Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number.
A handful of others had longer careers—Lillian Gish and Bette Davis come to mind—but few other American actors or actress remained a top ranked star from nearly the beginning to the end of a 60 year career. Barbara Stanwyck—once known as Baby and don’t call her Babs if you know what’s good for you—ranged from pre-code sexpot temptress, bio-pics, screw ball comedy, women’s weeper melodrama, dancer, film noir vixen, middle aged helpless victim, to western matriarch, perfecting each with perfect conviction and believability. She did it all while being compellingly attractive but never a classic movie beauty. And she did it on her own terms without studio drama and temper tantrums of rivals like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Katherine Hepburn.
It wasn’t easy. Hardly anyone started from further down the ladder than Ruby Catherine Stevens born in Brooklyn, New York on July 16, 1907. She was the fifth and youngest child of a working class family. Her father was a Yankee from Massachusetts to whom no old money had ever managed to stick. Her mother was an immigrant of Scottish background by way of Nova Scotia. Her mother died after being knocked from a moving street car when she was just 4 years old. Two weeks later her father took off to work as a laborer on the Panama Canal and was never heard of again. Ruby and her brother Byron fell under the care of Mildred, her older sister by just 5 years until she was old enough to take a job as showgirl.
Ruby was then shuffled between foster homes where she was very unhappy and may have been sexually abused. She ran away repeatedly. During the summers of 1916 and ’17 between school terms she was re-united with Mildred who took her with her on tour. Ruby aped her sister’s numbers back stage and was bitten by the urge to become a performer, something which her sadder but wiser girl sister tried to discourage her from. Spending rare nickels watching her idol Pearl White in the Perils of Pauline and other serials made her want to become what was beginning to be known as a movie star.
At age 14 Ruby left school and never looked back. She took a series of menial job—department store package wrapper, card filer at the telephone company, cutting dress patterns, and music company typist. She was able to support herself and live on her own. The succession of jobs, each a little better than the last, would be mirrored in the characters of her earliest staring films, particularly Baby Face.
As a 16 year old Ziegfeld girl in 1924, by Alfred Cheney Johnston. There was also a nude shot from the same session for Flo Ziegfeld's private collection.
But Ruby’s real ambition was in show business. After auditioning as a dancer at a night club, she was hired for the chorus line in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922 at the age of 16 and signed on again the next year. She never looked back. She worked in various shows and clubs, most frequently at Texas Guinan’s all night after hours clubs, including a stint as a dance instructor at one of Guinan’s clubs that catered to a gay clientele.
In 1926 she got her first break when producer Willard Mack was persuaded to cast a real chorus girl as a chorus girl character in the play The Noose. It was a small but important part. The play failed but Ruby got good notices and it was re-written with her smart talking dame part substantially expanded. At the producer’s suggestion she changed her ordinary sounding name to Barbara Stanwyck—the first name from her character in the play and the last name, which she thought sounded classy from an actress in the play. No word on how that actress liked having her name hijacked. The new and improved version of the play was a hit and ran 9 months.
The next year she became a genuine star in her first Broadway leading role in Burlesque once again playing a tough but vulnerable showgirl. She was a sensation. Pat O’Brian recalled it as the greatest show he ever saw on the Great White Way. Almost immediately Stanwyck began getting film offers. While the play was still running she appeared as fan dancer in her first movie, Broadway Nights.
Stanwyck with her first husband, vaudeville and Broadway comic Frank Fay.
During the run of the show her pal Oscar Levant introduced her to Frank Fay, then the highest paid comic in Vaudeville and famous as the stage creator of the Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. After a brief courtship the couple married in 1928. As soon as Stanwyck’s run in Burlesque was over they headed to Hollywood where Fay had snagged a contract at Warner Bros.
He hit it big in the early color musical The Show of Shows in 1929 and in subsequent big Warner musicals. But by the end of 1931 the first musical craze played out and Fay’s career went into a tail spin. His already heavy drinking turned worse and he was a classic mean drunk. Stanwyck hoped to shore up their shaky marriage with the adoption of a son, Dion. It didn’t work. As Fay’s career faded, Stanwyck’s was on a meteoric rise execrating the tensions.
Stanwyck’s first two 1929 starring pictures, The Locked Door in which she played a self-sacrificing wife out to save the innocent sister of her husband from the man who had nearly ruined her, and Mexicali Rose in which she played and evil schemer out for revenge were only moderate successes. Then Frank Capra at Columbia cast her as the artists model with a past in Ladies of Leisure which became an enormous hit and launched Stanwyck as a first rank movie star. It was also the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship with Capra. Ironically the writer/director at first turned her down the part until Fay called him and intervened, showing him a screen test she had made at Warners.
