Thursday, April 28, 2016

Lady Be Good | A centenary season of Barbara Stanwyck

A Critic at Large April 30, 2007 Issue

Lady Be Good

A centenary season of Barbara Stanwyck.


At the Totten Foundation, a scholarly establishment on the Upper West Side, a professor of English bids farewell to a young lady who has been assisting him in his research. “Make no mistake,” he says, “I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”
I have always taken these lines to be the high-water mark of American Cartesianism. When we consider the duality of body and mind, we assume that the two can be trusted to get along; that our minds can go about their noble business without being diverted by the physical forms in which they are encased. This theory holds firm up to the exact point at which it bumps into Barbara Stanwyck. It is to her that those regretful words are spoken. The movie is “Ball of Fire”—released in 1941, directed by Howard Hawks, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and starring Stanwyck as a night-club chanteuse called Sugarpuss O’Shea. The flustered professor is Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), who is writing the entry on slang for a new encyclopedia, and who explains to his colleagues that “puss” is an accepted vulgarism for “face.” “‘Sugarpuss’ implies a certain sweetness in her,” he says, with a straight puss. Tell that to Descartes and you would blow his mind.
To suggest that Stanwyck never belonged in the first rank of screen beauties would be ungallant but true. To argue, however, that she lacked a ready supply of male victims would be demonstrable nonsense. She had cheekbones of a wicked cut and curve, archable eyebrows, and a nose whose beaky hauteur came in handy when she rose to playing the loftier classes, or, as in “The Lady Eve” (1941), slicing them to shreds. It was a face that launched a thousand inquisitions: the mouth too tight to be rosy, and a voice pitched for slang, all bite and huskiness. When I think of the glory days of American film, at its speediest and most velvety, I think of Barbara Stanwyck.
She was born a hundred years ago, on July 16, 1907. That is cause for fond commemoration, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music is paying homage with a short but concentrated season starting April 25th. The schedule includes “Ball of Fire,” which you can see four times on April 28th; “Forty Guns,” the crazed Sam Fuller Western from 1957, with its ballsy heroine clad in black, mounted on a white steed, and, at the age of almost fifty, thrown from a horse and dragged through the dust; and three films with Fred MacMurray—“Remember the Night” (1940), “Double Indemnity” (1944), and “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956). In all, Stanwyck and MacMurray made four movies together. “Once I sent her to jail, once I shot her, once I left her for another woman, and once I sent her over a waterfall,” he recalled in 1986. Teamed with Stanwyck, he wore the look of a well-behaved kid who had sneaked out the back door for a nervous moonlit date. She had that effect.
Besides the hundred years since Stanwyck’s birth, other statistics demand attention. There are the eighty-three films she made for the big screen. There are the hundred and five episodes, starting in 1965, of the TV series “The Big Valley” in which she starred as Victoria Barkley, thus reinforcing the moral of a lifetime: Don’t mess with the matriarch. And there are the four Oscar nominations, none of them crowned with a win, a scandal for which the Academy atoned in 1982 by bestowing an honorary award. Her appearance that night, sequinned and immaculate, suggested that age was simply too awed to wither her, just as America’s love for her was always spiced with a pinch of fear. She built and buffed a screen persona whose unending task was to face down the schemings of weak men, to get a laugh for doing so, and to vent no more pity on the plight of others than she did on her own. Her wars with the world did not go unrewarded. Hence the most vital of all her statistics: in 1944, Stanwyck earned four hundred thousand dollars, making her the highest-paid woman in America.
More than sixty years later, and seventeen years after her death, there has been a shift in Stanwyck’s reputation. To addicts of old Hollywood, as to pining critics, no actress delivered a more accomplished body of work; to the general public, however, her name is fading into the past. All we have of Stanwyck is a collection of films—but what a collection—and thus the temptation to conflate the woman with her roles is overpowering. Think of a jockey riding multiple mounts in an afternoon and you have some idea of the Stanwyck who had four pictures released in 1941 and again in 1946. Like many stars, she was loaned out on contract from one stable to another, but she made the switches work to her advantage, so that neither Columbia nor Warner Bros., for instance, both of whom worked her hard in the early years, was able to fence her in. In later years, she negotiated short contracts with M-G-M, R.K.O., Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox. Nobody seemed to own her: not the studios, not her husbands, not Frank Capra or Preston Sturges, not Zeppo Marx, her agent in the thirties. She had self-possession, and that was ownership enough. Samuel Goldwyn tried for three other Sugarpusses—Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, and Carole Lombard—before settling on Stanwyck, yet the role now seems inconceivable in the hands of anyone else. That is the way with the brightest stars: as much by accident as by design, they pull toward them the scripts and directors most likely to enrich, even to mythologize, our sense of who they are. We feel as if we have some share in a great public secret. All in all, as Sugarpuss says, “Pretty good getting, for a gal that came up the hard way.”
