What made Barbara Stanwyck a star? Her looks helped, of course, but there were scores of beauties who never got out of the chorus line. She could sling it as well as any other sexpot, but even in her loosest roles she held something back from her costars, and from her customers. She tapped into the neuroses that helped define film noir, but she played her most famous femme fatale as an icy blonde who was as dismissive of her new lover as she was of the victim he was replacing.
The BAMcinématek twelve-film centennial tribute that started on April 25th underscored how varied and remarkable her output was. A self-taught chorus girl who worked her way into Flo Ziegfeld’s stable of dancers, Stanwyck stripped behind opaque scrims in his midnight shows. It beat her previous work as a clerk in department stores, and helped distance herself from her deprived Brooklyn childhood. Still a teenager, she was spotted by playwright Willard Mack, who gave her a showstopping role in The Noose, a hit when it opened on Broadway in 1926. Stanwyck had no real training to draw on when she entered films the following year, and her early roles are negligible. In 1929, she married Frank Fay, a twice-divorced vaudevillian who carved out a niche as an emcee delivering sarcastic commentary on his act and others. An alcoholic with a towering ego, Fay brought Stanwyck with him to Hollywood, where he starred in early sound musicals while she struggled to find work.
Fay convinced director Frank Capra to watch Stanwyck in a screen test from The Noose, beginning a close creative relationship that lasted for five films. Capra considered Stanwyck the best actress he ever worked with, an opinion echoed by most of her other collaborators. The director always took credit for teaching her how to act, but at this point she didn’t take films any more seriously than she did dancing. Stanwyck flitted from studio to studio, unable or unwilling to establish an image or persona. The only thing that seemed to drive her was competition. In Ladies They Talk About (1933), she held her own against a cast of professional hams clawing to take over the screen. Next she made Baby Face, designed by producer Darryl F. Zanuck as the female equivalent to the gangster films he helped establish a few years earlier. Stanwyck plays Lily Powers like a criminal mastermind, manipulating the system for her own purposes. Just as the crooks Cagney and Robinson portrayed tried to fight their way into society, Stanwyck’s character uses her body as an entree into the good life, one that doesn’t require her to be pawed by her father’s customers in a steel-town speakeasy. Sex for her is the same as a holdup for Cagney–a steppingstone to success.
Although drenched with sexual couplings, Baby Face is the least erotic of the so-called pre-Code melodramas. For one thing, Zanuck abandoned the project when he left Warners in a salary dispute. For another, the newly strengthened Production Code office insisted on changes that neutered much of the story. But at the core of the film is the fairly revolutionary idea that for women, sex is just commerce, something to be endured.
Stanwyck would rarely play as brazen a character again, unless it was for comedy. She wandered through the mid-thirties in a series of lackluster programmers at MGM and other studios, grasping after formulas instead of breaking new ground. Although saddled with mediocre material, she was perfecting her craft, honing her skills before her amazing comeback at the end of the decade.
The BAM series includes most of her best films from this period, including the often overlooked Remember the Night (1940), a bittersweet romance written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen. It’s said that Leisen’s work here upset Sturges so much that he insisted on directing his scripts from that point on (something Billy Wilder also did after Leisen changed his script for Midnight). But Remember the Night has something missing from Sturges’s films: genuine sentiment. It is an exquisite blend of emotions and moods, from frothy screwball comedy to existential despair. Playing a cynical pickpocket, Stanwyck is forced to spend the Christmas holidays with Fred MacMurray, the very prosecutor who is trying to convict her. The actress has never been more affecting than in this performance, whether explaining her past to MacMurray in a nightclub, dressing up in an old maid’s wedding gown for a small-town dance, or facing up to the realities of her life after experiencing what happiness could be.
This was the first of four films Stanwyck made with MacMurray; it’s tempting to view their next collaboration, the James M. Cain-based Double Indemnity (1944), as the logical extension of their characters in Remember the Night. An assistant DA gone to seed, dabbling as an insurance adjustor while plotting the perfect crime. An ex-con who lost hope after her one chance at happiness was thwarted. Both of them abandoning the East for California, the land of new beginnings; both cynical enough to see that morality doesn’t help anymore. With a script written in part by Raymond Chandler, it is the film noir all others must live up to.
Stanwyck did genre work as well as anyone; in fact, she had defining roles in screwball comedies, romances, weepies, noir, even Westerns. She worked with Capra for the last time in Meet John Doe (1941), which had a story so depressing that he went through seven endings to try to solve it. Stanwyck’s a reporter in this one, a role she does well enough, although as a rule she didn’t “do” professions, apart from homewrecker or unhappy wife. That’s part of the problem when you’re smarter than everyone around you. What editor would hire a reporter who could replace him so easily?
And it’s a problem Stanwyck faced more and more in her career. In Ball of Fire (1941) she’s a stripper, in Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a killer, and after that Hollywood shunted her into more matronly roles. She didn’t adapt well to the film styles of the 1950s. She never made a movie with the new generation of stars, the Method actors or the last of the studio contract players. She surrounded herself instead with old cohorts in retreads of earlier films. Westerns when filmgoers leaned that way, television when filmgoers disappeared. She had flashes of her old fire in TV series like The Big Valley, but as the years passed her technique became more apparent. She was acting harder, and the strain showed. Perhaps also a streak of bitterness at the realization that men were no longer playthings, but adversaries who had to be kept in line.
But she never lost her grace and dignity, even when reduced to the masochism of Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (1953) or There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), or the taboo eroticism of the television miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983). By that point Capra, Fonda, and others had expressed their admiration in writing for the actress. By then it was also easier to see what Stanwyck accomplished during her career, a career she never seemed to take that seriously, even when she was, for a time, the highest paid actress in the country. Stanwyck devoted little attention to what kinds of roles could shape her stardom even as she effortlessly outclassed her diva contemporaries like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. She may have given the sense of being superior to her films, and her parts, but she never condescended to her audience. Which may be why she never lost the affection of her fans.