02 August 2010

I'm Just Batty About Barbara, Six of My Favorite Stanwyck Performances

One afternoon a few years ago when I was still raking in pots of money working as a public school teacher, I was having a post school day chat with a couple of colleagues. One of my chums and I were trying to describe to the other the fetching young woman who worked at another local school. I said, "she looks like Barbara Stanwyck." My co-workers guffawed. The heathens! Their only frame of reference for Stanwyck was in her later years as the matronly Victoria Barkley on the TV show, The Big Valley.

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 1930s and '40s, 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).


Anonymous said...

i am with you 100% on this! i am a huge barbara stanwyck fan. all the hype back then was given to hepburn and davis but in my book, stanwyck stood above them. what a talent!

Unknown said...

How anyone can call himself a Barbara Stanwyck fan and not include Remember The Night is beyond me. I think it is possibly the greatest Christmas love story ever. Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray made two absolute gems together: Double Indemnity and Remember The Night. Plus, in later years, they made the excellent Douglas Sirk drama There's Always Tomorrow. But (in contrast to her definitive noir femme fatale in Double Indemnity) in Remember The Night I always fall deeply, madly in love with Barbara Stanwyck.

Richard Hourula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I adore Stanwyck as well! Really enjoyed your list, though I agree with an earlier comment - I would have included Remember The Night, her first movie with MacMurray and first colaboration with Sturges, which is simply magical.
Have a good one!

Jeff said...

First I'll take exception to characterizing Stanwyck as not up to the acting talent of Bette Davis. The parts were different and the people were different but there was very little that Stanwyck did that didn't work. The same cannot be said for Davis whose career was dreary from the mid-40s until All About Eve and then more or less dropped again like a hot potato until her Gothic messes like 'Whatever Happended To Baby Jane?'.

Having gotten that out of the way one cannot help but celebrate the prodigious talent and longevity of Stanwyck. Her career spanned the late 20s to the mid 80s and not a piece of crap in the list. Even the domestic dramas in the 50s, such as Crime Of Passion, when she was nearly 50, were lit up by her presence. It's not stretching it too far to suggest that such films would have been absolute dogs without her.

And the gems that she starred in, like Ball Of Fire and The Lady Eve, were magical. You can't take your eyes off her when she's in a scene.

Perhaps the only unfortunate thing about Stanwyck movies is that there is still a large gap, particularly of early work, such as The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, of movies available on DVD.

She was superb and not matched before or since.

victoria said...

I was hoping you would say "Christmas in Connecticut". I have to say, along with "Ball of Fire" that these are the 2 greatest roles that show her comedic side. She was vastly underutilized as a comedienne. Loved her

Anonymous said...

Stanwyck was the greatest and the sexiest. Nobody today comes within a million miles of her.

joel said...

Love all the ones you mentioned especially Christmas in Connecticut but have you ever seen The Purchase Price? It's from very early in her career and hard to find but she's great as a mail order bride. Also love her in Clash by Night and Titanic. She and Clifton Webb are the ultimate sophisticated couple in that plus you get Thelma Ritter as a renamed Molly Brown.

Cecilia said...

My favorite actress of all time, but Stella Dallas and Sorry, Wrong Number should have made the list!
P.S. Love that she's a New York native, like moi.

Wurtsboro Boy said...

I too have always been a Stanwyck fan. How about "The Two Mrs. Carrolls with Humphey Bogart"?
I also enjoyed "My Repuation"
But "The Lady Eve" is my all time favorite. The scene with the mirror on the ship is a classic.

Anonymous said...

Now, I'm not a huge fan, but I loved her in two more obscure films: Lang's Clash by Night and Fuller's Forty Guns. She was great in both.

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for including "Christmas in Connecticut" because that is my favorite Christmas movie since EVER -- and not a small part of it is because of Stanwyck's hilarious, cute performance.

I especially love when
*She and the hot sailor get buried in the snowdrift, and she just cuddles up and says, "Oh, we're WONDERFUL, darling."
*The baby bath scene. So funny.
*The flapjack-flipping practice.

Paolo said...

I remember the quote from Meet John Doe being '...looking for a quarter you've lost someplace!'

The Lady Eve was a great performance. An ingenue would have made her character sound like a ditz while trying to seduce Henry Fonda. That sultriness had to be tuned to a certain frequency and she gets it.

And Stella Dallas is probably more shocking than any of the cheap movies right now. Thanks for this post. I love her.