By 1939 Alfred Hitchcock was a famous British director, and he wanted to come to America. Knowing his talent, producer David O. Selznick took time out of his day making Gone With the Wind to lure Hitch into signing a contract with Selznick International Pictures.
It’s hard to imagine two more different people working together than Selznic and Hitch. Selznic was obsessed with every detail, and saw every film he made as an epic, a one-of-a-kind crown jewel. He meddled in every piece—micromanaging the scriptwriting, the directing, the costuming. He wrote epic memos berating his staff for creative decisions he disagreed with and thought nothing of throwing out a raft of complete work only to start again. He did want to make movies on an assembly line like the other studios. He wanted one-of-kind handcrafted films. Though he felt he thrived in chaos, it is no exaggeration to say that he nearly killed himself making Gone With the Wind. When caught in a creative fever, he would work day and night for months or years on end. Though he made the greatest movie of all time, he burned himself out early and was more or less out of the picture making business by age fifty.
Hitch, by contrast, was a deliberate plodder. He thought out every scene in advance, and thus his shoot on set was clean and efficient. He hated chaos. He demanded absolute authority in matters of directing, but stayed out of script and production decisions that were not in his job description.
It was a collaboration that couldn’t last. But for the few years they held it together, Selznick and Hitch made some excellent films, the first and finest of which is Rebecca.
Rebecca is a masterpiece. A timeless tale of mystery and romance, it is one of the worthiest Best Picture Winners in Oscar history. And because watching the mystery unfold is the chief pleasure of this film, I won’t spoil a bit of the ending or key plot points.
The film opens in the French Riviera, where a young, orphaned woman played by Joan Fontaine is swept off her feet by widower Maxim DeWinter, an older but dashing man. After a courtship of only a few days, Maxim proposes marriage. Deeply naive and in love, the woman accepts. After a happy, carefree honeymoon, Maxim takes his young bride home to Manderly, a famous and ancient old family mansion by the sea.
In Manderly, our heroine is isolated, left alone for long stretches in the big empty house, and Maxim falls into extended stony silences. Though Maxim never mentions his first wife, everyone else is quick to tell our heroine how he adored his first wife, Rebecca.
That’s right. Joan Fonatine is not Rebecca. She is the unnamed heroine of the story, referred to only as the second—and apparently inferior—Mrs. DeWinter. (That bit of brilliance is a credit to Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, where the second Mrs. DeWinter is the narrator of a tale that does not bear her name.)
Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, adored Rebecca. According to her new sister-in-law, Rebecca threw the best parties, knew the best people, and wore the best clothes. She knew how to dance, flirt, charm, host a party and run an estate like Manderly.
Our narrator doesn’t have a clue where to start.
Thanks to Hitch’s deft camera work and a haunting score, the audience begins to suspect that everything with Rebecca’s memory is not as it seems. We begin to somehow understand the dread and terror our heroine feels at the sight of Rebecca’s stationery in her writing desk. When Mrs. Danvers lovingly paws Rebecca’s lingerie and monogrammed pillows, her coldness toward the second Mrs. DeWinter takes on a decidedly sinister air.
The audience asks the question the second Mrs. DeWinter is afraid to ask herself.
Is Maxim haunted by his wife’s accidental death…or something more ominous?
It’s triumph owes its greatness first to Daphne DuMaurier and her sublime gothic novel of the same name. Then to David O. Selznic, who insisted Hitch hew as close to the source material as the production code would allow. And to Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a story about a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife from becoming melodramatic schlock and instead has the audience tensing as she turns every corner in the big empty house she can’t make a home. And finally credit goes to Joan Fontaine, who was believable and sympathetic as a woman who feels so achingly inferior she is afraid to admit to her housekeeper when she breaks a decorative china cupid.
You pull out any four of these pieces and the whole puzzle falls apart.
Together, you have that Hollywood magic.
Rebecca was released in 1940, not 1939. So why have I interrupted the Greatest Year in Movies to discuss Hitch’s first American hit?
Today Netflix is releasing their Rebecca remake starring Lily James in the Joan Fontaine role, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. I’ve gushed all over Selznick and Hitch’s film, but with this casting, I’m excited to see the remake. For all their brilliance, Hitch and Selznick had their hands tied by the production code—they had to water down the novel’s ending, and I think Maxim and the heroine did their best communicating in the bedroom. With the freedom of modern filmmaking, I’m excited to see what they will do with DuMaurier’s unforgettable tale.
Can Netflix recreate the magic and bring something new to this classic romance?
*You can watch Hitch’s original Rebecca for free on YouTube here.
The Women turns on a gimmick—no men appear in the film. It boasts the trio of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell in the leading roles.
The screenplay is by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman), based on the popular play written by Clare Boothe. It is directed by a man, the delightful George Cukor who was known as the “women’s director,” and one we’ll meet again in future films.
And yet the joke on the poster is that the movie filled with 135 women is “all about men.”
This isn’t true. Though the main plot line is a fight over a man (the entirely offscreen Mr. Stephen Haines), the film is an exploration of women’s relationships.
The lead actresses in this comedy were in very different phases of their careers.
The wonderful Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, the happily married wife and mother who discovers her husband is carrying on an affair with a shopgirl. Shearer was nearing the end of her career and The Women is her last significant film.
Joan Crawford is deliciously devious as Crystal Allen, the ruthless shopgirl in the husband stealing business. Crawford was in the middle of her long career, still one of MGM’s top stars and six years away from her comeback in Mildred Pierce.