This opened the door to a string of frank and sexy pre-Production Code films for Stanwyck. The busy actress made 13 films from through 33 including her only appearance with her husband, the comic short The Stolen Jools. In many of these films she played variations on the plucky girl with a past who triumphs over it, is doomed to sacrifice herself because of it, or is hardened by it. The tough New York shop girl and show girl who had endured a botched abortion that left her unable to have children at age 15, slid effortlessly into these parts. She knew these women. She was these women.
Pre-Production Code pot boiler Baby Face made Stanwyck a top star.
Among the most memorable films of this period were, Illicit as a young woman who choose to live with her lover; the self-explanatory Ten Cents a Dance with Ricardo Cortez; Night Nurse in which she played a woman whose way up from the gutter is as nurse who saves two children from being poisoned by an evil chauffeur, Clark Gable; Forbidden which re-united her with Capra in which she was an accidental adulterous who gives birth to an out of wedlock child; the first version of Edna Ferber’s So Big in which she got a rare chance to stretch out from her usual urban waifs on the rise; with Capra again for the Asian exotic The Bitter Tea of General Yen in which she was the fiancé of a missionary who falls in love with the brutal Chinese war lord who kidnaps her and holds her captive, a picture which smashed several sexual and racial taboos; Ladies They Talk About in which she was a hard as nails member of a bank robbery gang sent to prison by an evangelist who loves her; and Baby Face, her most classic pre-code film as the hardened trollop who literally slept her way to the top ruining the lives of four men in the process only to find no happiness at all. The last contained one of Stanwyck’s most memorable lines and the most epic eye roll in cinema history. When asked early on while applying for a job if she has any experience, she replied simply “Plenty.”
After Baby Face came out the Motion Picture Production Code was established and enforced by the Hayes Office. It was a direct attack at the frank sexuality, suggestiveness, and even occasional nudity that had marked many early sound films—the films in which Stanwyck was the unchallenged reigning queen of melodrama. Many expected that the rigid enforcement of the code would end her career. Indeed the Hays office suggested to Warner Bros. and Columbia, the two studios which produced her films, that her mere presence in further films would be cause for extra scrutiny. Instead, it was oddly liberating. Stanwyck could now do a wider variety of film roles and genres demonstrating her supple acting chops in new ways.
Her first post-Code films were transitional, playing similar parts with the suggestive sexuality heavily muted. In Gambling Lady she played a professional gambler who falls for socialite Joel McCrae and must struggle to find social acceptance. In a pre-code film she would probably have been a hostess in a speakeasy—a thinly disguised prostitute or some other form of sexually fallen woman. In Gambling Lady we are led to believe that despite her seedy background she is chaste.
Finally in 1935 Stanwyck broke out of the mold starring in Warner Bros. big budget and highly fictionalized bio pic Annie Oakley. Directed by George Stevens, already famous as “the women’s director” opposite Preston Foster, Stanwyck was dazzling as the back woods sharp shooter who rises to fame and fortune with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show while she and arrogant riffle whiz Foster hide their love for one another so that their supposed rivalry can sell more tickets. The film was filled with tender moments, and spots of comedy.
The same year her tumultuous marriage to Fay ended in divorce. His career by then was in a terminal nose dive and he had made himself one of the most hated men in Hollywood with his arrogant self importance, belligerent drunkenness, and raging anti-Semitism. At home he battered his wife who had shown up on sets more than once with bruises. Stanwyck got custody of their adopted son who she raised with austere authoritarianism and rare displays of affection. He was frequently sent to boarding schools and became completely estranged from his mother as an adult.
Hollywood gossip had it that the Stanwyck and Fay were he models for the classic 1937 film A Star is Born starring Janet Gaynor and Fredrick March, although others thought that Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler were the inspiration.
Stanwyck defied Hollywood expectations by living with younger actor Robert Taylor for three years before Jack Warner demanded that they marry. She considered Taylor to be "the love of my life."
In 1936 Stanwyck met the younger Robert Taylor, considered at the time as “the handsomest man in Hollywood,” on the set of their film His Brother’s Wife an otherwise forgettable melodrama that was a throwback to her earlier damaged woman parts. Stanwyck was leery of marriage after her experience with Fay, so the two began living together as quietly as was possible in Hollywood. The two shared interests in outdoor life—horseback riding, fishing, and hunting—and hyper-conservative politics. Taylor’s devotion to his mother, who he installed in a cottage on the grounds of their ranch house in Brentwood, was from the beginning a source of friction in the relationship.
