts.

The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers is another noir with a dynamic lead performance by Stanwyck. She’s ably supported by Van Heflin as her true love and Kirk Douglas as her cuckolded husband. Kirk Fucking Douglas as a cuckold? That’s how you can tell the movie is pre-Douglas stardom.

I wrote about The File On Thelma Jordon in a recent edition of Pulp Fiction Thursday. Good stuff, y’all.

On the surface, Witness To Murder is a poor man’s Rear Window. Stanwyck sees George Sanders commit a murder and stuff the body in a trunk. At first, Sanders convinces the cops that Stanwyck is a hysterical female. But she’s relentless and outwits the professional villain in the last reel.

The Stanwyck-Sanders combination is to die for: I love me some George Sanders.

Meet John Doe could have been Frank Capra’s masterpiece. It has so much going for it: the chemistry between Stanwyck and Gary Cooper nearly set the nitrate film on which it was shot ablaze. Walter Brennan is great as Cooper’s sidekick. It previews future performances he gave for Howard Hawks. Think Eddie in To Have and Have Not or Groot Nadine in Red River.

Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin had a hard time ending Meet John Doe. They allegedly shot five different endings but that must be taken with a grain of salt because Capra told the story in his memoir, The Name Above The Title. The book is alternately embellished and evasive as it presents the mythic Capra. A more honest account can be found in Frank Capra: The Catastrophe Of Success by Joseph McBride. Barbara Stanwyck comes off well in both books.

Here’s a quick and dirty list of the movies:

  1.   Double Indemnity
  2.   The Lady Eve
  3.   Ball Of Fire
  4.   The Furies
  5.   Christmas In Connecticut
  6.   The Miracle Woman
  7.   Forty Guns
  8.   Remember The Night
  9.   The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers
  10.  The File On Thelma Jordon
  11.  Witness To Murder
  12.  Meet John Doe

That concludes the Barbara Stanwyck Dozen.

This week’s lagniappe, two GIFs from Ball Of Fire:

The last word goes to Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve:

2 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Barbara Stanwyck

Comments are closed.