And Rosalind Russell stole the show as Mary Haines’ friend and an insufferable gossip. Russell was a relative newcomer and a year away from her star making turn in His Girl Friday with Cary Grant.
(You can also get your first glimpse at a very young Joan Fontaine, whose performance here shows why she was cast as the naive and unsophisticated Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.)
Mary Haines is the last one to know of her husband’s infidelity, and learns of it from the woman who does her nails, rather than any of her wide circle of friends who have been gossiping about it for days. The film tracks how Mary loses Stephen to Crystal and ultimately gains him back again with the help of her friends.
But make no mistake—this is no feminist manifesto.
When Mary first discovers her husband’s infidelity, she is ready to confront him and perhaps divorce him. Yet her mother’s advice is to pretend she knows nothing about it, continue being the perfect wife, and wait until Stephen gets it out of his system.
(You don’t forget you’re in 1939 when you’re watching this film.)
She does confront Crystal, and the movie is a delightful romp of gossipy harpies, wild divorceés, and vicious catfights.
It’s a funny yet quite unflattering view of women.
I recommend it heartily.
And despite all the real progress women have made in the world since 1939, there are some uncomfortable truths about women—and men—that are as true today as they were in Clare Booth’s day. It blunts it with humor, of course, but The Women points out that sometimes your friends are thrilled by your misfortune. That though we all disavow spreading ugly rumors, most relish delivering a juicy morsel of gossip to someone not yet in the know. And that when men reach a certain age, their eyes—if not their hands—often stray to novel (and younger) flesh.
It’ll make you laugh. If you put aside 2020 values, it’ll make you laugh even more.
For people who don’t see the point in watching movies that were new when their grandmother was a child, it can be difficult to explain their appeal. As Dr. Phil says, “you either get it or you don’t.” There’s the fashion—the hats, the cigarettes, the dressing gowns. The glamour of the old Hollywood stars that have that something that still draws you in. The mystique of black and white.
All this is true. But old movies are also a treasure hunt, and sometimes they throw up a nugget that is so spectacular it reminds you these films are time capsules and history as much as entertainment. Something that hits a 2020 audience much different than a 1939 audience.
There’s such a moment in The Women—it comes near the end of the film, when Mary and her mother are discussing the benefits of living alone.
Mary’s mother says, “Heaven knows it’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
The throwaway line is played for a minor laugh. It goes without saying that in 1939, the swastika was not yet a universally denounced symbol of hate and genocide. Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, of course, and World War II would begin that same year. (Though U.S. involvement would not begin for several years.) It shows how quickly the world can change—and perhaps how the United States had buried its head in the sand at what it initially saw as Europe’s private affair.
It’s a moment that made me sit up straight and bark out a stunned laugh of surprise. It’s not funny, of course.
But then again, in 1939 it was. These films are a product of their time, the same as the films we see today.
It makes me wonder what we’re laughing at today that will make audiences cringe in eighty years. Not the stuff that is deliberately provocative—as I don’t believe the swastika line was in The Women. The stuff we’re not even blinking an eye at that will make the folks of 2101 happy they don’t live in the unenlightened, backward world of 2020 that we believe is so modern. They’ll marvel at how slow paced and simple our fast and crazy modern world is.
Yes, even with our contentious election and pandemic and racial unrest. Knowing how the story ends, they’ll smear over 2020 with the grease of nostalgia, just as we do with the movies of 1939. For even with their glamorous hats and dressing gowns, that generation lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression.
Perhaps this is too serious a blog for a film that is really just a rollicking good time and should be enjoyed as such. It’s a movie that highlights the talents of three major stars and a director, and is a worthy jewel in the crown of 1939.
(And please, don’t bother with the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan. Trust me on this.)
In 1939, all the stars aligned in Hollywood. There were 365 films released that year, and an astronomical number of them became classics. If you found someone who knew next to nothing about classic cinema and asked them to name as many old movies as they could think of, there is no doubt they would list one—probably more—released in 1939.
By 1939, the talkies had hit their stride. With ten years of practice, the first wave of Hollywood directors, writers, and stars were at their peak. The production code had cleaned up the filth, making movies respectable. Many great European filmmakers fled Hiter’s encroaching Nazism and brought their talents to Hollywood.
Snuggled between the Depression and the start of World War II, eighty million people a week went to watch their favorite stars in black and white. With no television, the big screen was the only screen. On any given week, six out of every ten people went to the movies. Compare that to one in ten today (or zero in ten since the pandemic hit.) For your twenty-three cent ticket, you got a short film, a cartoon, a newsreel, and two feature films.
For part V of this blog, we’ll revisit the best of the best from 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.
And where else would we start than with Bette Davis?
Davis released four films in 1939, but Dark Victory is undoubtedly the best.
Honing her craft since 1931, by Dark Victory Davis has come into her own. She plays Judith Traherne, a rich young socialite who discovers she has a fatal brain tumor.
Judith Trahern displays everything we want in a Bette Davis character—the hip first walk, the clipped speech, those silver dollar eyes, the endless smoking and fidgeting.
Everything about Bette Davis—and Judith Trahern—demands your undivided attention.
Judith falls in love with her doctor, who conceals her fatal condition from her. In one of the film’s best scenes, Judith had discovered the truth of her illness. She takes temporary refuge from facing her impending early death by raging over her doctor’s (and fiance’s) lies.
At lunch, when it is time to order, a drunk Judith declares that she’ll have a “large order of prognosis negative.”