Barbara Stanwyck made her name, and her home, in Southern California, but she was Brooklyn to her toenails, and her real name was Ruby Katherine Stevens. The last of five children, she was two years old when her mother, Catherine, died after stepping off a streetcar, falling, and cracking her head on the curb. Her father, a bricklayer named Byron, waited a couple of weeks, long enough to see his wife interred, then took off to work on the Panama Canal. With that, he vanished from history.
Ruby and her brother Byron were taken up by an older sister, Mildred, who shunted them from one foster family to the next. So tough was that upbringing, and such was Stanwyck’s determination not to milk it for sympathy, that, of all the major actresses, she is the hardest to imagine as a child. By the time she arrived in movies, she seemed to know more of the world than anyone around her, enough to make audiences take her on trust. In a studio biography compiled by R.K.O. in 1938, and dug up by her skilled and tireless biographer Axel Madsen for his 1994 book, Stanwyck said, “Growing up in one foster home after another didn’t give me any edge on the other kids or any excuse for whining, protesting, demanding. Besides, why whine?” As if submitting a job application for the business of film noir, she described the abandoned breed to which she belonged as “alert, precocious, and savage,” and their situation as “hapless, maybe, but not helpless, not hopeless.” That predicament left her perfectly placed, during the years of the Depression, to sell her wares—her portraits of women who know the look and smell of misfortune, and who have taught themselves to fend off its attacks. You can’t help wondering, if Little Orphan Ruby hadn’t bloomed into Barbara Stanwyck, what she would have become? President Stevens, the first of her sex? Or the only Mob boss to wear a skirt?
Mildred was a showgirl, and Ruby liked to follow in her slipstream, picking up the moves. She left school at thirteen, and two years later she was earning her keep in the chorus at the Strand Roof, high above Times Square, shifting soon to a production of “Ziegfeld Follies” at the New Amsterdam, and from there to “Keep Kool” at the Morosco, where she was billed as one of the Keep Kool Cuties. One wonders how she felt in 1952, crossing swords with Robert Ryan in Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night”:
“Were you ever a showgirl?”
“Ye gods, no.”
“You look like you could be.”
Fans of Stanwyck films might not think of her as a hoofer, but they would be the first to admit that she had the best and most brazen walk in Hollywood, changing gear from march to sidle as the mood required—those nights at the Morosco could be viewed as one long limbering-up. Tucked into her résumé are a number of movies in which the old, high-stepping talents were dusted off: “Ten Cents a Dance” (1931) and “Lady of Burlesque” (1943), which boasts not only my favorite screen credit of all time (“Based on the novel ‘G-String Murders’ by Gypsy Rose Lee”) but a snappy speech in which Stanwyck, playing a dancer, explains her froideur to a vaudeville comic who has the hots for her, and in so doing glances back at the rearing of Ruby Stevens:
I went into show business when I was seven years old. Two days later the first comic I ever met stole my piggy bank at a railroad station in Portland. When I was eleven, the comics were looking at my ankles. When I was fourteen, they were . . . just lookin’.
During that brief pause, Stanwyck works in a shrug and the raise of an eyebrow. Film theory has dwelled, with justice, on what is called the objectifying male gaze—that is, the power of the camera to ogle and depersonalize, and to encourage the viewer to follow suit—without always remembering that, at Hollywood’s height, there were plenty of people who could take that gaze like a punch and throw it right back. Stanwyck, by her own account, had practiced the response long before she stared into a lens: she recalled meeting the playwright Willard Mack in New York and regarding him “with impudent assurance, just to keep from turning around and running away.” Master your own fear, in other words, and you end up frightening others.
