July 16, 1907– Barbara Stanwyck:
“A star is only as good as her last picture.”
When queried about my favorite male and female stars of Hollywood’s First Golden Age, I have no hesitation in announcing Barbara Stanwyck as my female choice (with apologies to Irene Dunn and Myrna Loy).
Stanwyck, born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, possessed an unusual beauty and a distinctive husky voice. She was an extremely versatile actor, moving easily between Melodramas, Thrillers, Westerns, and Screwball Comedies. The buzz in the industry has always been that she was wonderful to work with, professional, fun on the set, noted for being especially kind to the crew and the extras, and she never behaved like the big star that she was.
Stanwyck had a career that lasted six decades, with over 100 films, bringing film fans a strong, realistic screen presence. She was a favorite of directors Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra. After a short but notable career as a stage actor in the late 1920s, she made 93 films before smartly turning to television with The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961), The Big Valley (1966) and The Thorn Birds (1983), where she made-out with the very gay Richard Chamberlain.
As an actor Stanwyck could be, by turns, salty or sweet; vulnerable or tough; funny or tragic; but always totally unique and uncommonly intelligent. She brought madcap comedic glamour to The Lady Eve (1941), played a tough-minded feminist in the weepy Stella Dallas (1937), and a dangerous femme fatale in film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). She could even sing and dance, appearing on stage in 1922 and 1923 versions of The Ziegfeld Follies.
In 1934, the Hayes Code, began to strictly enforce their morality on Hollywood to try and clean up the “indecency” from films. Everything from swearing and drug use to childbirth and interracial relationships were white washed from the movies. The Code encouraged happy endings. One of the films that initiated this puritanical policing was the gritty Night Nurse (1931), which features Stanwyck in lingerie, with attempts to murder children, and a dead Clark Gable. It is in regular rotation on TCM. You really should catch it.
I appreciated so many of her films, but one is special to me, certainly in my Top 10 Of All Time, Ball Of Fire (1941), where she plays opposite my male choice for favorite male star, Gary Cooper. I am also fond of her husband killer, Phyllis Dietrichson, in Double Indemnity; her magazine columnist caught up in a series of white lies in the holiday romantic comedy Christmas In Connecticut (1945); and the terrorized wife in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
An orphan at four-years-old, Stanwyck never went to high school. She began performing out of necessity when she was 14-years-old. Stanwyck invested her money smartly, eventually becoming one of the richest women in the USA.
“I knew that after 14 I’d have to earn my own living, but I was willing to do that… I’ve always been a little sorry for pampered people, and of course, they’re ‘very’ sorry for me.”
“I’ve known women who plodded through life, but the women I knew did their plodding on the pavement, not the soil. I know very little about the simple life. I’m a product of crowded places and jammed-up emotions, where right and wrong weren’t always clearly defined and life wasn’t always sweet, but it was life.”
Stanwyck married twice. The first time was to Broadway star Frank Fay who starred opposite her in the immensely successful play, Burlesque (1927). Their marriage was rough, to say the least. When he moved to Hollywood with Stanwyck, Fay, a vaudevillian, was unable to parlay his success on Broadway to the screen, while Stanwyck’s stardom was predestined. Fay was easily enraged and he would strike his young wife when he was drunk. Director William Wellman and writers Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell used their relationship for the basis for their screenplay of A Star Is Born (1937).
Stanwyck’s second marriage was to stunning leading man Robert Taylor. After appearing together in His Brother’s Wife (1936), Taylor and Stanwyck set up household together without the benefit of matrimony. An outraged Louis B. Mayer insisted on a wedding and put together a ceremony for the pair of popular stars in 1939. Their large ranch with horses and a rustic home on Mandeville Canyon Road in LA’s Brentwood section is still referred to as The Robert Taylor Ranch.
In 1950, when the Taylors divorced, the rumors swirled, especially because both actors were known for having affairs with people of the same sex. Although she rebuffed all questions about her sexuality or her marriages, most of Hollywood believed that neither Stanwyck nor either of her husbands was straight. It seems that she did have an affair with actor Robert Wagner, when he was just 22-years-old and Stanwyck was 45, so I suppose the bisexual label works best for her. Wagner writes very fondly of their time together in his memoir Piece Of My Heart (2008).
In my research, I don’t find many girls named as Stanwyck’s female lovers. She seems to have been both discreet and well-loved by those in an industry where discretion and affection are hard to come by. There were the usual suspects including Joan Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead, not all that impressive, after all, they both fucked me.
Wildly popular among her peers and with audiences, Stanwyck continued working into the early 1980s, but when she retired she became a recluse. A smoker since she was nine-years-old, pulmonary disease got her in early 1990. There was no funeral, according to her wishes. Her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, where her popular television series The Big Valley and many of her Western films were made.
“Career is too pompous a word. It was a job, and I have always felt privileged to be paid well for what I love doing.”
Stanwyck was no fan of President Franklin Roosevelt. Her philosophy was that she had risen above her disadvantaged beginnings to achieve success, so others should be able to prosper without government assistance. I guess that part of Republicanism has not changed. In 1944, she became an original member of the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation of American Ideals (MPA). Their mission statement was: “To combat subversive methods used in the industry to undermine and change the American way of life”. The group opposed both Communist and Fascist influences in Hollywood. She publicly supported the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and Robert Taylor testified as a friendly witness before the committee. Stanwyck wasn’t the only Conservative Republican from Hollywood’s Golden Age that I love despite their Republicanism: fun couple Randolph Scott and Cary Grant, Robert Young, William Holden, Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, Frank Capra, and her Double Indemnity co-star, Fred MacMurray were all staunch conservatives. Plus, Gary Cooper. That’s right, my two favorite movie stars were Republicans! What can you do? I mean, Ethel Merman was a Republican!
If you want to know more about Barbara Stanwyck, and you really should, try Steel-True (2013) the massive, but engrossing, two volume bio by Victoria Wilson.