The look on the doctor’s face says it all. Busted.
But what makes the film special is the second half. Judith doesn’t just wait to die—she lives.
And when Judith’s death comes, she rises to meet it. She sends away those who love her. Blind, she walks up the stairs and crawls into bed. Facing her fate with solitary dignity will be her dark victory over death.
Born in Brooklyn in 1907, Barbara Stanwyck was orphaned at age four when her mother was knocked off a streetcar and killed and her father took off for a job digging the Panama Canal and never returned.
She was raised primarily by her eight-year-old sister Mildred and grew up in a series of what she called “impersonal” foster homes.
She didn’t like teachers or guardians telling her what to do. She understood early that if she worked hard and earned her own money she could call her own shots.
At fourteen she quit school and got a job in a Brooklyn department store. She would never again depend on anyone for financial support.
At fifteen she became a chorus girl. At twenty she had her first leading role on Broadway. At twenty-two she appeared in her first Hollywood film in a starring role.
She never looked back. And she called her own shots until the day she died.
Except, perhaps, for the seven years of her marriage to her first husband, Frank Fay. She’d had early success on Broadway, but Stanwyck was terribly shy, and twenty-one years younger than her successful Broadway star husband.
Fay liked having an admiring protege for a wife, and for a time he did all he could to advance her career. Their fortunes reversed in Hollywood, as Stanwyck’s movie career soared while Fay’s never got off the ground.
Fay dealt with his jealousy by drinking and knocking his wife around. Stanwyck did all she could to save the marriage—including bankrolling several failed Frank Fay Broadway projects and adopting a child, but was left no choice but to divorce him in 1935.
One star fades, another is born.
Stanwyck and Fay’s marriage was widely rumored to be a source of inspiration for the often-remade 1937 film A Star Is Born.
Love had burned her once. It would burn her again.
* * *
In an extremely unusual move for the time, Barbara Stanwyck did not sign a long term contract with any studio. This allowed her to retain much more control over her roles than the average star of the era, and is why she was able to show such range and versatility in the characters she played.
But she had to forgo the security and comfort of the long term contract. MGM, especially, coddled their top contract stars. Louis B. Mayer fancied himself a father figure and the MGM stars his children. He managed their personal lives, kept embarrassing episodes out of the newspapers, and talked many of his children out of salary raises.
Stanwyck hadn’t had a father since she was four and didn’t need one now. She didn’t confuse colleagues with family. She’d clean up her own messes and negotiate her own salaries, thank you very much.
In 1944, the Treasure Department confirmed she earned more money than any other woman—not actress, but woman—in America.
(Though it must be said that she did consent to Louis B. Mayer’s insistence that she and Robert Taylor marry after a damaging article noted that she and Taylor lived next to one another and played house without having actually tied the knot. This same article sped along the marriage of one Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. But nothing in Stanwyck’s history suggests she would’ve married Robert Taylor if she really hadn’t wanted to.)
The other advantage of having a single studio backing your career?
Come Oscar time, studios campaigned hardest for their contract players. (Another freelancer of the era was Cary Grant, another Old Hollywood legend who never won an Oscar.)
* * *
In 1936, Robert Taylor starred with Loretta Young in Private Number. He was already a well-known heartthrob but still inexperienced enough that success was a novel thrill. He took his new girlfriend Barbara Stanwyck to see his name in lights atop a theater marquee.
“The trick is to keep it there,” she said. ^
Taylor and Stanwyck were married from 1939-1952. Stanwyck was very much in love with Taylor, and made some of her best movies during this period. Because Stanwyck and Taylor were so private, it is hard to know exactly what went wrong in their marriage, but Taylor reportedly had affairs with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner that deeply wounded Stanwyck. But the core of the matter was that Taylor wanted a wife who put him before her career and doted on him.
No matter that Robert Taylor was the love of her life—Stanwyck could never be that woman.
Love had burned her twice. She wouldn’t give it a third chance.
* * *
Life had left its marks on her, but she kept them covered up.
She was reticent with the press, believing that talking about real or perceived scandals only added fuel to the fire. She had few close friends, and except during her marriage to Robert Taylor, avoided most of the Hollywood social scene, preferring to stay home and read. She kept most people at arm’s length.
She never talked about her past, even to those closest to her.
She would only say that as a child what she longed for most was a warm coat.
She believed in the American dream. She had lived it—dragging her four-year-old self out of a Brooklyn gutter to the top of the Hollywood Hills.
She prized self-reliance above all else and never indulged in self-pity. She could be fiercely loyal, but she expected absolute loyalty in return. She was not one to sacrifice endlessly for others.
She fought hard for—and received—custody of her adopted son after her divorce from Frank Fay, but she had no model for motherhood. In an overzealous quest not to spoil him, she neglected and alienated him. She resented that he did not make the most of opportunities she never had at his age. Eventually she cast him off to a succession of boarding schools and they were irrevocably estranged by the time he was in his early twenties.
* * *
And yet the tales of her professionalism, humor, and generosity on set are legendary.
Without fail, she showed up on time and with the entire script memorized. She rarely flubbed a scene, or even missed a word. She didn’t second guess her hair and makeup people, and continually amazed them when she walked onto the set without even checking their work in a mirror. She stood around in fur coats in hundred degree heat instead of changing between scenes so that filming wouldn’t be slowed down if the director needed her in a shot. She often didn’t use stand-ins, knowing the cameraman’s work was easier without a body double. She lived to do her own stunts, many of which were quite dangerous.
