Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck


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Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck

The catty factionalism that riles the coteries of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford should be stilled by the manifest evidence that one Hollywood actress was (far) greater than either: Barbara Stanwyck.

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The Lady Eve 

The catty factionalism that riles the coteries of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford should be stilled by the manifest evidence that one Hollywood actress was (far) greater than either: Barbara Stanwyck. Not for her the eyebrows plucked into Mt. Fuji formation, the arsenal of mannerisms accumulated into a self-parodic acting style, or the late-age desperation of Gothic grotesquerie— one cannot easily imagine a drag imitation of Stanwyck (despite her glorious forays into butch berserkery in the Freudian westerns Forty Guns and The Furies) because her natural class, extraordinary range, and profound emotionalism made her at once the most versatile and the most elusive of all Hollywood actresses.

With her authoritative, Brooklyn-tinged voice, intuitive physicality and direct, decisive manner, Stanwyck could come off tough and reserved in real life, but on screen she excelled in vulnerability, even at her most vulgar. Stella Dallas may be the most celebrated example of her trademark combination of toughness and fragility, but lesser-known films are also in that running. In Remember the Night, Stanwyck movingly reveals the wounded Hoosier encased in the brassy carapace of her incorrigible Manhattan shoplifter, while in All I Desire, she works all the registers of loss and solitude as a small-time actress who abandoned her rural family for the bright lights. (Clash by Night repeats these two films’ trajectory of having Stanwyck return to her roots after a long absence out East, while the scandalous Baby Face reverses the pattern.)

Victoria Wilson’s massive new Stanwyck biography Steel-True portrays a woman who maintained her great humour and empathic warmth despite an early life punctuated by hardships and tragedy: the loss of both parents, her Nova Scotia-born mother to a trolley accident, her father to the Panama Canal; a back-alley abortion at age twelve that left her unable to have children and a rape at fourteen, at which age she quit school and went to work; and, finally, engagement to a man who died of septic poisoning on his way to their holiday in Paris, followed by a seven-year marriage  to an abusive alcoholic co-star to whom Stanwyck remained fiercely loyal even as he beat her, terrorized their household, and urinated on her guests. Long before Method acting, Stanwyck incorporated her own harsh life experiences into her performances: her fast-talking dames and light-fingered felons, volatile firebrands and dark-hearted femmes fatales are all free from artifice, their authenticity hard-won.

“In a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down,” said Frank Capra, who more or less launched Stanwyck’s film career and was in love with her. “She was destined to be beloved by all directors, actors, crews and extras.” (Capra and Stanwyck shared right-wing, anti-New Deal politics: the actress was a great admirer of Ayn Rand, and appeared as a friendly witness in the infamous HUAC hearings.)  Little wonder that Stanwyck was so well-liked: she fairly exuded contentment despite her unhappy marriage, and cheerfully engaged with everyone on set, remembering the names of all the crew members and their children. “She was lusty, bantered about, was full of wit,” according to Wilson. “She played tennis, went to the fights, didn’t gossip, and took trouble on the chin. She minded her own business, smoked with an unaffected pleasure thought of as masculine, exuded plenty of sex, but never used it to further her career.” 

In telling contrast to Bette Davis, who clashed with the few great directions she worked with and stuck mostly to second- or third-rankers so she could better control her productions (actress as auteur, as it were), Stanwyck stayed faithful to Capra and evidently thrived under the direction of King Vidor, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, Robert Siodmak, William Wellman, Douglas Sirk, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Fritz Lang—a formidable list that turns this too-select retrospective of an actress’ career into a double-indemnity showcase of auteurist splendour.

James Quandt

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