In 1939 rumors about their living arrangements became public. Studio boss Jack Warner insisted that the couple marry and personally supervised all of the arrangements. Stanwyck always maintained that Taylor was the love of her life but idyllic episodes were interrupted by his reported infidelities and while he was serving as a Navy flying instructor during World War II, she also reportedly had brief affairs.
Meanwhile the late ‘30’s were an opportunity to further display Stanwyck’s versatility. Some of the films of this period, included, The Bride Walked Out, her first out and out romantic comedy; Banjo on My Knee a musical comedy for 20th Century Fox with Joel McCrea and Walter Brennan; Sean O’Casey’s Plough And the Stars directed by John Ford provided an opportunity to really stretch her legs in a gritty drama set during the Easter Rebellion in Dublin; Interns Can’t Take Money with familiar co-star Joel McCrae as the first incarnation of young Dr. Kildare found her as the widow of bank robber in search of her missing child; the memorable Stella Dallas earned her an Academy Award nomination for her emotional performance as a self-sacrificing mother; The Mad Miss Manton was her first screwball comedy and pairing with Henry Fonda; Union Pacific, Cecil B. DeMille’s epic western pairing her Irish Immigrant with Joel McCrea’s rugged hero; and capping the decade with Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy opposite newcomer William Holden—great part but an odd film choice for the sworn arch-conservative.
A brava performance in the tear jerker Stella Dallas earned Stanwyck her first Oscar nod and put her in the ranks of Hollywood's top dramatic actresses with the likes of Bette Davis, Katheryn Heburn, and Joan Crawford.
Yet Stanwyck never let her politics get in the way of a good part in a good film. It was one of the reasons that she was so personally popular in Hollywood beyond the crowd of conservatives who were some of her closest personal friends—Randolph Scott, Robert Young, William Holden, Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, George Murphy, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Bob Hope, Adolphe Menjou, Fred McMurray, and Frank Capra. She was equally close to Hollywood liberals like Henry Fonda, Ronald Regan—yup then a liberal—Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Claude Rains among others. She worked comfortably and respectfully with writers, directors, and actors from both camps.
Stanwyck was adored by all of the directors she worked with for her work ethic and flexibility. Writers scrambled to put words in her pretty mouth. He co-stars liked and respected her—her male leads frequently fell in love with her and the women thought of her as a best friend. Significantly, like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and Judy Garland she was a favorite of the make-up artists, wardrobe assistants, hair-dressers, all of the mostly male craftsmen on the set. In this way she was a perfect small d democrat who treated everyone with equal respect and genuine fondness. She learned the names of their wives and children, remembered birthdays and anniversaries, hung out with them at the craft table and commissary. Holden would later recall that she was the “best loved woman in the business.”
The 1940’s may have been the pinnacle decade of Stanwyck’s career. The decade kicked off in 1940 with her first pairing with Fred McMurray in Remember the Night, a romantic comedy/drama in which prosecutor MacMurray brings shoplifter Stanwyck home to Indiana for Christmas. Then in 1941 she really slipped into high gear with Preston Sturgis’s The Lady Eve as the con woman who falls for her naïve mark played by Henry Fonda; Capra’s populist classic Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper and Brennan; and capped the year off with Howard Hawks’ masterpiece screwball comedy Ball of Fire once again with Cooper.
Stanwyck with Gary Cooper and a gaggle of eccentric professors in Howard Hawks' screwball comedy Ball of Fire.
In 1941 she again teamed with her most frequent co-star McRae for the decades spanning epic The Great Man’s Wife in which she aged from a teen ager to 107 under the direction of William Wellman. The following year she shone opposite the usually stiff George Brent in The Gay Sisters in which as the eldest of three orphaned sisters she stalked and married the rich Brent to preserve the family’s New York mansion only to have him scheme to take over the property for a skyscraper development. She followed that soapy melodrama by returning to her stage roots as stripper in Lady of Burlesque, a great backstage comedy mystery based on a popular novel by Gypsy Rose Lee.
Then in 1944 Stanwyck in blond bangs turned in the most famous performance of all, the cold hearted temptress who lured insurance agent Fred MacMurray to murder in Double Indemnity. The part is considered the pinnacle in film noir villainesses. Stanwyck was nominated again for an Oscar but lost to close friend Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce.
Stanwyck's most iconic role as a coldly calculating blonde temptress leading Fred MacMurray his doom in Double Indemnity.
After that dark outing Stanwyck effortlessly returned to screwball comedy in the 1945 seasonal classic Christmas in Connecticut in which she played a decidedly urban magazine writer who passes herself off as a kind of prototype Martha Stewart and the mistress of a comfortable Connecticut country estate. When a wounded Navy war hero Dennis Morgan who was fixated on her magazine image is sent to visit the phony persona for the Holidays her publisher Sydney Greenstreet scrambles to set her up in a borrowed home. It was one of the best—and last—films of the genre.