It was Mack who cast her in her first straight play, “The Noose.” It opened at the Hudson in October, 1926, and featured her as Barbara Stanwyck for the first time; the name had been soldered together from an actress named Jane Stanwyck and a play called “Barbara Frietchie.” From here on, Stanwyck’s story quickens its pace, so much so that the reader of Madsen’s biography can be left floundering in her wake; it feels as if, having notched all the main misfortunes of life in her first twenty years, she grabbed her first lucky break and refused to let go. From “The Noose” she slipped into “Burlesque,” at the Plymouth, which just happened to be seen by Louis B. Mayer, of M-G-M, and Joe Schenck, of United Artists. “If you ever want to do a movie part, just telephone me,” Schenck said.
That sounds seigneurial to the point of cheesy, but Stanwyck, true to form, took the man at his word. She was anti-cheese. By March of 1929 she was in Los Angeles, starring in United Artists’ “The Locked Door” opposite Rod La Rocque, who surely should have waited forty years and popped up in a Russ Meyer movie. She was also a married woman. In August of the previous year, she had wed in St. Louis, where the groom was on tour. Frank Fay was a comic, of the kind that burlesque ladies were meant to be wary of; he was a redheaded Irish-American bear, a boozer, and a huge draw on Broadway. And that was the problem. Hollywood warmed to him but never quite worked out how to use him, whereas his bride would soon become the Swiss Army knife of motion pictures. She could be used for anything—fighting, dancing, weeping, wailing, cracking wise. A young Frank Capra referred to her as a porcupine. On the strength of a screen test, he asked her to head the cast of “Ladies of Leisure,” which came out in May of 1930.
“Ladies of Leisure” should, by rights, be callow and crude. It is early Stanwyck, and early Capra—his fifth talkie, recorded in the springtime of sound. The face of her character, Kay Arnold, is like a mask from the silent era, with darkened lips and flashing, hard-lined eyes that were meant to compensate for the lack of speech. Yet the movie gives you a melancholy shock, for it proves how far the medium had come in less than twenty years, how swiftly its senses had ripened, and how meagre have been the advances since. Kay used to be a fun-seeker (“That’s my racket. I’m a party girl”), but she fell for a rich guy, a painter, then lost him, and the bottom fell out of the fun. In one extraordinary scene, she stays overnight, on the painter’s couch, while he takes the bed in the next room. Neither can sleep, and the erotic throb that Capra builds is near-tropical, with the camera picking up the wet, wide gleam of Stanwyck’s gaze, and pulling back to show the torrent of rain that sheets down the windows behind the couch.
On one level, this is a matter of bewitching technical skill. The director of photography on “Ladies of Leisure” was Joseph Walker, who made five more films with Stanwyck, and who used to grind special lenses for each of his favorite actresses, the better to catch and refine their look. The lighting, too, as in “The Miracle Woman”—Stanwyck, Capra, Walker again, released the following year—is of an almost wounding beauty, far in advance of the amateur acoustics, with rim-lit details picked out like stars against the semi-dark. From there to the shadows of “The Godfather,” as rich as chocolate, is really not so far.
The other note that rings out clearly from “Ladies of Leisure,” and that would toll like a bell through the rest of Stanwyck’s career, is the sound of a smart woman surveying, with a snicker and a sigh, the dumber sex. This was not strictly a matter of looking down. Stanwyck was a slip of a woman, less than five and a half feet tall, and she spent a lot of time onscreen looking upward at her leading men. The force that she wields there, however, is persuasive to the point of Napoleonic. Kay Arnold, on first meeting the painter, lifts her gaze, and there is a cool, smoky steadiness about it that is hard to read. It doesn’t say, “Hello, big boy,” or “Come down and see me sometime.” The message it sends is “Hmm. Ain’t no mountain.” If she likes the fellow, she will scale him, but make no mistake: as a female, she is already a superior soul. Should she choose to open her heart, it will be only on the most condescending of terms. “I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk,” Sugarpuss eventually says of Professor Potts. “I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk.” Ouch.
That stark declaration means, in effect, that the battle of the sexes is over before it has begun. The ouches would go off like firecrackers when Stanwyck was around, and she never let up, having learned her explosive trade before 1934, when the enforcement of the Hays Code—with its emphasis on “correct standards of life”—came along and dampened all the squibs. “Night Nurse” (1931), “Ladies They Talk About” (1933), “Baby Face” (1933): these are the kinds of Stanwyck projects that gave movies a bad, bad name. In the first, she waltzes into a hospital, smiles her way into a job, then changes into her uniform, hiking one leg into the lap of her fellow-nurse Joan Blondell, whom she has known for minutes, and letting her peel off the stocking. At night, a leering intern puts a med-school skeleton in Stanwyck’s bed, so she hops into Blondell’s, and the two of them giggle together in undergarments and fright. Buñuel himself could not have done better.