Quote after quote from directors and fellow actors talk about how rare it was for someone who was such a star to be so unaffected, low drama, and cooperative on the set.
She had great affection for the crew, and knew the names of everyone down to the electricians and the prop managers. She never put herself on a pedestal, believing she was no more or less important to the success of a film than anyone else She was quick to share credit for her successes, and took full blame for her failures.
In return, directors and crews absolutely adored her. They called her The Queen.
She was generous with younger actors, working with them on films and not overpowering them in their scenes. She worked with William Holden in 1939’s Golden Boy, his first picture. He was nervous and not performing well, and was about to be fired, which likely would’ve ended his career before it began. Stanwyck fought for him to remain, and ran lines with him in her dressing room every night after filming ended. Holden was devoted to her for the rest of his life.
* * *
So what did she do with all those dark places hidden within her heart?
All the bitterness braided through the success. The regrets, the heartbreak, the fairness fate had never shown her in her youth.
She did not rage at those who had wronged her, or command attention on set with outrageous demands. She did not thirst after press coverage, good or bad. She did not even confide in friends.
She never gave herself over to addictions, never lost herself in booze, food, sex, or pills.
What did she do?
She waited for the cameras to roll, and then she let it all out for the world to see.
“Stanwyck doesn’t act a scene,” said director Frank Capra, who used Stanwyck more than any other actress, “she lives it.”
The woman who never loosened the reins on her emotions could rage, laugh, suffer, whine, and cry in the guise of someone else.
As Capra also said: “She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped.”
* * *
She gave Hollywood a master class in aging well.
When her hair went grey, despite all the howling about how it would ruin her career, she refused to dye it. As honest and direct with herself as she was with everyone else, she had no illusions of remaining forever young.
When she aged out of a particular role, she let it go and kept going forward. She felt that that nothing was more pathetic than a woman chasing her lost youth.
This flexibility was the key to the second half of her long career.
One year at a time, she went from a few strands of grey to a head of prematurely white hair that became her trademark in her later years. That gorgeous white hair, along with her figure, which had not changed nearly as much from her twenties, made her a more handsome woman than any dye job or makeup could have accomplished.
When the good film parts dried up for good in 1965, she turned her attention to television and finally found the juicy western role she’d long coveted: Victoria Barkley, matriarch on The Big Valley. The show ran 112 episodes over four seasons, with Stanwyck appearing in every episode. At sixty-two, she was doing her own stunts, gaining a whole new audience, and looking better than any of her contemporaries.
And still she kept going.
* * *
So you want the case for why Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress to never win an Oscar? Here it is:
Barbara Stanwyck “kept it there” for nearly sixty years. She starred in eighty-one films, with top billing in all but two.
I covered six of her best films in this blog: Baby Face (1933, covered in Part II on the pre-code films), Stella Dallas (1937), The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
These are universally considered some of her best films—but I could’ve made my case with the films I left on the cutting room floor: as the spunky sharpshooter in Annie Oakley (1935), a cynical shoplifter softened by love in Remember the Night (1940), the intrepid reporter who inspires the nation in Meet John Doe (1941), and the stoically suffering wife of a philandering husband in the underappreciated East Side, West Side (1949.)
She was the third woman (behind Bette Davis and Lillian Gish) to win the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
She acted more, better, and longer than nearly anyone who ever won the Best Actress statuette.
The lack of an Oscar wasn’t a knock on Barbara Stanwyck’s career.
It was an embarrassment to the Academy.
An award that celebrates excellence in acting that had not recognized Barbara Stanwyck’s efforts was an award not worth winning.
In 1981, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences redeemed itself by awarding Barbara Stanwyck with an honorary Oscar for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”
At seventy-four, she had finally climbed to the top of the mountain.
She had done it all, seen it all, and now won it all.
And still she kept going.
* * *
At her age, parts were hard to come by, and it was unlikely Stanwyck would ever get another good one.
And then came Mary Carson and The Thorn Birds.
The Thorn Birds was not a feature film, but an eight-hour made-for-tv miniseries that aired over four nights on ABC in 1983. It was based on Colleen McCullough’s 1977 blockbuster novel of the same name. The Thorn Birds is a sexy, soapy tale of forbidden love, and remains the second-most watched miniseries in the history of television, behind only 1977’s Roots.
And there was seventy-five year old Barbara Stanwyck as Mary Carson, stealing every scene in episode one and lighting the fuse on a plot that would enthrall the nation.
Mary Carson is the wealthy owner of Drogheda, a sheep station in the Australian Outback. She is bitter, lonely, and infatuated with the young and handsome Ralph de Bricassart, a priest serving in the Outback as punishment for an unknown transgression.
Mary amuses herself by dangling her fortune in front of Ralph, who humors her in hopes she will bequeath her considerable estate to the church and catapult him from exile into a cardinalship
Unlike the others, who see him only as a humble priest, Mary sees through to his burning ambitions and his infatuation with young Meggie Cleary.
Barbara Stanwyck is sensational. She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance, and these were no consolation prizes, but earned solely by the merits of her work in the series. Her Mary Carson is cutting, cruel, and yet Stanwyck infuses her with just enough vulnerability and charm that we can’t quite hate her. Most impressive is her lusting after a man nearly fifty years her junior comes off deliciously predatory instead of pathetic.
Ralph learns too late she is as formidable an enemy as he will ever face.
