Favorite Actress of Classic Hollywood: Barbara Stanwyck

screenshot from Ball of Fire

Posterity is a mercurial thing.  In the 21st century, Barbara Stanwyck is not a very well known actress from the Golden Age, even though everyone has heard of Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Katherine Hepburn.  In the classic years, from what I’ve read, Barbara was immensely popular, churning out a number of successful films throughout the thirties, then, I read somewhere, she became THE highest paid actress of the forties.  If she was so popular then, how come she’s relatively unknown now?

I’d say part of it is that Stanwyck rarely played the stereotypical female.  So much of her films involve risque roles.  And by risque, I mean risque with substance behind it.  Marilyn Monroe had many risque roles, but most of those were tongue-in-cheek farce (except for The Misfits, where her character is beautiful and tragic).  Barbara on the other hand played women who were dangerous, who did challenge society, and who did stand up to men.  She played these roles on a regular basis, too.  She was especially audacious in the pre-code years, a quality that carried over into the forties, when it seemd that, if a director needed a woman to go against the grain, they’d go to her.

I didn’t discover Barbara Stanwyck’s films until last year, when I was going through a screwball comedy kick, and set about watching as many Preston Sturges films as possible.  It was the Sturges film The Lady Eve that made me first take notice of her.  It was one scene in particular too.  There’s a wonderfully funny sequence where Barbara is sitting at a dinner table spying on Henry Fonda, who plays a naive millionaire.  Barbara pretends to be checking her makeup, but is really using her vanity mirror to watch women throw themselves at Henry.  It’s a very funny and very modern scene.  I kept remembering the scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton poke fun at every person in Central Park.  The way Barbara delivers her lines is spunky and not at all demure.

screenshot from The Lady EveThe film requires her to abandon inhibitions for many of the scenes to work.  A less courageous actress could not have pulled this off.  I think if you watch this film, you won’t be able to think of any actress who did anything quite like it.  Not even the other screwball stars like Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, or Katherine Hepburn were this uninhibited.  There’s a scene that strikes me as one that must’ve been near impossible to film.  Stanwyck is in the midst of seducing Fonda, but he’s such a shy and unassuming sort, that instead of making out or even embracing, Stanwyck wins him over by pressing her face to his–not kissing, but actually pressing her cheek to his.  Hollywood at the time imposed time limits on kissing (only allowed a few seconds), so Sturges came up with this clever alternative.

screenshot from the lady eve

The Lady Eve is among the screwiest of screwball films.  The last third asks the audience to ignore logic altogether for the jokes to work.  Stanwyck and Fonda make it work.  It is truly ludicrous, and ridiculously fun.

screenshot from The Lady Eve

The role Barbara is best known for is Phyllis in Billy Wilder’s Doube Indemnity.

barbara stanwyck in Double IndemnityThis is definitely a gutsy role.  Some people credit this film as the first film noir (although I don’t see a lot of point in separating film noirs from gangster movies and detective films).  At the time, Stanwyck’s roles was one of the darkest in all of cinema if you ask me.  I haven’t seen much from that period and before that quite resembled hers in subject matter and intensity.  European films on the other hand had been utilizing dark roles for women for years, especially in silent films.  I’d say Arletty in the Marcel Carne film Le Jour se Leve and Simon Simone in La Bete Humaine are the prototypes of the femme fatale character that Stanwyck would portray for the first time in America.  This is all my opinion of course, but I’d say Stanwyck is the first femme fatale, and the forerunner for the rest.

By the way, doesn’t the photo above resemble Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential?  Since so much of that film was an homage to film noirs, I wouldn’t say it’s a stretch to guess the filmmakers were in part inspired by Barbara’s character.

Billy Wilder had made a few films at this time, but wasn’t yet considered a big name director, so it was considered a gamble to sign onto one of his pictures.  Studio execs assumed with Billy that just because he was from Germany, he’d end up making German Expressionist films that wouldn’t go over well with American audiences.  Barbara knew better.  She’d already played a role written by Billy in Ball of Fire, and so signed up for the gig, probably aware somewhere in the back of her mind that playing a mentally-unstable, manipulative murderer could end her career.  In fact, it did the opposite.  In 1944, people couldn’t stop talking about Double Indemnity.  Hitchcock himself said he was envious of the film, going so far as to personally congratulate him for coming up with a scene where the characters discuss their murderous plans in a grocery store.

Here’s a funny piece of trivia.  In the forties, legs were a big deal in terms of sex appeal.  Barbara Stanwyck by that time was well known for her legs, so the legendary costume designer Edith Head (she did the costumes for a huge amount of Hitchcock’s films, including the ball gowns Grace Kelly wears in To Catch A Thief) designed her dresses specifically to show off her legs, and Billy didn’t shy away from filming her walking from the waist down.

barbara stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Unfortunately for Barbara, Double Indemnity was too good.  This happens occasionally in Hollywood and it’s tragic.  It seems to happen with actresses more than actors.  What happens is, an actress makes an amazing film, and then they’re stuck playing the same kind of character over and over.  Something similar happened with Gloria Swanson after starring in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (famous for her line “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. Demille”).  When Swanson plays a washed-up actress, she plays it so well that afterwards, all the scripts she’s given are for washed-up actresses.  This story replays itself with Bette Davis, which is sadder because she had so much to offer Hollywood.  Bette delivers one of the best performances of any actress ever in All About Eve, about an actress whose star is fading, then, instead of reaching new peaks of artistic excellence, she was given little choice but to keep playing actresses on the decline, like in The Star, until this climaxes with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  With Barbara, after Double Indemnity, she was no longer given much opportunity to return to comedy, or sing and dance like in Ball of Fire or Banjo on My Knee, and instead has to keep playing manipulative women.  In particular, her roles in Crime of Passion and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers are basically just one degree removed from Phyllis.  Just three years before Double Indemnity, she was in Meet John Doe, a Capra movie.  How can a Capra star get stuck doing murder mysteries over and over?  Success.

