Tribute to “Missy” Barbara Stanwyck

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I remember vividly what was the first Marilyn Monroe film I saw or what was the first Grace Kelly film I saw, but if you ask me when exactly I discovered Barbara Stanwyck, I become hesitant. I have a far memory concerning that. I believe she was introduced to me with either Meet John Doe or Clash By Night, two films I watched for various reasons and Missy wasn’t one of them. Meet John Doe had Gary Cooper and Clash by Night had Marilyn Monroe (I also thought it would be classy to watch a Fritz Lang’s film. To tell you the truth, I’m pretty sure this was the first film of his I ever saw). Those films turned out to be great but I admit I haven’t watched them a second time since. Barbara Stanwyck, even if I was by then not too familiar with her, was the highlight of those films and the more I saw and learned about her, the more I grew up to admire the actress she was. One of her nicknames was “The Queen” and it’s not without reason.

My friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has decided to bring back her Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon for a second edition, which is an event I obviously couldn’t skip. This year, she is joined by the lovely Maddy from Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. The two ladies have already hosted a few blogathons together and I know they make a terrific team! The first time Crystal hosted it, which was in  2016, I wrote about what was at the time my favourite Barbara Stanwyck films, more precisely Red Salute, a little unknown road trip comedy where she shared the screen with a young Robert Young. 😉 My preferences have changed since and, to tell you the truth, I kind of have difficulties to say what is my ultimate favourite Barbara Stanwyck film. It changes all the time, depending on my mood I guess. But what I can positively say is that I loved most of those I saw and Barbara had a lot to do with it. The reason why Crystal is hosting this blogathon from January 20 to January 22 is to remember Stany on her 29th death anniversary (January 20, 1990). For the occasion, I’ve decided not to write about a particular film, but simply to pay my own tribute to this great screen goddess. And it was about time. As a matter of fact, I probably discovered Barbara Stanwyck before I even started this blog or at least, not long after.

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But, to tell you the truth, it’s not so much by watching first films with her that I discovered her greatness. No, people on social media would talk about her in a way that just made you want to see more of her a know more about her. To be honest, I think it’s more some friends over Facebook who really led me to see more of her films and made me realise her coolness. No, I don’t remember who it was, but I remember she’s one who was admired by many and with well-justified reasons. There are some points where I and Barbara wouldn’t agree (politics) but if we forget that and concentrate on her acting career, well, she’s the kind of person whose talent keeps me speechless.

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We first have to look at her background to understand the impressive way she became a star. I have not read any books about her (there’s this huge biography of her but I heard it wasn’t so good), but from what I’ve read, she pretty much started from nothing and built herself a name thanks to her strength of character and perseverance. At the age of four, the little Ruby Catherine Stevens became an orphan when her mother died after having been accidentally knockout by a tramway. Not long after the funerals, her father abandoned her and her siblings. She was the youngest of five children. After their father’s departure, it’s their older sister, Laura, who took care of them. Ruby constantly moved from one foster home to another but, during teenagerhood, she also started to do stage performances with her sister. She eventually became a dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies between 1923 and 1924 and obtained her first on-screen role in 1927 with Broadway Nights as an uncredited dancer. What however gives her a real break into films was probably Lady of Leisure (1930) and from then on, each decade would have an important film starring Barbara Stanwyck: Night Nurse, Baby Face, and Stella Dallas in the 30s; The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in the 40s, Titanic, Clash by Night, and Executive Suite in the 50s, etc. Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for four Academy Awards (Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number) but, unfortunately, never won any of them. She received, however, an honorary Oscar in 1982, during which she paid tribute to her “golden boy”, William Holden, who had died tragically a few months before.

I love that she acknowledges the electricians! This surely is one of the most touching Oscar speech. It remains simple, but it’s authentic. And oh dear! She missed her friend William Holden so much! 😦

Because yes, this is precisely one of the reasons why I love Barbara Stanwyck. She pretty much put William Holden on the map. This actor, you know he’s a favourite here at The Wonderful World of Cinema! His first starring role was Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939) next to Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, and Adolphe Menjou. But this almost didn’t happen. Previously, Holden had played uncredited parts in two films called Prison Farm and Million Dollar Legs. When the time came to give him the starring role in Golden Boy, not only he was a very unknown actor, but most people weren’t willing to give him a change. However, Barbara Stanwyck saw potential in him and appreciated him. She helped him a lot to improve and even took personal time to coach him and help him develop his acting skills. They became longtime friends. So, yes, it’s pretty much thanks to her if Golden Holden had the chance to make a real break into films and became the great actor he was. Thanks, Barbara! She was a queen but she was willing to help the newcomers. I honestly think that was brilliant of her.

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Barbara Stanwyck had this talent to play characters that you would either love or fear. She did both kinds of roles perfectly which places her among the most versatile actresses of her generation or maybe of all time. Well, that’s my opinion but I think many would agree. However, there’s always something that makes her fascinating to watch, whatever what role she would play. She had that presence that created this amazing aura around her, incredible charisma, that’s for sure, and a unimitable assurance. Just before starting to write this text, I watched a few Barbara Stanwyck’s films I had never seen before: Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Night Nurse, and Stella Dallas. I loved them all and these are all films where she plays quite different types of characters. Ball of Fire actually might be my new favourite performance of her. Her dynamism in this film is simply contagious. While it was directed by Howard Hawks, it was written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett who definitely developed Barbara Stanwyck into a memorable character. Her introduction with “Drum Boogie” is probably one of the most memorable of her career (Double Indemnity being another quite notorious one).