In one of Mother Nature’s best plot twists, the crew had to age Stanwyck with make-up for her final scenes. The seventy-five year old Stanywck, who had refused to wage a war on aging looked too young to portray a seventy-five year old Mary Carson.
Both Stanwyck and Mary Carson know they are nearing the end of the road. When Mary Carson makes her final knockout speech about how she is still young inside her decaying body, it is hard to know if it is Carson or Stanwyck speaking.
One last trip to the mound, and Stanwyck still had her fastball.
Ever perfect and prepared, she did the scene in one take, and the bowled over cast and crew gave her a standing ovation.
It was the finest possible coda to an incredible career.
^ From “Stanwyck” by Axel Madsen
All Frank Capra quotes from “Starring Miss Stanwyck” by Ella Smith
By 1948, Barbara Stanwyck had made fifty-six films. She’d played gold diggers, murderers, adulteresses, and burlesque queens. She’d made screwball comedies, melodramas, film noir, mysteries, and romances.
For her fifty-seventh film, she played something entirely new and completely unforgettable.
Sorry, Wrong Number was a film version of a hugely popular radio show. It tells the story of Leona Stevenson, a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on the telephone and over the course of the film discovers she is the intended victim.
Leona Stevenson—neurotic, weak, and waiting for rescue—was quite a departure from the go-get-’em dames Stanwyck normally played.
The plot is outrageous nearly to the point of lunacy, Leona Stevenson is a thoroughly unlikeable woman, and half the film is Leona in bed, talking frantically on the telephone as she pieces together the murder plot—and the possibility of her husband’s involvement—together.
It shouldn’t work.
And yet it does.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Leona was a vain, spoiled young woman who has grown into a shrewish wife. She married a man beneath her, and has trapped him into a lifestyle he cannot afford without her father’s money. When she doesn’t get her way, she throws fits that aggravate her weak heart. Yet Stanwyck has a way of infusing even this woman with a depth that makes the audience understand and root for her.
All the while, alarm bells are going off in the minds of the audience. Is Leona really about to be murdered, or is this another of her neurotic episodes? Does her husband have some hand in the plot? Why? Does she really have a weak heart?
Though the film was directed by Anatole Litvak, the story has a Hitchcockian feel. The suspense is built masterfully through the flashbacks, booming music, and Leona’s fear that spills into paralyzing hysteria.
The ending—which I will not spoil here—will leave you breathless. The world is filled with kids who saw this movie on television and grew into adults forever afraid of a ringing phone.
Maybe that’s why we all started texting.
Stanwyck earned her fourth Oscar nomination for the role of Leona Stevenson. Once again she competed in a field of legends with fellow nominees Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne, and Olivia de Havilland. She ultimately lost to her friend Jane Wyman for her role playing a mute in Johnny Belinda.
Stanwyck was forty-one years old with fifty-seven films under her belt. Twenty years in the movies and by any measure she’d had a damn good run. When she was starting out in the business, she’d told herself she would retire at forty. That’s what many of her contemporaries did—Irene Dunne, Garbo, Norma Shearer all more or less hung it up at forty. Her marriage to Robert Taylor was on the rocks, and might have been saved had she curbed her ambition. She was going prematurely grey and didn’t want to dye her hair.
She would never get another shot at the Best Actress Oscar.
But Barbara Stanwyck quit the movie business? Not a chance.
Sure, she was twenty years into her career, but it turned out she had nearly forty more to go.
And several of her most iconic performances—on the big screen and the small—were in a future she couldn’t yet see.
When I found a battered DVD copy of Christmas in Connecticut in a secondhand bookstore, the clerk told me it was his mother’s favorite Christmas movie.
I can see why.
Elizabeth Lane is the ultimate wife and mother. In her popular columns for Smart Housekeeping, she writes of her bucolic life on a farm in Connecticut with her husband and baby. She spends evenings beside a crackling fire in her stone hearth. She uses a spinning wheel and scours the local antique shops for the perfect rocking chair.
But mostly, she cooks.
Her recipes have sent Smart Housekeeping’s circulation soaring, and sailor Jefferson Jones salivates over them while slurping tasteless broth in a hospital while recovering from war wounds. He dreams of an old-fashioned Christmas dinner with all the trimmings at Mrs. Lane’s table.
Through the magic of movies, his nurse just happens to know the head of publishing at Smart Housekeeping, and she’s soon arranged for Jefferson to spend his first Christmas out of the hospital at the Lane Farm in Connecticut.
So far, so good.
Then we get our first look at the Martha Stewart of 1945.
Barbara Stanwyck is dressed in a sleek white blouse, picking at a breakfast of sardines on a coffee saucer and pounding away at a typewriter. The radiator hisses, and her undergarments are hanging on a line on her balcony that overlooks the heart of New York City.
Last time I checked farm wives didn’t run around in wardrobes designed by Edith Head.
Her panicked editor arrives with the news that their boss invited a sailor to her home for Christmas.
The problem, of course, is obvious: Though her publisher doesn’t know it, Elizabeth Lane is a fraud.
She has no farm, no husband, no baby.
And she can’t cook.
But she just bought a gorgeous mink coat that’ll cost her six month’s salary, and she’s willing to do anything to keep it and her job.
Which means this bachelor girl needs a farm, a husband, and a baby pronto.
Christmas in Connecticut is a frothy, fun Christmas romantic comedy. The best scenes of the movie are when Stanwyck, the career girl, has to pretend to be the perfect farm wife and mother despite the fact that she can’t cook, doesn’t know how to change a diaper, and is completely bewildered when a cow shows up in the kitchen.