In ’46 it was back to film noir mode in The Strange Lives of Martha Ivers with Stanwyck as a powerful business woman chained to a weak husband—Kirk Douglas in his screen debut—by a dark childhood secret shared with Van Heflin who returned from years of hiding to possibly expose the pair. It was a dark, twisted film, almost sado-masochistic but compelling viewing.
The Two Mrs. Carrolls was filmed in 1945 but not released until two years later due to a glut of product in the Warner’s vault. Another noir it pared Stanwyck with Bogart, each playing against type. Bogart is an obsessed artist who may have killed his first wife after painting her as an angel. Stanwyck is his smitten an innocent second wife whose suspicions are raised when her husband begins paying attention to a stunning new and younger woman, Alexis Smith and he begins to paint her as an angel.
Stanwyck was now getting too mature for girl parts, although Warners would continue to try and squeeze her into them, but she was getting ripe for meaty middle age woman parts and a new stage in her career.
Perhaps Stanwyck’s turn as the threatened second Mrs. Carroll let to her casting in the dark, Hitchockesque thriller Sorry, Wrong Number in 1948. Stanwyck played a spoiled, rich invalid who one night accidently overhears a phone conversation that seems to be two men plotting a murder. She desperately tries to interest authorities in her discovery only to find them dismissive of her as a hysterical woman. As she desperately tried to unravel the mystery from her bed using her telephone as clock ticks down there is a desperate race to save the woman from a horrible fate. The part earned Stanwyck another Oscar nomination.
Stanwyck closed out the decade with the adultery and revenge shocker East Side West Side with James Mason as her long time husband tempted by Ava Gardner and she Heflin.
The post war period also saw Stanwyck ramping up her political activism. With husband Robert Taylor she founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) and became an outspoken opponent of supposed Communist infiltration of the movie industry. She became a vigorous supporter of the House Un-American Activity Committee’s hearing on Hollywood. Taylor became the Committee’s first friendly witness and after a dramatic statement portraying himself heroically implicated three people by name without ever actually accusing them of membership in the Communist Party. But that was enough to destroy all three careers. Actor Howard Da Silva was black balled from work in films, on the Broadway stage, and on radio and would not work again for years. Actress Karen Morely never worked again. Screen writer Lester Cole with whom Taylor was personally friendly spent a year in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten and never worked in film under his own name again. Taylor was later shunned by many Hollywood liberals, although his career was unaffected.
Stanwyck followed her husband as a friendly witness but despite making strong anti-Communist declarations, never named anyone which allowed her to avoid some of the backlash Taylor experienced. At the same time the marriage of the couple was under stress due to Taylor’s roving eye and serial affairs including one with the volatile Ava Gardner. In 1951 he asked Stanwyck for a divorce but asked Stanwyck to file the complaint for fear it would damage his career if he were the plaintiff. She was crushed but dutifully complied with the request and the marriage was ended.
After a return to revenge and scheming women flicks, in 1950 Stanwyck was cast in her first western since Union Pacific in Anthony Mann’s The Furries, the story of a tyrannical cattle baron, John Huston and his headstrong daughter that owed more than a passing nod to King Leer. She would find herself in the saddle again. She followed up with the auto racing saga To Please a Lady opposite Clark Gable—not a hit but an interesting paring—and then the odd period piece The Man With a Cloak in which her French refugee seeking help for her fiancée from an old, dying Bonapartist in New York City was rescued from lethal servants by a mysterious, drunken unnamed writer, Joseph Cotton, who may or may not be Edgar Allan Poe.
Stanwyck was the apex of a working class domestic triangle in Clash by Night with Paul Douglas and Robert Ryann
Stanwyck’s most memorable film of the period was the searing 1952 drama Clash By Night. Aging goodtime girl landed good guy fishing boat captain Paul Douglas. He adored her and they have a baby. She gets restless and is pursued by Douglas’s best friend, a free spending movie projectionist, Robert Ryan. Betrayal and remorse ensue. Up and comer Marilynn Monroe had a small supporting role in this rare working class soap.
Titanic, released in 1953 was one of the biggest pictures of that year and demonstrated that Stanwyck still had mega-watt star power. She co-starred with Clifton Webb as an estranged wealthy couple on the doomed liner who have to re-evaluate their relationship and what is really important as the ship sinks. It was on the set of this film that the 44 year old actress met her 22 year old co-star Robert Wagner and began a four year long love affair with him.