“Night Nurse,” directed by William Wellman, is a stirred-up soup of a movie. We get abused children, a drunken mother, a wounded bootlegger, and a young, unfriendly Clark Gable as a chauffeur in black jodhpurs. He looks like an Italian Fascist, and he slugs Stanwyck so hard that her chin bleeds. Still, put next to “Baby Face,” Wellman’s film is about as naughty as “On Golden Pond.” There is a case for saying that Alfred E. Green’s “Baby Face” (which screens at BAM on a juicy double bill with “Ladies They Talk About,” a female jailbird drama) didn’t just predate the Hays Code; it actually brought the code crashing down onto Hollywood heads. Stanwyck is Lily Powers, who escapes from the steel mills of Pennsylvania, where her father tries to pimp her to anyone he chooses. With her black friend Chico (Theresa Harris), Lily arrives in New York, where she proceeds to sleep her way up a company; as her conquests mount, the camera ascends the side of the office building. She starts in personnel (“Have you had any experience?” “Plenty”), proceeds through filing and mortgages, and winds up bedding the vice-president (“Did Fuzzy-Wuzzy enjoy his dinner?”). The film loses its nerve at the close, but not before Lily has declared her loveless hand: “I’m not like other women—all the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.”
This was untrue of Stanwyck, who, if not a gregarious spirit, proved to be a durable friend to many in the picture business. She remained close to Joan Crawford, for instance, which shows a certain mettle. Yet there is no denying the lacquered hardness of Stanwyck’s early roles, which continue to alarm us less with their carnal audacity than with what you might call their communal heart bypass. The Stanwyck heroine expends so much energy simply staying alive and intact, let alone forging a path through a mercantile society, that there is often no time left for the cultivation of sympathy. We sense this not merely in the snarling scripts but in the cut of the heroine’s clothes and the deadened expressions on her face. When one of the lovers in “Baby Face” shoots himself, we hear no shriek of ladylike horror. Instead, a closeup catches Stanwyck in profile, the eyes unblinking beneath long lashes, her whole outline as immovable as marble.
In 1933, Radio City Music Hall was inaugurated with “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” Stanwyck’s most ethereal film. When you learn that she plays a New England missionary in China, and that this casting decision seems perfectly logical, you will realize what a nutty creation the movie is. Her character is imprisoned, and made to wear silk pajamas, by the lordly officer of the title—a Chinaman played by Nils Asther, a gay Swede, who at one point comes to her in a dream sequence and ravishes her with long fingernails. (He has a nice collection of pickup lines, too: “You are evidently absorbed in the sublime effects of the spring moon upon my people.”) The most unlikely thing is that this ungodly concoction, photographed by Joseph Walker with a breathed-upon gloss, was another Frank Capra film. How do you get from here to “Meet John Doe,” another Capra-Stanwyck collaboration, made only eight years later? Who made the switch from opium pipe to apple pie? Well, the Hays Code kicked in, and the Depression convinced Capra that movies had a duty, or at least an opportunity, to instruct and inspire; “Meet John Doe,” with its beatification of the common man and its scowling exposure of Fascism, feels like a movie preparing for war. Yet somehow it feels corny and cooked up, whereas beneath the silliness of “General Yen” there simmers an emotional truth, with the heroine half yielding to raptures that she knows to be both improper and doomed. It isn’t just that the camera loved Stanwyck. The director did, too.
Nobody knows for sure whether Capra and his leading lady were ever an item. His biographer Joseph McBride proclaims it as fact; hers, Axel Madsen, is less certain, one of the abiding mysteries of Stanwyck being that her public image—unlike Jean Harlow’s, say—could never be mapped in any detail onto the contours of her private existence. She was definitely there, funny and silvery, up on the screen, but the definition faded as you tried to peek behind. Her movies felt like cryptic clues to a backstory of will power and frustration, the truth of which would not have pleased her fans.