Dennis Morgan plays the charming sailor who finds himself falling in love with the hostess he believes is married. Stanwyck’s character heartily reciprocates the sentiment, and the plot thickens before resolving itself quite happily.
Stanwyck is as charming and convincing as ever in the role.
Good Christmas movies hold a special place in our heart, because we watch them over and over during the holiday season. They are meant to be watched with out of town family members, or as a rest from a day shopping at the mall. They reinforce—either with heavy sentiment, or, as in Christmas in Connecticut—with a light touch—the importance of love and family. They can make you nostalgic for the Christmases and family you never had.
So this December, take a break from the Hallmark Movies. For one night, put aside Die Hard, Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, and White Christmas.
Pop some popcorn, put on your fuzziest socks and warmest pajamas, and curl up with Stanwyck and Christmas in Connecticut.
If you’re a baby boomer, when you think of Barbara Stanwyck, you think of The Big Valley, which ran for four seasons in the late sixties. Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the tough matriarch who ruled the Barkley family in the wilds of 1870’s California.
But if you’re a film buff, you think of a cheap blonde wig and an ankle bracelet that seduced Fred MacMurray into murder.
You think of Double Indemnity.
Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, the fatalist femme in film noir.
Stanwyck had made her career playing hard-boiled dames with soft centers, and Fred MacMurray was the affable everyman who ceded the spotlight to his female co-stars.
Neither Stanwyck nor MacMurray had ever played characters as rotten as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, the lethal housewife and willing insurance salesman who plot to murder Phyllis’ husband and abscond with the insurance money.
The results are electric.
Walter burns for Phyllis with a combustible mix of lust and greed that ultimately sours to revulsion.
And Phyllis? She’s one cold fish from wire to wire.
To satisfy the production code, Walter Neff murders Mr. Dietrichson off-screen. Instead we see only a close up of Stanwyck as Phyllis. She doesn’t watch the murder of her husband inches away, but stares straight ahead with a look of almost sexual satisfaction that will make your blood run cold.
Things go wrong, of course. Walter’s murder isn’t as perfect as he believes, and he’s dogged by his conscience and a suspicious insurance claims man.
Phyllis and Walter soon wish to be rid of one another, but the murder between them binds them tighter than lust or money.
Events spiral out of control with consequences lethal to more than just Mr. Dietrichson.
Double Indemnity is number 38 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies. It’s on every list of the greatest film noirs, often in the top spot.
It’s a classic about the rotten core of humanity, and the whole film orbits around Stanwyck’s performance.
And still she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar. Once again she competed in a stacked field and lost to Ingrid Bergman for her performance in Gaslight.
Two women at the top of their game—it’s a shame one of them had to lose.
But as we’ll see next week, Stanwyck had one more chance at the golden statuette, and it all begins with a late night phone call.
There are many good films, fewer great films, and fewer still that are masterpieces.
The Lady Eve is beyond even a masterpiece—it is a perfect film.
If I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t change a thing in writer/director Preston Sturges’ crown jewel of the screwball comedy. I wouldn’t eliminate any of Henry Fonda’s falls, or soften Barbara Stanwyck’s revenge. I wouldn’t add in explicit love scenes or four-letter-words forbidden by the production code.
And I’d cut off the hand of anyone who tried to change one word of Preston Sturges’ sparkling script. It delights in making a fool of Henry Fonda and using innuendo-laced dialogue to subvert every rule of the censors.
The setup is simple enough: Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn perfect in his supporting role) are card sharps out to fleece the rich but naive Charles Pike, an absent minded scientist who studies snakes and is a reluctant brewery heir.
Charles doesn’t have a chance against Jean’s conniving, but the trick is on Jean when she falls in love with him.
Thus far it’s a standard romantic comedy plot, though there is nothing standard in Barbara Stanwyck’s tough girl melting in the face of love performance.
Before she can confess and go straight, Charles discovers her duplicity and calls off their engagement.
And here’s where things get interesting.
Jean’s heart hardens right back up—or does it?—and she crafts a revenge plot of bold brilliance and exquisite simplicity. She’ll don a fancy wardrobe and a British accent and convince him she’s Lady Eve Sidwich, his perfect mate. And then once she has him on the line, she’ll dash his illusions about the lovely and virginal Lady Eve.
It’s impossible to pick the best moment in the movie. Every scene is a present unwrapped before the audience to reveal a brilliant cut diamond of humor, wit, and star power.
The film opens with Jean bonking Charles on the head with an apple, a moment loaded with the biblical implications of temptation.
Then there’s the iconic scene of Jean scoping out Charles in her compact mirror and giving a mocking play-by-play of the fortune hunting women who strike out with the shy bookworm. Stanwyck plays it with just the perfect dose of cynical amusement.
There’s Jean seducing him in her cabin with the description of her ideal mate, falling in love during a moonlight walk, and Jean cheating her father at cards to keep him from cheating Charles.
Jean ends the first act crying with heartbreak and begins the second vowing her revenge with the line, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”
She orchestrates an invitation to the Pike mansion as Lady Eve and completely befuddles poor Charles. Her brazen confrontation is better than the best disguise.
On top of that, you’ve got Charles ignoring his manservant who correctly insists, “it’s positively the same dame.” And a wayward horse who keeps interrupting a tender moment Charles has planned with Eve.
