Tuesday, September 18


We often call men by their last names but rarely do we accord that to women.  I guess it doesn't sound quite right.   Maybe it's considered disrespectful. We either mention the woman's full name or tag on a Miss, Ms or Mrs.  I think the exception is for those tough dames I like so much.  When they are formidable and commanding and can more than stand their own ground, they can be addressed by a single last name.  And if you know who she is, then you know she can simply be called Stanwyck.

In her personal life, on many of her movie sets, she was called Missy.  Now I ask you... is anyone less a Missy than Barbara Stanwyck?  But she didn't start out as Barbara Stanwyck.  She was Ruby Stevens from Brooklyn, a poor little ragamuffin whose mother was killed in a streetcar mishap when Ruby was four and her father then hightailed it out of his five children's lives.  She was the youngest and spent a lot of her young life in foster homes.  She seemed to learn to fight at a very early age and didn't stop until the day she died.

She would go on to become one of Hollywood's most acclaimed actresses.  The American Film Institute would name her the 11th greatest American actress of all time.  While that is really up there in the AFI's esteem, I think she should have been higher.  To me she is an American treasure.  To watch her on the screen evoked all the excitement and fear and energy and thrill I could muster.  Before she left us at age 82 she had been honored with lifetime achievement awards from the Oscar folks, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors' Guild, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Los Angeles Film Critics and the AFI.  History already shows that she stands among the giants of her profession.  It's hard to believe she stood only 5'4".  She seemed 10 feet tall to me.

One of her great qualities was that you could trust Barbara Stanwyck.  She was reliable to her coworkers and a devoted friend.  I could count on her to deliver magnificent performances even in films that were not so good.  Many of her characters suffered but we could, by and large, trust that she would overcome adversity.  When I gather my goodies about me and sit in my favorite chair to watch a Stanwyck movie, I have a huge smile on my face knowing she's going to deliver.

She never made it to high school.  She already had that energy that propelled her out into the working world and she had a number of menial jobs in New York before becoming a chorus girl, working eventually in the famed Ziegfeld Follies.  She sequed into plays and it was there that she met actor Frank Fay, who would become her husband for seven mostly unhappy years.  

They moved to Hollywood together where both hoped they would become big stars.  He had been a big deal of sorts in New York but it didn't work for him in Hollywood while she became a huge star.  Sound familiar?  It has long been rumored that their relationship was the basis for A Star Is Born.  They made the unhappy mistake of adopting a little boy.  More on him in a bit.  Fay drank a lot and he and Stanwyck had legendary battles.  In time he would become a mere footnote in her life.

She was never a beautiful woman.   She was not in the big leagues with the likes of the Hollywood glamour girls like Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner.  But I very much liked her looks most especially in her mid-40s when she had turned prematurely grey.   

She was often thought of in the same breath with three contemporaries who were also well-regarded and certainly had also risen to the tops of their games... Hepburn, Davis and Crawford.  Won't just last names do for them as well?  Like Hepburn and Crawford and a great many of the 1930s and 1940s actresses, Stanwyck was bisexual or even lesbian.  Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Alexis Smith, Jean Arthur, Tallulah Bankhead and character actresses such as Agnes Moorehead, Patsy Kelly, Marjorie Main, Spring Byington, Alla Nazimova, Judith Anderson, Nancy Kulp and a number of others can be added to the list of the Sappho girls as they were often called.  But not to their faces and never to yours.  It was a secret.  Shhhh.  They had morals clauses in their contracts and husbands in their homes.  Often those husbands were gay as well.  It's simply how it was done.

In the years between her two marriages, she was rarely mentioned with respect to dating.  If it did come up, the word was that she was too busy with work to be bothered with romance and few could ever argue with that.

She had the good fortune to fall in with good people early on.  She would work with the same directors and actors countless times.  She would land herself in those days in some pretty damned good films and the interesting thing, really, is that Stanwyck never belonged to a particular studio.  She would not be pinned down and stifled by seven years of servitude.  Hepburn would be a part of RKO and then MGM.  Crawford would do tenure at MGM and then went on to Warners which was the longtime home for Davis.  Very few successful stars in those heady days were without a studio home base but Stanwyck was among the elite.

