S is for Stanwyck
1944 was a very good year for Barbara Stanwyck. She was the highest-paid woman in America, and after several years of hard work in good and bad movies, she finally got the role that audiences will forever remember her for: the glamorous femme fatale in Double Indemnity.
By that time she had been in movies for many years and had acted in melodramas, comedies, westerns, and musicals. She’d played tramps, boozers, hustlers and social climbers. She was often the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and was generally either ill-used or compelled to do what a lady wouldn’t dare to get ahead.
Just look at the titles of some of her movies for a sense of the sort of roles she played: Illicit; Shopworn; Forbidden; The Woman in Red; Ladies They Talk About.
Hard-bitten was the adjective often used to describe her persona: she was a cynical, world-weary dame: Joan Crawford without the pretense of grandeur; Bette Davis without the brittle forcefulness.
She was an incomparably better actress than Crawford, and if she hardly measures up to Davis at her best, she was never as bad as Davis at her worst. In fact, she never gave a bad performance (something, one feels, she would like as an epitaph).
David Shipman, ‘The Great Movie Stars’
She had started out as a dancer working in speakeasies, made her way to Broadway, then Hollywood. In the early Thirties she quickly established herself as a reliable, hardworking and popular actress. de Mille said “I have never worked with an actress who was more co-operative, less temperamental, and a better workman.” Fritz Lang adored her, and Frank Capra said “in a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down.
She starred in a couple of films notable for their place in film history: Night Nurse and Baby Face were both made before the enforcement of the Production Code, and both were cited as reasons why the Code was needed in the first place.
By today’s standards the melodramas might seem tame, but audiences were both shocked and thrilled at the level of violence and frank talk about sex.
Seductive, somewhat brassy, and tremendously knowing: those were Stanwyck’s traits, and although she is often remembered as a dramatic actress, she excelled at comedy, usually when paired with dim-witted men – like rich and naive Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.
Or mild-mannered Professor Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire.
In her early days critics were not sold on her. Picturegoer complained of her unattractive accent and stilted acting; by the time she made Forbidden, the magazine had changed its mind.
Barbara Stanwyck is, literally, great. We hear a lot about la Garbo, la Dietrich, la this and la that; but I doubt any of these publicity-haunted stars could have put so much natural feeling into a part which requires the most sensitive handling and the soul of a true artist.
She did a couple of westerns, then was back on the wrong side of town in Stella Dallas (the critics raved).
She danced – and sang – in Lady of Burlesque
And she got to be herself in Hollywood Canteen.
But it was her performance as seductive Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity that solidified her image as a conniving seductress.
The film was a hit and is rightly remembered as a classic film noir. Stanwyck was nominated for on Oscar for her performance (in all, she was nominated four times but never won).
Her career after that was hit and miss.
Highlights included Christmas in Connecticut, Sorry, Wrong Number and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
There were more westerns such as Cattle Queen of Montana, and lots of television work: later generations probably know her first from The Big Valley or The Colbys.
Oh, and of course, Roustabout with Elvis.