And then there’s…oh, watch it yourself, why don’t you?
And then tell me if you find a false note. I sure didn’t.
Writer/director Preston Sturges wrote the part specially for Stanwyck after working with her on Remember the Night. Jean Harrington was based on the antics of his own mother, and being raised with a woman even remotely like Jean Harrington meant that Preston Sturges lived a colorful life and was full of stories. Stanwyck, Fonda, and Sturges all reported having a blast on the set of The Lady Eve, and I think that playfulness shines through in the finished film.
Stanwyck hadn’t done comedy before. She typically played gold diggers, or tough young girls pulling themselves up in the world by the force of their will. The Lady Eve opened up a whole new genre for her, and she was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for her screwball comedy Ball of Fire, made the same year.
She’s great in Ball of Fire, but The Lady Eve is in another league. It’s a cut above the other comedies of the 1940s, and a cut above the comedies made today. She lost the Oscar that year to Joan Fonatine in Hitchock’s Suspicion. There’s no shame in losing to Fontaine, but I have my own suspicion that if she’d been nominated for The Lady Eve she would’ve won.
By 1941, Stanwyck was proving herself one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses. She’d been hard as steel as Lily Powers in the pre-code Baby Face, break-your-heart vulnerable in Stella Dallas, and laugh out loud funny in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire.
She already had a career that would cement her place in Hollywood history.
Yet she was cruising toward her most famous role at ninety in a state with a speed limit of forty-five miles an hour.
The greatest actress to never win an Oscar is Barbara Stanwyck.
You may disagree—you may think it’s Glenn Close (7 nominations), Deborah Kerr (6), Irene Dunne (5), Rosalind Russell (4), or even Greta Garbo (3).
Hear me out. In Part IV, I make my case.
Stanwyck’s quest should’ve been over before it began in 1937 with Stella Dallas.
Stanwyck plays the title character, a woman who is pretty and poor and snags a man above her station. Stephen Dallas marries Stella in a moment of loneliness. He’s a kind man, but he’s quiet, reserved, and of old money. He’s used to doing things in the proper manner.
Stella is loud and always ready for a good time. She’s vulgar in her dress, her walk, her talk. She’s also generous, warm, and fun-loving.
And she’s an excellent mother to their daughter Laurel.
It’s not enough. Stella, despite her early promises to change, is decidedly low class.
Her past is in her bones.
The marriage between Stephen and Stella sours as Stephen finds he can’t remake her into the society wife he should’ve married and Stella increasingly resents his attempts to do so.
Soon enough, they are living separate lives, which suits them both. Stella and Laurel live a charmed existence, doting on one another as Laurel grows into a lovely young woman. She is Stella’s greatest triumph and best pal.
As Laurel grows up, she begins to understand the differences between the refined society of her father and the slapdash existence of her mother.
Stella begins to understand that although she could never gain acceptance to the country club set, Laurel can.
Or could—if she didn’t have a mother her peers see as a joke.
The movie gets a lot of justified praise for its final scene, when Stella makes a grand gesture of sacrifice for Laurel.
But I love the scenes of gradual awakening—Stella realizing that no one showed up at Laurel’s birthday party because she is her mother, and Laurel feeling both incredible embarrassment and overwhelming love for her ill-bred, unladylike, wonderful, gregarious mother.
There’s a scene on a train when Stella and Laurel overhear Laurel’s friends making fun of Stella. The mutual pain is palpable as Stella protects Laurel by pretending not to hear, and Laurel crawls into bed with her mother and gives her a tender kiss.
In the end, Stanwyck’s Stella walks away heartbroken but satisfied Laurel will have everything she ever wanted.
Everything but her mother.
The film lives or dies on the portrayal of Stella—we have to love Stella despite her flaws. There’s no easy villain to blame—not Stella or Stephen, not Stephen’s new wife, not even Laurel’s preppy boyfriend. It’s a film about the way the world is, instead of the way we wish it to be.
Stanwyck had to age twenty years throughout the course of the film, starting out as the pretty wide-eyed social climber and ending in a frumpy, slightly overweight middle age.
Stella Dallas is the first film to fully showcase Barbara Stanwyck’s natural and realistic acting. We take it for granted today that actors want to look and feel like real people on the screen, but that wasn’t the case in the 1930s and 1940s. Acting was still peeling away from the silent era, when big dramatic gestures ruled the day. You didn’t actually have to believe the character Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn played was a real person. You could almost see the actress winking at the camera, letting the audience know it was all just a bit of fun. You could see the acting.
In this film, you can’t see Barbara Stanwyck. You only see Stella.
Stanwyck’s films aren’t of the 1930s or 1940s. They’re films of any time, any place.
Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for Stella Dallas, and widely predicted to win. She lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth, perhaps a film that was better in 1937 but has not aged as well as Stella Dallas.
Stella Dallas was a commercial success as well, one of the top five box office hits of 1937. It was so popular that Stella and Laurel’s story continued in a radio soap opera that ran for nearly twenty years.
Stanwyck would go on to receive three more Oscar nominations, and play several iconic characters, but she said late in her life that Stella Dallas was her favorite role.
It’s easy to see why.
Stella Dallas was Stanwyck’s first tour de force. The fact that Stella Dallas is the third or fourth best role Stanwyck played is a testament to the brilliance of her long career. If she had won this Oscar, as she should have, I could easily be writing a blog about how Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest actress to only win one Ocsar.
She’s that good.
