02 August 2010
I'm Just Batty About Barbara, Six of My Favorite Stanwyck Performances
Lord have mercy what they've been missing.
As long time readers of this blog (both of us) well know I think Ms. Stanwyck is the cats. Most especially in the 1930's and '40's, she played tough, smart, sexy gorgeous dames who could hold their own against any Tom, Dick or Harry. Period.
Ms. Stanwyck never had the classic beauty of Lana Turner nor the classic acting talent of Bette Davis, but the sum of her parts was in itself classic. Every time I meet a Stanwyck character (even if i've seen the film a dozen times) I'm reminded of when I first met my wife. Here's a woman who seems out of my league but at the same time accessible. She'll probably be able to wrap me around her pinkie, but oh how I'll love that finger. At least an equal intellectually and guaranteed fun from the boudoir to a museum to the beach and any and all stops in between. So there I've said -- Stanwyck's characters and my missus are equally delightful. (They share the same birthdate, though some years apart -- as if you didn't know.)
So sure I could rhapsodize about either for a long, long while but I'll stick to the woman you've all met. I've selected a mere half dozen of her films as a prism to which to look at one of cinema's all time greats. You'll notice that three of them are from the same year. 1941. Whatta year! You can remember it for that little conflagration in Hawaii, for me it's the year that three of Ms. Stanwyck's greatest films were released. Age 34 was obviously her prime. I've included one quote from each film because that woman had a gift for gab to match her gorgeous gams. So if you could take your mind off succumbing to baser male instincts for a second, you could enjoy just listening to her talk. Stanwyck's birthplace of Brooklyn was in her voice but is served to make her sound savvy.
The Lady Eve (1941). She's a sexy shyster, Jean Harrington, who sets out to bilk the heir (Henry Fonda) to an ale fortune but ends up falling for the sap. Stanwyck characters were always falling for mugs like me. And they (we?) were putty in her hands. Witness her seduction of the naif in this film. Each time I watch it I squirm with delight. When Fonda finds out about Ms. Harrington the jerk dumps her like a sack of potatoes. Like any good Stanwyckian she ain't taking such shabby treatment laying down or any other way. Revenge she seeks and revenge she gets. But she also gets her man. Notable quote: You see Hopsi, you don't know very much about girls. The best ones aren't as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad.
Meet John Doe (1941). Ann Mitchell is a reporter who's about to be a victim of downsizing at her newspaper. Stanwyck didn't play victims. As a parting shot, Ann writes a phony baloney story about an everyman, a John Doe, who's going to dramatically take his life on New Year's Eve in protest of a cruel world. Don't you know it, the story is a hit and far from being out on her can she's got herself a raise. Course she needs to find someone to play the role of the John Doe. Enter Gary Cooper. In short, a social movement is born a wealthy power broker emerges as a crypto fascist intent on taking advantage and Mitchell is caught in the middle. Oh by the way, she falls for the guy. It's a powerful film with one of Stanwyck's strongest performance central to its appeal. Notable quote: If it was raining hundred dollar bills, you'd be out looking for a dime you lost someplace!
Ball of Fire (1941). Meet Sugarpuss O'Shea, a showgirl and gangster's moll who finds herself hiding out with eight nebbish book worms who are writing an encyclopedia. In true Stanwyckian style she's in full control and taking full advantage of the suckers. Except wouldn't you know it, she ends up, again true to form, falling for one of the chumps (Cooper again). O'Shea is sexy, streetwise and possessive of the proverbial heart of gold. One of Stanwyck's most seductive performances, and that's saying a lot, brudder. Notable quote: I love him because he's the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn't know how to kiss, the jerk!
Baby Face (1933). Oh my. In this very, very pre code film, Stanwyck's Lily Powers doesn't stop as seducing one lucky guy. She works her way through a whole corporation. No, she is absolutely not merely a floozy. There is a method to Lily's sexual madness and it is to get what she wants. Lily's dad pimped her when she was young and that'll mess with anyone's head. But we all know by now that Stanwyck doesn't do victims. Lily has come to hate men but she knows how to play 'em for all they're worth. Notable quote: Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My Father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any of them. I'll hate you as long as I live!
Double Indemnity (1944). Bad Barbara! Oh she's just awful here. She's Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson and she's found the ultimate sucker in Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). All she wants him to do is murder her husband. Just proves that Stanwyck characters can get whatever they want of a man. She's sexy for sure but it's Dietrichson's slick patter that draws the pigeon. This is film noir Stanwyck so we know there's no they-lived-happily-ever-after ending. Stanwyck, you see, could play all kinds. Notable quote: We're both rotten.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Christmas Stanwyck! She's absolutely adorable as magazine writer Elizabeth Lane. Again we've got a Stanwyck character who appears to be one thing but is in fact another (film characters are more fun that way). Lane writes a column in which she poses as a country denizen proficient in cooking and all manner of skills requisite in keeping a cozy home. But Ms. Lane is in reality a city girl through and through who's culinary talents consist of knowing what to order in a restaurant. She's on the spot when the boss wants her to entertain a war hero for Christmas, a typical country one with all the trimmings. Stanwyck falls for the guy (Dennis Morgan) and you know what that means for him. Notable quote: Arrange it, are you crazy? Where am I gonna get a farm? I haven't even got a window box!
I also adore Stanwyck in: Night Nurse (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Banjo on My Knee (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), Ladies of Burlesque (1943), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Sorry Wrong Number (1948), Clash By Night (1952) and There's Always Tomorrow (1956).