The darling of 1930s movie directors was Frank Capra and Stanwyck became like his appendage, his good luck charm.  He would work with her five times.  The first was in 1930's Ladies of Leisure and in the three subsequent years in Miracle Woman, Forbidden and The Bitter Tea of General Yen.  Capra's speciality was his philosophical look at the condition of society with the little guy slugging it out with the big guy, often bosses and the government.  That was their final film together, Meet John Doe (the first of three films she would make with Gary Cooper who would become a lifelong friend) that would be their best. 

Throughout the 1930s she made some good films with other directors, such as So Big, Baby Face, Annie Oakley, The Bride Walks Out and Stella Dallas.  I presume when most people think of Stanwyck, they think of a strong dramatic actress.  That would not be wrong, but she was also a strong comedic actress... strong being repeated for good reason. 

In 1936, life changed for Barbara Stanwyck, never to be quite the same again.  She was 29 when she met handsome Robert Taylor.  She would journey over to his home studio, MGM, to work with him in My Brother's Keeper.  It wasn't that much of a movie, certainly not worth mentioning in this piece, except that gremlins were afoot at the Culver City studio.  They not only had more stars than there are in heaven but they had a studio head who thought they were all his natural children.

MGM had Robert Taylor under contract the longest of any of its many actors.  For all his stalwart roles, he was actually more like an obedient child and he almost always did as he was told.  Louis B. Mayer sniffed that he thought it was time that Taylor got married.  He was, after all, extremely gorgeous at 25 and there was no woman in his life.  Taylor was what they called a man's man in those days.  He loved guns, hunting, fishing and piloting planes, smoking cigarettes (which would one day kill him) and drinking with his buddies Cooper, Clark Gable, Fred MacMurray and Ronald Reagan.  But he did have this little problem.  Mayer was right to think of little rice packets and limousines.  Mayer might say he thought of Taylor as his child but it was more like his commodity, one of Dad's best.

Stanwyck and Taylor had friends and coworkers in common.  They were both outdoorsy types, loving horses, hiking and some sports.  She was never warm and fuzzy flying in his private plane.  They were both Republicans (I try not to focus on that).  Mayer didn't originally care much for her and would no doubt know that there were no stories on her dating anyone.  He probably knew that there was talk at the occasional cocktail party in Bel Air or Beverly Hills that it seemed she was spending a little too much time with publicist Helen Ferguson.  (They would be close friends and travel companions for life.)  It was also known that she was tough and wanted to control things.  Taylor was given more to doing what he was told.  Perfect.  Guess what?  She's your leading lady.

After making another dud, This Is My Affair, they were married.  In something worthy of a trivia question, years after their divorce and while he was married to German actress Ursula Theiss, they would co-star again in the exploitative horror film, The Night Walker.  That was in 1964 and it would be Stanwyck's final film.

In between her first and last Taylor movies is an astonishing body of work.  Time and space, your sanity and my fingers prevent me from mentioning every one of them.  Frankly, in the early 1950s her films were not all that good.  As I often say about some others, Stanwyck never gave less than her stellar best.  She always said that was important to her to do so and it always showed.  She also loved doing westerns and much as I hate to admit it, that is not the genre most glittering in gold dust.  Her esteem may have suffered some.  At the same time, there are a dozen or so films that it would be unthinkable of me not to mention.  Some are simply films I personally loved and a few are classics by anyone's standards.

She ended the 1930s with fine performances in Union Pacific, a Cecil B. DeMille western about the building of the railroad across the American west, and Golden Boy, as the love interest of a promising violinist who wanted to be a boxer.  But it was the 1940s that Stanwyck could claim as her own.

In 1941 she joined Henry Fonda for the second of three films in The Lady Eve and turned in a classic comedy performance under the direction of the brilliant, often wacky, Preston Sturges.  She and Charles Coburn play father/daughter con artists out to snare a naive Fonda, in an equally brilliant comedy turn. Another reason to note The Lady Eve is because Stanwyck never looked so good.  The gowns and hair were turned out and she was sassy and sexy as she was later in the same year when she again joined Cooper for Ball of Fire, another screwball comedy.  This time she is stripper Sugarpuss O'Shea who helps a bunch of stodgy professors attempting to write a dictionary of slang and she provides a unique perspective.  One of the things I always loved about Stanwyck in comedy is she looked like she was having more fun than anyone else.