Next week Stanwyck trades in her frumpy dresses and weepy endings for elegant gowns and laughs in a film where she is dressed by the legendary costume designer Edith Head and directed by the inimitable Preston Sturges.
Clark Gable married five times and slept with every woman who would have him, regardless of his—or her—marital status.
But the only woman he ever loved was Carole Lombard.
Clark Gable made eight movies with Joan Crawford. He made seven with Myrna Loy, six with Jean Harlow, four with Lana Turner, and two each with Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Heddy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner.
But he made just a single film with the leading lady of his heart.
They met on the set of No Man of Her Own, a rather charming Paramount picture. Clark Gable plays Babe, a gambler and card sharp. To avoid trouble with the police, he leaves New York City and hides out in a small town until things cool down. He meets Lombard’s Connie Randall, a bored and beautiful librarian who is ripe for adventure.
Babe turns on the charm, and Connie is not immune. Though inexperienced, Connie is not naive, and when Babe proposes they spend the night together, she presents a counteroffer—they flip a coin, and if she wins, they get married.
She wins the toss.
They proceed from lust to marriage to love. Babe hides his criminal enterprise from Connie, but eventually gives it up and goes straight to be worthy of her. Yet in the end Connie proves an able match for Babe, for she has known of his gambling and stealing all along and loves him anyway.
No Man of Her Own is a good but not great movie, forgettable but for the fact that Gable and Lombard eventually became Hollywood’s real-life power couple.
There’s chemistry between them on the screen.
On the set, however, there was nothing doing.
Lombard was still happily married to her first husband William Powell, and Clark Gable thought Lombard swore far too much for a lady.
Four years later, they met up again at a party and this time Gable fell in love with her, even if she did swear like a drunken soldier.
But in her profanity, as in so many other things, Carole Lombard was crazy like a fox. It started as self-defense. As a young, beautiful blonde in Hollywood, the men she worked with both on and off camera were constantly pawing at her. Lombard delivered her profanity in a breezy, devil-may-care attitude that usually turned their minds from seeing her as a romantic object, to one-of-the-guys, a pal. Thus she got the men to keep their hands to themselves without alienating those who could help advance her career.
She played pranks, threw parties, went hunting and fishing with Clark and his friends.
And fell for him just as hard as he fell for her.
They married in 1939 during a break in filming Gone With the Wind. It was a private ceremony with only a few attendants, as neither wanted the media to turn it into a circus.
Because she was as savvy with her business dealings as she was with her swearing, she made more money than Clark, despite him starring in the most commercially successful movie of all time.
She could convince anyone to do anything. She talked Alfred Hitchcock into directing her in a screwball comedy. He did it because he loved her. Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a good film, starring Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a couple who find out four years after their wedding that due to a technicality their marriage license isn’t valid, and that they’re not legally married. It was Hitchcock’s only comedy in his long career.
When World War II broke out, Carole Lombard wanted to help. She wrapped filming on her film To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny and signed on to sell war bonds. She took her mother on a cross-country trip and due to her tireless efforts, sold a record-breaking two million dollars of war bonds in a single day.
While on that trip, she pondered the next phase of her life and her career.
Trying to win an Oscar, she’d dipped her toes into some films with more serious subjects. Maybe she could do another one of those. Or maybe she’d keep making comedies—she was already signed on to star in They All Kissed the Bride with Melvyn Douglas.
Maybe she’d take an extended leave from Hollywood—throw herself into the war effort. Convince Clark to enlist in the war, then start a family when it was over. She knew a lot about the movie business—maybe when she returned to work she’d direct a film herself.
But for now, all she wanted was to finish the war bond tour and return home to Clark.
If they made a movie of the story of Carole Lombard’s life, I’d tell you to turn it off right now.
You don’t want to know how this story ends.
She didn’t make They All Kissed the Bride, or start a family. She didn’t direct.
On January 16, 1942, the plane she was taking back to Hollywood and Clark and her future crashed in the mountains outside Las Vegas.
There were no survivors.
Carole Lombard was dead at thirty-three.
Because she was flying back from her war bond tour, President Franklin Roosevelt declared her the first woman killed in the war. In June the United States christened a war ship the S.S. Lombard, and it served in the Pacific theater throughout the war.
Clark Gable fulfilled her dying wish and enlisted in the United States Army Air Force.
Joan Crawford filled her role in They All Kissed The Bride, and donated her salary to the Red Cross that had helped search for the bodies in the Nevada mountains.
Though she’s left us with a stack of wonderful films, Carole Lombard’s death at thirty-three cut her down in her prime. Hollywood is haunted by the films she never made.
If she’d lived, she’d almost certainly have eventually won an Oscar. She had the looks of a quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and the director loved her. She likely would’ve starred in one of his thrillers and perhaps opened up a whole new chapter in her career.
At thirty-three, Katharine Hepburn had never even met Spencer Tracy, much less made a picture with him. She scored ten of her twelve Oscar nominations and three of her four Oscar wins after age thirty-three.
At thirty-three, Bette Davis had not yet made All About Eve, Barbara Stanwyck had not made Double Indemnity, and Joan Crawford had not made Mildred Pierce.
Undoubtedly, the best was yet to come for Carole Lombard.
Her death ripped the guts out of Hollywood, and out of Clark Gable.
Hollywood recovered, of course. Hollywood is bigger than any one star, even one as bright as Lombard.
Gable never did. Despite living eighteen more years and marrying two more times, upon his death Clark Gable was buried next to Carole Lombard Gable.