The Thorn Birds: One Last Thrill

#28 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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.

Illicit (1931)

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.  

* * *

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

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. ^

Stanwyck and Robert Taylor

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.

Stanwyck with Holden on the set of Golden Boy (1939)

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.

William Holden’s tribute to Barbara Stanwyck

* * *

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.

Remember the Night, 1940

“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.

Roustabout (1964)

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.

The Big Valley, 1965

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.)

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.

With Richard Chamberlain, The Thorn Birds (1983)

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.

On the set of The Thorn Birds

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.

TCM Tribute to Barbara Stanwyck by Laura Dern
Barbara Stanwyck 1907 – 1990

Sources:

^ From “Stanwyck” by Axel Madsen

All Frank Capra quotes from “Starring Miss Stanwyck” by Ella Smith

Sorry, Wrong Number: Zero For Four

#27 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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.

Christmas in Connecticut: “The Things a Girl Will Do for a Mink Coat”

#26 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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.

You’ll be glad you did.

Double Indemnity: The Crown Jewel of Film Noir

#25 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity.

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.

Phyllis drives while Walter breaks her husband’s neck

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.

The Lady Eve: “I Need Him Like the Axe Needs the Turkey”

#24 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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.

Charles meets Jean

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.

Charles meets the Lady Eve Sidwich

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.

Stella Dallas: Barbara’s Four-Hanky Smash

#23 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part IV: The Case for Barbara Stanwyck

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.

Stanwyck delivers.

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.

The results are biblical.

Sleeping Your Way To The Top

#13 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman

One of the most popular pre-code storylines was that of a beautiful young woman who seduces unsuspecting men in a calculated effort to raise her station in life by becoming his well-kept mistress.  If the gold digger is clever enough and persistent, she may even find herself a rich man’s wife.

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is deliciously calculating as Lily Powers, a woman who begins life ruthlessly exploited by men until she turns the tables and learns to use men to get what she wants.

It’s a great film, and no one could’ve played it better than Stanwyck.  Her deep, non-nonsense voice and the cold look in her eyes tells you these poor saps never had a chance.

The film opens in her father’s seedy speakeasy, where Lily serves beer to shirtless and sweaty men who constantly manhandle her.  Her father takes money from a man for sex with Lily, and it’s clear it isn’t the first time.

The whole film is worth watching just for the opening scene.  No shrinking violet, Lily fends the men off with cutting remarks and even smashes one overzealous john over the head with an empty beer bottle.  Still she cannot escape the grim circumstances of her life.

When her father dies in an accident, Cragg, an elderly cobbler and her only male friend, encourages her to use her beauty and looks to gain power over men.

She moves to the city and gets an office job by sleeping with the boss’ assistant.  Soon she’s moved up to the boss, then his boss, and then his boss.  The movie uses a great visual of showing the outside of the office, tracking higher and higher up the building as Lily literally “sleeps her way to the top.”

Barbara Stanwyck

While Lily Powers is motivated by desperation, the Red-Headed woman’s Lil “Red” Andrews is simply after mischief.  

It was a role Jean Harlow was born to play.

Harlow’s career began with Howard Hughes, playing Helen, the promiscuous girlfriend of Roy in Hell’s Angels.  Fame grew as she played highly sexual mob molls, most famously in The Public Enemy.

But Harlow found her stride in Red-Headed Woman, her first headlining role.

Unlike Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman is played as burlesque, an outrageous farce of the gold digger trope.  Red is a shameless maneater, going as far as to lock her prey in a room with him so he can’t escape her seductions.

The tone suited Harlow’s style perfectly.  Harlow was a young, curvy, beautiful woman who oozed sex.  But her voice didn’t match her body—you expect a husky seductive tone, like Stanwyck, or Lauren Bacall, or even Jessica Rabbit.

But when she talks, she sounds more like a gum-cracking truck stop waitress. 

There’s a playfulness to her sexuality that previewed the screwball comedy.

And in the hands of the right screenwriter, that combination is magic.

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the right screenwriter.  The famous author did not have nearly the success in Hollywood as he had as a Great American Novelist.  Writing scripts takes a very different skill set than writing novels, and very few can master both.  The novelist has complete freedom over the world and is the sole voice (at least until his editor sees the first draft).  The novelist has a comparatively long time to complete the work and fewer structural rules.

In contrast, the screenwriter (especially in the 1930s) worked under tight deadlines, sometimes writing or rewriting scripts over a weekend.  There is constant feedback from multiple sources, a strict structure, and the work of many writers is ultimately cobbled together to form the finished product.

For a legendary novelist like Fitzgerald, it can feel like a major demotion.

So for all his literary brilliance, Fitzgerald could not capture the humor and wit producer Irving Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Woman, and he called in Anita Loos, his ace in the bullpen that could always get the job done.

Anita Loos

Anita Loos could do it all.  In her long career, she worked on over a hundred film scripts.  She also wrote for Broadway, as well as having multiple fiction and nonfiction works published.

She had a particular talent for writing the sexual innuendo-laced female dialogue that Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Women.

Once Loos fixed the script—which was really a complete rewrite, Thalberg knew it had a winner.

Red-Headed Woman is a zany delight, filled with physical comedy that borders on slapstick and a script that zings as Red steals away one husband before going after another, and falling in love with a third.

The best part?

She gets away with it.  

No moment of repentance, no promise to change her ways, no seeing the light through true love.

Instead, we see Red in the back of a limousine, with the rich husband who bankrolls her lifestyle and the man she loves chauffeuring the car.

Who says a woman can’t have it all?