And then…

Interestingly, Barbara Stanwyck often embodied women in search of themselves. They often do things impulsively without necessarily thinking about the consequences. Her characters are strong individualists that, despite wanting to control the world around them, are often led downhill. This would be the case for her role Double Indemnity or Baby Face. As a matter of fact, we could make a connection between these characters and those portrayed by Margaret Lockwood in Gainsborough melodramas, despite the two actresses quite different acting style. This, added to Barbara’s own impressive acting skills, make her films highly interesting to watch and herself a pertinent object of study.  In 2017, I attended a seminar in American Cinema of the 50s. Not only my teacher would often talk about Barbara Stanwyck, but I recently discovered that she actually teaches (or taught) a course entirely dedicated to Barbara Stanwyck at the Ph.D. level! Now, I’m almost tempted to do a Ph.D. at Concordia for that only! One thing is sure, Barbara Stanwyck was a highly important figure of Hollywood films.

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If we look even closer at Barbara Stanwyck’s on-screen presence, the negativity that could emerge from some (but far from all) her characters is quickly overshadowed by the obvious symbol of feminism she embodied through many of her characters. If we look again at our comparison with Margaret Lockwood’s Gainsborough Melodramas characters, sure these often appeared to be cruel women at first glance, but they also were free and independent women that provoked admiration among the female audience. These films were made during the war when women would gain a certain status and independence in society as many men were on the front. Moreover, they also were important box office successes in England. The same can be said of Barbara Stanwyck’s characters. Many of them were strong women who knew what they wanted and proved us that someone doesn’t necessarily need the opposite sex to survive. Barbara Stanwyck being an important figure of pre-code cinema and screwball comedy highlights, even more, this sense of feminism. Women were the real heroes in screwball films and often were the true leaders. And pre-code would simply depict life in a more realistic way than films made during the Production Code Era and its many restrictions.

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When I did my bachelor degree, I attended a class on sexual representation in cinema. For my final paper, I wrote about the representation of female sexuality in pre-code films and one of my case studies was Baby Face (the other one was Gold Diggers of 1933). In my research, I used a text by John McPartland, Sex During the Great Depression, where he explains that pre-code films led to a new representation of the body. Therefore, women wearing clothes that showed their belly weren’t uncommon during the pre-code era. This makes us think of Night Nurse which contains many scenes of Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck changing clothes and being seen in underwear (ou la la…). Some could see that as a way to simply attract the spectator’s eyes, but if we look at that in a more favourable context, it’s also a liberation of the body which is something well, natural. The fact that Barbara Stanwyck was sort of part of this “liberation” (that, unfortunately, didn’t last long), once again accentuates her significance as a woman in the film industry. She then made many films during the Production Code Era which would allow her to explore a different facet of the Hollywood film industry but, in all cases, she managed to present characters people can still rely on today.

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To come back to Night Nurse, I watched this film very recently for the first time and absolutely loved Barbara Stanwyck in it. She plays a strong female lead and her determination sparks our admiration. She does everything in her power to save two children suffering from malnutrition (and who could very probably die from it), even if this means risking getting injured or even risking her own life. The fact that she plays a nurse has even more significance. Yes, women in hospital at the time would often be the nurses and not rarely the doctor, but Night Nurse proves us that nurses are as important and shouldn’t be considered as inferiors. They do not only take care of patients night and day, but also dedicate their whole life to this profession and the goodwill of sick and injured people. Also, one of the doctors plays a villain which obviously doesn’t put him in a favourable light (am I the only one to think Dr. Ranger looked like a Nazi?). Also, that scenes where she takes revenge on the man who assaulted her by punching him in the face is everything!

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So far, I have seen a total of twenty films starring Barbara Stanwyck. It’s quite a good start, but there are obviously many more I need to see (thanks for all your suggestions, Crystal). I’ve observed in each one of them how Barbara Stanwyck’s acting game was natural and that she was truly born to be an actress. She is simply fascinating to watch and I think she deserves more recognition today because, even if classic film fans acknowledge her talent, she isn’t as well-known as Audrey Hepburn for example. And I have to say, I love her voice. It has an impressive range of emotion and there’s something just “true” and unique about it. But, really, you have to listen to it to understand.

Barbara Stanwyck was undeniably an actress of high importance and her what she brought to in the film industry cannot be fully expressed in a simple blog article. I’ve tried to do a little top 10 list of my favourite Barbara Stanwyck’s films, but this is obviously something that could change tomorrow. I think it should give you a good preview:

1- Sorry Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

2- Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

3- Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)

4- Red Salute (Sidney Lanfield, 1935)

5- Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939)

6- The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946)

7- Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

8- The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

9- My Reputation (Curtis Bernhard, 1946)

10- Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937)

Of course, there are many more films of hers I love that are not on this list such as Clash by Night or Meet John Doe. And, to tell you the truth, I am not too much a fan of Double Indemnity. I watched it twice but really have difficulty to get into it! This is strange as I normally love all Billy Wilder films I saw. Oh well, I guess it happens. I recognize it’s a great film in many aspects, but it’s just not a favourite of mine. 😉

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Anyway, telling you everything about my admiration for the great Barbara Stanwyck surely was a rewarding experience. While writing this text, I realized how much I valued her, even more than I would have initially suspected. Of course, there would be many more things to say about her because, as I’ve explained, she’s a highly interesting and complex subject of study. She surely revolutionized the face of cinema!

I, once again, want to thank Crystal and Maddy for hosting this great blogathon. Missy surely deserved that honour!

To read the other entries, please click here!

See you!

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This is probably my favourite photo of her. What a cutie!

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