Epic Biography of Hollywood/TV Legend Barbara Stanwyck Coupled with Mega Film Retrospective at Film Forum; and Dozens of Available DVDs
By: Ellis Nassour
“The great emotional actress the screen has yet known,” was how legendary director Frank Capra, described Hollywood/TV legend Barbara Stanwyck. “She’s beloved by directors, actors, crews, and extras. Under her sullen shyness smolders the emotional fires of a young Duse or Bernhardt. Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about make-up, or hairdos, this chorus girl turned movie star grabs your heart and tears it to pieces. She knows nothing about camera tricks. She just turns it on – and everything else on the soundstage stops.”
In spite of numerous unforgettable and searing and comic roles, Miss Stanwyck was only Oscar-nominated four times. In 1982, she received an Honorary Oscar in recognition of her body of work.
Victoria Wilson gives us the first full-scale prevue of Miss Stanwyck’s personal and professional life in the staggeringly definitive biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True, 1907-1940, 15 years in the making [Simon and Schuster; 1,056 pages, countless B&W mini-photos: Filmography (as well as stage and TV), Index; SRP $30]. There is little to quibble about, but since rarely has a book this large on a star few today under a certain age, unless diehard film buffs, remember, you would expect better quality photos. There’re no glossy albums, only small to medium size photos.. While, nary a detail is seemingly overlooked, a few large stills, even some in color, would have enhanced the biography immensely.
Miss Stanwyck is mostly forgotten today by the masses except as the star not only of her own TV series, but also the highly-rated Western series The Big Valley; the blockbuster TV mini-series of Colleen McCullough’s best-seller The Thorn Birds, opposite Richard Chamberlain; and the spinoff of Dynasty, on which Miss Stanwyck guested, The Colbys.
The Brooklyn native, born Ruby Stevens, however, is Hollywood royalty on a par with Bette Davis with an astonishing career. She escaped a traumatic childhood to become a Broadway hoofer at 15 in the Ziegfeld Follies and did musicals and dramas for 14 years. Over four decades, there were 88 films [early on, often three and four a year; appearing with the likes of Davis, Sylvia Sydney, Ann Sothern, Clark Gable, (Dame) Edith Evans, Betty Grable, Jane Morgan, and in her second-to-last, Elvis, Roustabout]; and over 30 years of continuous TV.
In 1927, Miss Stanwyck was introduced to the hugely influential ruddy Irishman Frank Fay, a former boxer then a household name as one of vaudeville’s highest paid vocalist and risqué comic headliners, by her friend Oscar Levant. Fay was at the top of his game, admired by Jack Benny, Milton Berle, and George Burns. Shubert brother J.J. snatched him from vaudeville with a hook and starred him in lavish revues.
At the onset of early color talkie musicals, he made a smooth transition and had numerous starring vehicles. The couple married in 1928, had a son [Dion], and appeared together frequently onstage. Fay jump-started her film career producing and co-writing films.
She became the go-to gal to play floozies [llicit,Ten Cents a Dance, Forbidden, Shopworn]. On the introduction of the Production Code she proved she could act under contract to Warners and the star of the big-budget So Big, based on the Edna Ferber novel, directed by William Wellman and co-starring Bette Davis and George Brent. “When you get beauty and brains together,” said Wellman, “there’s no stopping the lucky girl who possesses them.”
Fay wasn’t having it so good. He was possessive, controlling, drank heavily, and behaved violently. Making matters worse, moviegoers tired of the glut of musical films to the point that his production numbers in one film were axed for U.S. release. His massive ego didn’t sit well with producers either. The marriage showed strains. They divorced in 1935. Promising to stop drinking and to change, he tried unsuccessfully to reunite. The bitter child custody dispute over Dion, however, caused a permanent riff. Four years later, she wed the much younger Robert Taylor, one of filmdom’s most sought-after stars, after a tempestuous affair.
Miss Stanwyck claimed she was “scared to death all the time,” but she was superbly cast by stellar director King Vidor as the mother who gives up her daughter so she can have a better life in the screen adaptation of Olive Higgins runaway best seller Stella Dallas  She segued from desperate mother to floozie to regret as she sees her daughter marry into high society. It was a smash, and earned her the first Oscar nomination. [Wilson recalls the hilarious, in retrospect, roughing up of shy, unrecognizable Miss Stanwyick at the sneak preview when a policeman ousted her into the street.]