In 1954 Stanwyck co-starred in the ensemble drama of corporate intrigue Executive Suite, often considered the best insider look a corporate life and boardroom maneuvering ever put on film, with William Holden, Paul Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Fredrick March, June Allison, Shelley Winters, and Nina Fosh.
The same year she made her fourth and most notorious western, The Cattle Queen of Montana as a rancher cheated of her holdings who recruits a gunslinger/secret Federal agent, Ronald Regan to defeat a nasty cattle baron and his sneaky Indian lackeys. Most memorable for Stanwyck in really tight jeans and packing a pistol.
Westerns, some of them descending to B level, would provide a lot of work through the mid-50’s alternating with modern scheming woman melodramas, the fate of many aging actresses. Various oaters reunited her with previous co-stars including Fred MacMurray and Joel McCrea and culminated in 1957 with what would become something of a cult favorite, Forty Guns directed by Sam Fuller and a preview of the ultra-violent Westerns that he would make a decade later and the Spaghetti western fare. Stanwyck was at her tough, ruthless best opposite another previous co-star, Barry Sullivan.
But film work was drying up. Stanwyck turned without embarrassment to television making many guest appearances beginning with the Ford Television Theater in 1956. In addition to stand-alone teleplays in anthology programs she made multiple guest appearances in Zane Gray Theater, Rawhide, The Untouchables, and Wagon Train. In 1960 she fronted her own anthology series, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, in which she appeared in every episode. She made an astounding 35 half hour episodes in the show’s single season and won an Emmy for her efforts. Unfortunately, anthologies were just going out of fashion and the show was not renewed.
In film Stanwyck was reduced to fifth billing behind Lawrence Harvey, Caupucine, Jane Fonda, and Anne Baxter as a New Orleans madam in the 1962 movie Walk on the Wild Side based on a Nelson Algren novel. Two years later she played a carnival owner who hires and semi-tames surly Elvis Presley in Roustabout.
Taking advantage of the trend for thrillers and horror flicks starring aging A list actresses—think Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland—B-movie horror master William Castle cast Stanwyck in her final big screen performance later that year in The Night Walker pairing her with her ex-husband Robert Taylor.
When Taylor died of lung cancer in 1969, Stanwyck was distraught. Despite his sometimes caddish treatment of her, she told everyone that Taylor was the love of her life.
Stanwyck was the powerful matriarch in ABC's epic western series The Big Valley.
Even if her movie career was over, even bigger stardom lay ahead in TV. In addition to a number of made for TV movies Stanwyck really scored a hit as the family matriarch in the sprawling ensemble western series, The Big Valley. Daring its successful four year run on ABC she appeared in most episodes and in rotation with the other stars including Richard Long, Peter Breck, Lee Majors, and Linda Evans carried the lead in every fifth episode. Stanwyck still looked regal and commanding in all black and on horseback. The show won her a second Emmy.
In 1982 Stanwyck was finally presented an Honorary Academy Award for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.” In her emotional acceptance speech she mentioned William Holden who had just died noting that he had always wanted her to have an Oscar and that she always loved him.
Stanwyck had another triumph in the biggest TV event of 1983, The Thorn Birds, an epic four part mini-series spanning 60 years in the Australian outback and Rome. Stanwyck was once again cast as the matriarch of a sprawling empire. The series also starred Richard Chamberlain as a priest who rises in the church while harboring a forbidden love with Rachel Ward. Stanwyck won her third Emmy, this time for Best Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie. During the filming of a climatic wild fire scene Stanwyck inhaled special-effects smoke which caused bronchitis and damaged her lungs, already affected by heavy cigarette smoking since the age of nine. It was the beginning of a slow decline in her health.
In 1985 Stanwyck returned to series television with three appearances on the prime time soap Dynasty which set up the spin off series The Colbys the next year. She co-starred with Charlton Heston, Katherine Ross, Emma Sands, and Ricardo Montalban. Trooper Stanwyck was uncharacteristically unhappy on the set and left the show after its first year. Her departure probably contributed to it being cancelled the next year. It proved to be her last part.
Stanwyck was now in declining health. In 1987 she accepted the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award on a nationally broadcast salute hosted by ultra-liberal Jane Fonda who she had known since childhood.
Stanwyck acknowledging her American Film Institute Life Time Achievement award in 1987.
Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990 of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age 82 in Santa Monica, California. At her request there was no funeral service and her remains were cremated and the ashes scattered from a helicopter over Lone Pine, California, where she had made some of her westerns.
She was widely mourned in Hollywood and is now revered as one of the greatest female stars of all time.
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