Then came a complete change of pace and she made the film for which I think she is most remembered and she was arguably the best she'd ever been in Billy Wilder's 1944 Double Indemnity.  This fabulous and sordid film noir features one of the best bad girl performances in the history of film.  She copped her third Oscar nomination (after Stella Dallas and Ball of Fire) and she should have won over Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight.  This year she was also named the highest paid woman in America.

Just look at that picture. Does she look evil or what?  As cold bitch L.A. wife Phyllis Dietrichson, she takes up with a weak life insurance salesman, who is gaga over her, and talks him into killing her husband. Fred MacMurray played the insurance guy and this was the second of five films she would make with him. Part of their success as a screen team is that same quality that Mayer saw in her for a wife of Robert Taylor. She was strong and MacMurray was basically a weaker type. Stanwyck would more or less play a variation of Dietrichson in a few more pictures.

One of those was in 1946 for the title role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers as a rich woman in a small town who has a murderous past she is trying to bury.  Although she is married (to Kirk Douglas in his first film), an ex comes to town and stirs up that hidden past with tragic results.  It was vintage Stanwyck.

She received her final Oscar nomination for Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), based on a play where an invalid is trapped in her bed believing her husband is going to come home and kill her.  While her fame grew with this part, it's the only role I can think of that I didn't care for.  Firstly I thought she was miscast mainly because the character appeared weak and I never bought Stanwyck as weak.

The following year she made a stylish little murder flick that I found very engaging called East Side, West Side.  She was the New York wife of James Mason who is having an affair with Ava Gardner.  There is a scene in Gardner's apartment where Stanwyck confronts her rival.  The thing that makes this newsworthy is that in real life Gardner had an affair with Robert Taylor.  Stanwyck hated her.  Talk about art imitating life.

It is not known, I don't think, what dalliances Taylor had with other men because, again, in those days it was very hush-hush.  But he was known to have had affairs with other women, usually co-stars.  Ultimately one became very messy and public (while he was making Quo Vadis?) and soon Taylor left Stanwyck for good.  It was often said that he was never very attracted to her and balked at her controlling ways.  She never stopped loving him, always regretted their parting and never remarried.

She did what she always did... poured herself into work.  She still had lots of movies to make although her best films were behind her.  Her remaining films involved lesser directors, second-string leading men and cheaper productions.  Stanwyck continued to give her all.  Three of her 1950's productions and one in 1962 stand out as some of my favorite Stanwyck performances.

In 1952 she made Clash by Night, a noirish film directed by German tough guy, Fritz Lang.  Along with Stella Dallas and the upcoming All I Desire, she played a woman trying to make amends for past mistakes.  It was the type of part she knew only too well.  Here she returns to a dumpy little town and marries a sweetheart of a bearish man (Paul Douglas) but ends up returning to her old ways by taking up with his best buddy (Robert Ryan).  Both actors were forces of nature alongside her and she would work with each of them again.  Marilyn Monroe, in an early role, played her sister-in-law.

Back-to-back in 1953 she made Titanic and All I Desire.  Let's assume it's not necessary to give the details of Titanic except to say she was imperious with and nasty to Clifton Webb as her husband who returned it full throttle.  Their bitchy dialogue was marvelous.  In real life these two gay actors thoroughly enjoyed one another's company.

In All I Desire she played a married woman with three teenage children whom she leaves to go off and become a stage actress at the beginning of the 20th century.  As the film opens, she is returning for one daughter's debut in a school play.  Director Douglas Sirk always liked stories where the principals were together in one or two settings, all just acting their little hearts out. 

Since discussing a character who leaves her children, this is a good place to mention her real-life son, although he was adopted.  Dion was an adorable little boy who didn't really have much of a chance with the parents who chose him.  Frank Fay was a drunk and Stanwyck neglected the boy in favor of work, particularly as her marriage was falling apart.  The kid was put in private schools and military academies to get him out of the way.  By age 6 it has been said that neither parent had much time for him.