In addition to the above, she worked with Cecil B. De Mille, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Robert Wise and made transitions through changing times to master all genres of moviemaking.
Wilson digs deep into Miss Stanwyck’s strengths, fears, frailties, losses, mistakes, and desires. She examines how the star made use of “the darkness in her soul in her work and kept it at bay in her private life.” It’s obvious from the size of the tome that Wilson had access to rare archival material, such as letters, journals, and private papers. She also conducted more than two hundred interviews with actors, directors, cameramen, screen¬writers, and costume designers to create this vivid portrait. This volume of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck ends as Miss Stanwyck’s star continues to rise – to be continued in Volume Two in 2014.
Sidebar: Barbara Stanwyck Films in Film Forum Retrospective; and via Warner Home Video’s MOD [Manufactured On Demand]
The Film Forum’s large retrospective of Barbara Stanwyck’s films is ongoing through December 31. Many of the programs are double features. Several don’t miss films are So Big; directed by Vidor in the heart-breaking Stella Dallas, with its five-Kleenex ending; The Mad Miss Manton, with Henry Fonda; Golden Boy, starring William Holden and Lee J. Cobb; the hilarious The Lady Eve, again with Fonda and helmed by Sturges; Meet John Doe, co-starring Gary Cooper, directed by Capra; Wilder’s Ball of Fire [Oscar nomination], co-starring Cooper, directed by Hawks; at her sultry, double-crossing, femme fatal (Oscar-nominated) best in Double Indemnity, opposite a lusting Fred McMurray in one of his best screen roles – directed by Wilder; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, co-starring Van Heflin and Lizbeth Scott; The Two Mrs. Carrols; Clash by Night with Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe, directed by Lang; Titantic (1953); Executive Suite, with an all-star cast that includes Holden, June Allyson, Frederick March, Walter Pidgeon, Louis Calhern, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters, and Nina Foch; and screening for one week, 12/27-12/31, the holiday-themed Remember the Night, written and directed by Sturges.
Available from Warner Home Video’s MOD [Manufactured on Demand] site are The Barbara Stanwyck Collection; DVDs of early WB films; her movies in Film Noir and Forbidden Hollywood Collections; even The Thorn Birds mini-series. Visit www.WarnerArchive.com or www.wbshop.com); Amazon.com also has a Collection of Miss Stanwyck’s films for Universal and single DVDs.
Victoria Wilson will appear at Film Forum screenings December 10 at 7:20 and December 29 at 5:20. For the complete line-up and showtimes, visit
Personal Recollections of Barbara Stanwyck
I had the supreme pleasure of meeting Barbara Stanwyck twice: At a Fourth of July party at the home of a recording star’s press agent. I, luckily, was in conversation with Peter Graves [TV’s Mission Impossible] and an executive from Paramount Studios. When Miss Stanwyck arrived alone, the two gents, acquaintances of hers, introduced me. I was impressed with her lack of ostentation. She was shy, charming, disarming, very down to earth. Then, there was that unmistakable and unique voice of hers. Miss Stanwyck wore little make-up, no jewelry, and had even driven herself over. She had just completed the final season of The Big Valley, so her star still hung high in the firament. Oddly, given all her stature as a legendary film star, she often stood alone looking over those in attendance. Occasionally, she’d duck out the back door through the kitchen and sit on the patio, which is where I sort of “accidently on purpose” wayleighed her. She seemed to have recognized my last name, and, as it turned out, she knew cousins who had briefly produced/directed movies and had a small, two-soundstage lot. After about an hour, she was ready to leave and Mr. Graves walked her to her car. It was rare, indeed, to ever hear Bette Davis speak well of other actresses, but when I worked with her on a book project at her home in Weston, CT, she had high praise for Olivia de Havilland and Miss Stanwyck. In the early 80s, I met Miss Stanwyck again at Spelling Productions’ wrap party for The Colbys TV series, which co-starred Charlton Heston, whom I’d first met years earlier when doing interviews with him and Kim Hunter [a long-time Greenwich Village neighbor] at Point Dune in Big Sur, on location for Planet of the Apes. Somehow, the three of us ended up in conversation. I was floored when I was introduced and Miss Stanwyck seemed to remember my last name, and even pronounced it correctly.
Follow Us On Facebook