The marriage to Frank Fay, for instance, was a bust, made worse when the couple tried to make it better by adopting a child, Dion, at the end of 1932. (Fay once got so drunk that he threw the boy into the swimming pool.) Three years later, when Stanwyck filed for divorce, she was awarded sole custody, but motherhood came hard to her. Dion, an awkward boy, was screamed at and shipped off to boarding school at the age of six. “She threw me away like so much garbage,” he later said. They met for the last time when he was twenty and about to leave for military service; his mother shook his hand, told him to behave himself, and that was that. In 1960, it was reported that he had been arrested for selling pornography. In 1984, he expounded on his misery to the National Enquirer. Stanwyck herself mentioned him less and less; we cannot guess what love means, or fails to mean, to a woman who grew up without it. All we can do is marvel and squirm at the steeliness of an actress who took on “Stella Dallas” (1937), the tale of a mother who sacrifices everything for the sake of her child, eventually giving that child up to the embrace of a better and less vulgar household. “I don’t want to be like me,” her character says at the start, as if from the jaws of a trap.
Stanwyck, always one to put on a formidable front, married again, in 1939, this time to Robert Taylor. “Miss Stanwyck is not the sort of woman I’d have met in Nebraska,” Taylor had said. He was the more godlike performer, she the more racy. Their coming together was a gift to the fan magazines and the publicists: “They made you—made you—go out two or three nights a week,” Stanwyck said of her employers at M-G-M. Husband and wife were robust Republicans; both belonged to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was responsible for, among other things, alerting Washington to what was perceived as the Communist menace in Hollywood. Stanwyck’s conservatism never did an inch of damage to her reputation, but Taylor is now remembered primarily, if unfairly, as a snitch, the guy who named names at the HUAC hearings in 1947. In the end, what led to their divorce, in 1951, was not political ardor, or even romantic gossip. (Taylor was seduced by Ava Gardner, but in the movie industry that was like pulling into a gas station for an oil check.) He and Stanwyck just peeled apart, seeking different things. Revered for her calm at work, she was a scold and a shouter at home, and he, after wartime service in the Navy, couldn’t take orders forever. When Stanwyck led Gary Cooper by the nose, in “Ball of Fire,” it was a riot, but in real life the laughter died at her door.
Taylor was reputedly drawn to men as well as to women, and the same has been said of Barbara Stanwyck. She is idolized by gay viewers, male and female, yet her own sexual leanings are not the point. I don’t want to sound like Howard Strickling, the king of publicity at M-G-M, who could keep a nuclear test on Sunset Boulevard under wraps, but, whatever Stanwyck did with her libido in the safety of her own home, it cannot possibly have matched the sins of the flesh into which her characters were lured. When Douglas Sirk sought her out for “All I Desire” (1953), it was because he needed a woman who could leave town (and her three children), come back a decade later, coax her dead marriage into life, tend an old flame, and still find time to make eyes at her daughter’s boyfriend. “I’m crazy about you, baby,” MacMurray says in “Double Indemnity,” running the words together under the pressure of lust. (The craze works: she lures him into doing away with her husband and claims the insurance.) As for “Forty Guns,” the title is accurate; Stanwyck plays a ranch owner, Jessica Drummond, with twoscore men under her thumb. Such eminence should make her a grandma, yet, at dinner, the jewels glitter like bait on her bosom, and when a strapping young marshal turns up she wastes no time in reaching for his weapon:
“May I feel it? Just curious.”
“May go off in your face.”
“I’ll take a chance.”
As so often with Stanwyck, you can read the scene two ways. Is Jessica seeking to rejuvenate herself like a vampire in the company of men, or is she fooling with boys and their toys in a show of lesbian disdain? We should not be surprised at such doubleness. Frankly, it would be strange if a vocation as labile and inquisitive as acting were not to reach out to unfamiliar passions, beyond the limits of the actor’s personal preference. Why bother with gossip about Laurence Olivier when you can watch him in “Spartacus” and follow his rapt dramatic intelligence as it explores, as if by fingertip, the rich possibilities of Tony Curtis? The same holds for Stanwyck, whose movies tend to present her either with a surfeit of men, offering safety in numbers, or with a single dumb sap, whom she pursues with the violence of unspecified revenge. “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”
That line always gets a laugh, as it should, for it springs from “The Lady Eve” (1941), one of the most liberatingly funny films ever made. Step back for a second, though, and you can still hear the “alert, precocious, and savage” tone that Stanwyck ascribed to her ruptured childhood. “The Lady Eve” is a Preston Sturges movie, which means that it does not and probably cannot stop, hurling Stanwyck headlong into the chase. First, she is a cardsharp who sucks money from a wandering heir (Henry Fonda) on an ocean liner; then, scarred by his rejection, she becomes an English grande dame, bewitching him into a series of emasculating pratfalls; finally, she reverts to her first persona, fooling everyone except Muggsy, the hero’s cynical valet. “Positively the same dame,” he growls in the final shot, refusing to believe that life is anything but a fix.