It's not a great stretch to understand that such a kid would get into trouble of all kinds and it would last for most of his life.  This, however, would infuriate his control-freak mother because he would not submit to her demanding ways.  Additionally, Stanwyck, being such a public person as an actress, was actually immensely private otherwise and Dion's behavior became publicly known and Stanwyck couldn't stand it.  By the time she made All I Desire, she kissed him off and would never see him again.  He was 20.  He died in 2006.  Motherhood was Barbara Stanwyck's Achilles heel.  She could never quite manage it but rather than allow it to bother her, she walled off her emotions and poof, Dion was gone and most likely never existed as far as she was concerned.  

I was just coming into my own as a movie fan in the 1950s and so while her work in this decade is not considered her best, it's what I was raised on.  I went back later and caught up on her 1930's and 1940's work.  Other movies in the 1950's include a number of westerns such as The Furies, The Violent Men, The Moonlighter, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Maverick Queen and Trooper Hook.  For a woman to make it in the Old West, she likely had to be tough.  Who better than Stanwyck to pull that off?  She also appeared in the excellent, all-star Executive Suite, was a raging villainess in Blowing Wild (her final Cooper pairing) and the touching No Man of Her Own.

In 1962, after being off the big screen for five years and after filming a good but short-lived television series, she made Walk on the Wild Side, a movie I adore, and I think I am the only one who does.  It co-starred my favorite actress, Capucine, and a favorite actor Laurence Harvey (who hated one another) and also Jane Fonda and Anne Baxter... a dream cast, in my opinion. 

Harvey searches for his long-lost love, Capucine, and finds her working as a prostitute in New Orleans for a married, bisexual madam who loves her, played by Stanwyck.  One of the more interesting things about this arrangement is Stanwyck's real-life lesbianism and the fact that Capucine was also bisexual or lesbian.  In 1962 it seemed very brave of Stanwyck to accept such a role.  The lesbianism, of course, was downplayed if not simply suggested, but it was there nonetheless.  Since Stanwyck never wanted to draw attention to herself, it remains a mystery why she accepted this role... and fifth billing, no less.

It's sad to me to think that for many folks Barbara Stanwyck is best known for TV's The Big Valley.  Not that she didn't do her usual professional job as matriarch Victoria Barkley, but this grand actress of such depth is best known for a TV western???  Eeeuuuwww.  But older actresses in the late 1960s were either looking for other means of employment or were dying.

The late 1960's brought her her greatest sadness.  Robert Taylor died.  Toward the end of his life she was included now and then in events or phone calls, which she quietly appreciated, but his passing left a void in her life that was never to be filled.  A lot of her friends were dying including the best of them all, Helen Ferguson.

She had one more good role left in her and that was in the enormously popular TV miniseries The Thorn Birds.  She won an Emmy for her finely nuanced performance as a woman in her 70s who has sexual urges.

She had turned down the Jane Wyman role in TV's Falcon Crest but oddly took a role in the clunky The Colbys, a spinoff of Dynasty, which was one of her most unpleasant working experiences.  Her age, the rushed pace and broken promises were often the culprits but her dislike of Charlton Heston didn't help matters.

She made the news when her home was broken into and she was assaulted and robbed.  More news came when the home burned down.  Despite her many wonderful possessions, she was most distressed at losing Taylor's love letters and the many photographs she had of the two of them.

She died in Santa Monica on January 20, 1990, of congestive heart failure combined with emphysema.  Five days later Ava Gardner died.  Stanwyck would not have been pleased that Ava again insinuated her way into Stanwyck's space.  Her ashes were spread in Lone Pine, California, a location site for some of her westerns.

When looking for that final paragraph to bring this tribute to a close, I came across a quote from her old buddy, director Frank Capra.  He said:  Naive and unsophisticated, caring nothing about makeup, clothes or hairdos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces.  She just turned it on... and everything else on the stage stopped.  I can't improve upon that.

NEXT POSTING:  Review of Arbitrage


  1. one other Hollywood's legend is Olivia De Havilland. I wonder what she will be up to in celebrating her centennial milestone...

  2. I didn't see mention of her years long affair with Robert Wagner, sadly she is almost forgotten today and she was TOPS in my estimation!

  3. I debated mentioning it because I was not sure it was true. Rumor was it started when they filmed "Titanic" in 1953. In those days they both had good reasons for making this sort of story up. I do agree that she was tops. Of all her talented contemporaries, she was the very best. Thanks so much for writing.