I’ll have to admit I haven’t watched all that many of her films from after Double Indemnity.  It’s just too sad.  She was playing all sorts of roles before, and then she was stuck replaying the same old routine over and over.  One noteworthy exception is No Man of Her Own (the 1950 Mitchell Leisen film, not to be confused with the 1932 Carole Lombard Clark Gable film of the same name).  The movie is based on the novel I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich.  I’ve read the book and it’s pretty good.  The movie isn’t excellent, but it’s interesting.  What makes it especially important to me is that Barbara gets a chance to play a character that’s not vampy or malicious.  She’s a very gentle character, with a lot of sadness, and a resilience that keeps her from wasting her life in despair.  It’s a mature role for Stanwyck, showing depth that a lot of her later films lack.

barbara stanwyck in no man of her own

screenshot from No Man of Her Own

Although Double Indemnity is one of my favorite films from one of my absolute favorite directors, I personally like Barbara the most for her comedic roles, which were far too few.  My favorite of her films would have to be The Lady Eve, mentioned above.  My second favorite though is Ball of Fire, where she has such funny dialogue.  I’ve already written a long post about it elsewhere, so I won’t be redundant here.  If you want to read the post, click here.

In the end, although Barbara did not have a perfect career, she gave a handful of perfect performances.  She wasn’t too prudent, too tame.  Male leads like Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper were allowed to be brash, to be uncouth, to be scoundrels, so why couldn’t a woman play such roles?  Most didn’t (maybe they just weren’t given the chance).  Barbara did.

That’s the end of my post about my favorite actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  I’d really like to know who your favorite is.  I’ve made a poll with other famous actresses.  If yours is one of those, vote by clicking on your choice.  If you’re favorite’s not listed, write her name in the response box.  Keep in mind, this is specifically for classic films.

According to wikipedia, the Golden Age of Hollywood lasted through the 60s, but that makes little sense to me.  It seems to me the classic, golden age of Hollywood died in 1960, killed by Anthony Perkins in the Bates Motel.

So let me rephrase it this way, who’s your favorite actress from the silent age to 1960?

Here’s a list of actresses I almost chose as my favorite:

Bette Davis:  In fairness, I should have chose her because she gave what I consider to be the best acting performace of any actress ever (better than Streep and Keaton’s best, even) in All About Eve.  The problem is, a lot of her other movies I wasn’t overjoyed with.  Her melodramas tend to be hit-or-miss.  I find myself liking some parts, but usually not the movies as a whole, or her performances for that matter.  Part of this is, of course, the changing of the times.  When Davis was making all these melodramas, women were worrying themselves to death about their husbands and lovers overseas, so it was for them that Davis created these tense, long tearjerkers to give them an escape from their anxieties for a few hours.

Myrna Loy:  While Myrna is delightful in The Thin Man series, the main reason why I have great respect for her is because she was an outspoken critic of the Nazis before the start of WW2, and went so far as to put her career on hold for a few years while she did everything she could to help the American war effort.  I heard that Hitler himself had a wanted list of people he sought to murder upon conquering America, and Myrna’s name was near the top.  That makes her quite a classy actress in my book.

Carole Lombard:  With Carole, you’re left wondering what might have been.  She had a phenomenal career through the thirties, basically popularizing screwball comedy by herself.  The term ‘screwball’ by the way comes from one of her movies, Nothing Sacred, where one character says about her something like “you are one screwy dame.”  Carole Lombard was another woman who thoroughly blasted away at the Nazis, filming To Be or Not to Be, which portrays the Nazis as a bunch of ignoramouses.  To Be or Not to Be is a better film than The Great Dictator if you ask me.  Tragically, Carole died after boarding a plane to entertain US troops at a USO show when the plane crashed, much like another great American entertainer Glenn Miller.

Katherine Hepburn:  When people think of good acting, Hepburn comes to mind.  I was tempted to call her my favorite on the strength of Bringing Up Baby alone.  To me, I couldn’t call her my favorite because her acting was more modern, more contemporary (which isn’t bad at all).  Although her career started in the 30s, a lot her best roles were after 1960.  I think Barbara Stanwyck is more representative of classic Hollywood.


2 thoughts on “Favorite Actress of Classic Hollywood: Barbara Stanwyck

  1. It’s scary how close this article mirrors my thoughts. The only thing I would add is that Joan Crawford has a special place in my list; I would replace Myrna Loy with her when it comes to acting chops, thought Myrna Loy is a legend in my book for her off-screen exploits as your mention.

    As for the most beautiful on-screen, no one has been as attractive on screen as Ava Gardner and Liz Taylor.

    Carole Lombard could have been 2nd greatest on my list if she had lived longer, but she would never have Stanwyck’s on-screen presence because Stanwyck brought too much of her own ‘tough’ childhood on-screen. She oozed that strength and confidence that would be too difficult to top.

    It is unfortunate that I despise Stanwyck’s politics however.

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