Muggsy, though he doesn’t know it, may be Stanwyck’s most perceptive analyst. As he sees her slip from one character to the next, and struggles to get a handle on her basic needs, he is answering the suspicions of the moviegoing public. Stanwyck was a star, a whole star, and nothing but a star, yet what greeted her was a sort of reverential bafflement. Who was this broad? Most people, even now, have a basic, cartoonish notion of Bette Davis; without so much as watching a Davis movie, they know what to expect from those headlamp eyeballs and that lofted rasp. Stanwyck could turn on the chill—her performance opposite Van Heflin and a boyish Kirk Douglas in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) appears to run on liquid nitrogen—but she could also throw out hints of tenderness when you least expected it, and languid little one-liners when they weren’t appropriate. One night, Heflin drives her up a hill to survey Iverstown, the small city that Martha more or less owns, and where she has grown sour—the old, noirish tale of power without joy. He tells her not to look back, and reminds her that Lot’s wife did the same and turned into a pillar of salt. Dry as salt herself, she asks, “What happened to Lot?”
Stanwyck’s greatest strength, in other words—her range—was also the reason that she is impossible to tie down and tame. No genre was beyond her, and no one movie sums her up. She motors from role to role like Heflin cruising into Iverstown, or Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past,” drifting from town to town as though in and out of a fever. You catch “Stella Dallas” on TV and decide that nobody could jerk a tear like Stanwyck. Then on comes “Ball of Fire” and the sight of Sugarpuss, gleaming like fresh paint on the professor’s threshold. “Hi-de-ho!” she cries, and makes that chlk-chlk sound you use to gee up a horse. You think that “The Lady Eve” marks her as the best and most devil-tongued comedienne of her time, up there with Katharine Hepburn and the Rosalind Russell of “His Girl Friday”? Correct, but consider the moment when Henry Fonda, an amateur natural historian, claims that snakes are his life. “What a life!” reads the published screenplay, but that’s not what Stanwyck delivers. “What a life,” she says, with mild wistfulness, as if noting for an instant what a loner this rich boy truly is, and how he might want to be wooed for something other than his cash. Sometimes the sadness flits by so fast that you can sneeze and miss it: In the boxing drama “Golden Boy” (1939), based on a play by Clifford Odets, Stanwyck interrupts a rant from her fiancé (Adolphe Menjou), who is lambasting New York for not being the money fountain that it was in 1928. Stanwyck is lighting a cigarette; she halts, looks up, and murmurs through the cloud of smoke, “My mother died in ’28.”
Is there a glint of actual mother love there, for the Catherine Stevens who died in the winter of 1909? Stanwyck spoke sparingly of her past; history, for her, had begun in Hollywood, and it would end there. She travelled a few times to Europe and loathed everything about it. (“All the charm of the Old World, and the Old World plumbing,” as Lily Powers says in “Baby Face.”) Her career was at its most hectic and fruitful in the thirty-two years between “Ladies of Leisure” and “Clash by Night,” in which she confided to Marilyn Monroe that all she required in a man was “someone to fight off the blizzards and the floods.” In reality, such a fellow never came along, and, after divorcing Taylor, she had to content herself with friendship. There was Frank Sinatra’s ex-wife Nancy, as well as a number of established couples—the Jack Bennys, the Joel McCreas, the William Holdens. In 1954, she shot “Cattle Queen of Montana,” with Ronald Reagan, in Glacier National Park, where the Blackfoot Indians named her Princess Many Victories III. According to Reagan, there was “not one whimper out of Stanwyck” as she gamely did her own stunts and swam in an icy lake. The movie was only her second in color; she looked sporty enough, but, as with many stars of her vintage, the added richness felt superfluous, draining a dram of her mystery. Even Douglas Sirk, the master colorist, stuck to black-and-white when he hired Stanwyck for two of her final melodramas, “All I Desire” and “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956). Sirk found in her “an amazing tragic stillness,” while praising her discretion: “She gets every point, every nuance without hitting on anything too heavily.” The closeup of her tears, in the first of those films, as her character walks up the path to her family home, to the sound of violins, should be the merest hokum, yet it stirs us like the last dying echo from the age of Garbo. And remember: Stanwyck herself never had a family home.
As the movies flickered, Stanwyck, no snob, glided across to television. She hosted “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” which started in 1960 and ran for thirty-six episodes before NBC pulled the plug. Madsen observes that, in introducing the program, she seemed ill at ease; when the call came to be herself, that famous equilibrium broke down—something that Stanwyckians had never witnessed before. Throughout her career, she had been the purest pro: always on time, like a perfect schoolgirl, with her lines down pat and a ready jab at anyone who arrived in lesser shape. Crews adored her, and nervy débutants, like the curly-topped, barely recognizable William Holden in “Golden Boy,” were indebted to her. Occasional chinks show up in the bonhomie; Kirk Douglas claimed that she ignored him in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” and Cyd Charisse said much the same of “East Side, West Side” (1949), although that is more easily excused. After twenty years in the business, Stanwyck had met someone with better legs.
The later years of Stanwyck, up till her death in 1990, at the age of eighty-two, were not the lonely collapse to which so many stars succumb. In “Roustabout” (1964), she ran a carnival and sparred energetically with Elvis (“You’re a cruel boy”). In 1973, she was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, in Oklahoma City, for “Outstanding Contribution to the West Through Motion Pictures,” which isn’t bad for a native of Brooklyn. She appeared in “The Thorn Birds,” lustrously white-haired, clinging to Richard Chamberlain (now, there’s an unlikely couple) and returning to the old Cartesian theme: “Inside this stupid body I am still young, I still feel, I still want, I still dream, and I still love you.” As her TV career progressed, film historians were sent scurrying to their reference books. Was there any other actress who had appeared both in a silent movie—“Broadway Nights,” made three years before “Ladies of Leisure”—and in “Dynasty”? To raise the stakes a little, was there any other actress who encompassed so many chapters of what we take to be the history of Hollywood?
Like many of her generation, and of her stern political persuasion, Stanwyck scorned the unshackled morals of the nineteen-sixties, reluctant to relish the irony that it was the movies of her youth that had broken those shackles in the first place. She had been a dame, a founding member of that trim, yakkety-yak sisterhood which saw no reason that men should rule the roost and no contretemps so sticky that a woman could not oil her way out of it through dialogue alone. “You take a chance the day you’re born. Why stop now?” she asks in “Golden Boy.” Everything about Stanwyck, whatever the mood of the movie, bears a slight graze of screwball, as if, deep down, Ruby Stevens was sly enough to have rumbled mankind for the untrustable species that it was. That is why “Double Indemnity,” though it sweats blood and deals with the lowest of low morals, somehow streams along with the glee of black comedy. The damn thing flows like Mozart. I even worship the leading lady’s wig, with its radioactive spring roll at the front. (“We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington,” the head of Paramount said.) Watch the early scenes in Stanwyck’s home and try not to grin like MacMurray when he first spies her at the top of the stairs, wearing a bath towel and a look of infinite mischief. She gets dressed, for decency’s sake, although, given that her outfit includes high heels with pom-poms and an ankle bracelet engraved with the name Phyllis, it might have been better for MacMurray if she hadn’t. Decency was never dirtier.
After the press screening, Stanwyck said of Phyllis, “I’m afraid to go home with her. She’s such a bitch.” Stanwyck was by any standards a self-made woman, yet here she was, flinching at one of the selves that she had summoned, as though it were no longer her responsibility. When Billy Wilder first offered her the part, she had been no less wary:
I said, “I love the script, and I love you, but I’m a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out cold-blooded killer.” And Mr. Wilder—and rightly so—looked at me and said, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” And I said, “I hope I’m an actress.” He said, “Then do the part.”
In the world according to Barbara Stanwyck, all the mice are men. She was something else, with claws, and her genius was to show us plenty of fur but never let us agree on what that something was—the moll, the missionary, the bad mother, or the Keep Kool Cutie. On the set, she was a paragon of control, yet Capra used to run three or four cameras in an effort to capture her on the first and freshest take, believing that with every repeat she lost the shine of spontaneity. Listen to her in “Clash by Night,” fending off a dolt: “What kind of animal am I? Do I have fangs, do I purr? What kind of jungle am I from? You don’t know anything about me.” No, and it drives us mad. Crazy about you, baby.
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Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993.