Monday, July 16, 2007

Barbara Stanwyck: The Professional's Professional

Today, July 16, marks the 100th anniversary of Barbara Stanwyck's birth. There was a time when the former Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn was familiar mostly as a white-haired matriarch on television series like The Big Valley, The Colbys or The Thorn Birds. Thank god those days seem to be fading, and now Stanwyck's movie career is deservedly at the forefront. There are many cinephiles who will happily name her as their favorite actress. Well, why should they be any different from Stanwyck's Hollywood peers? Here is just a small sample of what the Siren turned up in her search for what other professionals thought of "Missy," as her friends called her:

Beloved by all directors, actors, crews, and extras.--Frank Capra

She's one of the greatest women and the one of the greatest actresses I ever worked with.
--Walter Huston

The best actress I ever worked with.
--Joel McCrea

Stanwyck, of course, was a brilliant actress. She could do anything.
--William Wellman

Working with Barbara Stanwyck was one of the greatest pleasures of my career.
--Fritz Lang

[Howard Hawks] always ranked her among the best actresses with whom he ever worked.
--Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy

Barbara Stanwyck is a fantastic actress. When she makes a gesture as she speaks a line, she has a way of suspending that motion in mid-air for a split second on a certain word which gives an imperceptible emphasis to that word.
--Mitchell Leisen

A professional's professional, a superb technician with a voice quality that immediately hooked you with its humanness.
--King Vidor

Barbara Stanwyck had an instinct so sure she almost needed no direction.
--Preston Sturges

When [in 1932 Picturegoer] listed the top six female stars (Garbo, Constance Bennett, Dietrich, Chatterton, Shearer and Crawford), [Adolphe] Menjou himself told the editor that in Hollywood Stanwyck was rated above the last two.

--David Shipman

How's that for unanimity? The Siren agrees with Adolphe Menjou, and would in fact rank Stanwyck's abilities above that entire Picturegoer list, even above Garbo, who was an instinctual actress and not the superb technician that Stanwyck was. So on this fine Monday, let us take some time to talk about Barbara Stanwyck. Here, the Siren lists her favorites. She loves the actress in all of these movies, and the titles are ranked solely to indicate how much pleasure the Siren gets out of each performance:

1. The Lady Eve
2. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
3. Double Indemnity
4. Remember the Night
5. Stella Dallas
6. Ball of Fire
7. The Mad Miss Manton
8. Lady of Burlesque (Stanwyck, as Joel McCrea noted, was in burlesque herself and "came up the hard way.")
9. Clash by Night
10. Titanic

Over to you. Name your favorite Stanwyck roles. Did she ever give a bad performance? (Not many actresses who spark that as a genuine query!) Where should she rank in the pantheon of Hollywood actresses?

(Cross-posted at Newcritics. Also, check out Peter Nelhaus's take on Roustabout here.)


Tonio Kruger said...

My favorite Stanwyck performance? All of them.:-)

The Siren said...


no one that you secretly like more than the others?

SoNSo1 said...

The Lady Eve
Meet John Doe
Forty Guns
Sorry, Wrong Number
Walk on the Wildside

I only started watching her movies this year and have already seen most of the ones that are available on Netflix.

The Lady Eve has become one of my all time favorites. I think it's her best role. Seductive and alluring, conniving and still funny. How can you not smile when she decides to drop an apple on Henry Fonda? It was like that way for me after watching it.

The Siren said...

Sonso1, there are a couple of ones that I am waiting to see when they are out on DVD, including The Bitter Tea of General Yen (a big favorite with Goatdog). She is so beautiful and funny in The Lady Eve. Stanwyck is usually thought of as a dramatic actress but she was an incredible comedienne as well.

Hazel said...

I know what Tonio means. If I have seen Stanwyck in a film, I generally liked her performance. So: The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Miracle Woman, Baby Face, all those you named from the forties and Executive Suite.

But the best? The Lady Eve. "But so am I, darling. So am I."

The Siren said...

Hazel, Baby Face is in my Netflix queue. I saw The Miracle Woman some time ago and of course Stanwyck was marvelous but the movie showed its age a bit, to me.

wonder what the dang holdup is with releasing General Yen?

Karen said...

TCM plays "General Yen" from time to time. It's a truly bizarre film, for Stanwyck, for Capra, and for the time. But I like the notion of an interracial romance, and while it wasn't, of course, truly interracial (given that Yen is played by a Caucasian), the two of them really sell the performances. The whole film takes place in a kind of opium haze.

There's no question that "The Lady Eve" takes the cake. I, personally, love Stanwyck as a tough cookie, and Eve lets her play both sides of the fence. As a pre-Code groupie, I love the sassy early stuff, though: Night Nurse and Baby Face (you have to see the newly-restored version; much better than what's been out there) and Ladies They Talk About.

Probably right up there with Eve is Sugar Puss in "Ball of Fire." There's a character that could have been a caricature, a cartoon, but Stanwyck gives her fifteen kinds of depth. (And, though it has nothing to do with Stanwyck, there's that great Gene Krupa solo.)

I would probably add in "Christmas in Connecticut," as well. It's hard to picture Stanwyck as being that helpless, which is what makes it so funny.

Did you see Anthony Lane's appreciation of Stanwyck in The New Yorker a while back?

I don't think it's possible to disagree with a single thing he says.

The Siren said...

Yes, I did see the Lane piece. Dennis linked to it in his Stanwyck tribute. She is really gaining in repute with each passing year.

Exiled in NJ said...

Ball of Fire
Lady Eve
Double Indemnity
Christmas in Connecticut

I'd put her Phyllis Dietrichson higher but for once it was hard for her to outshine the two male leads. I'll go to my grave thinking Robinson's suicide method list is one of the great moments in film.

Unknown said...

Oh, listing. I can do this. Not able to pick anything too obscure as haven't seen much beyond her realtively well-known films. (topping my to-see list, not including films playing here in San Francisco this week in celebration of the event: Anthony Mann's the Furies)

Five favorites:
1. the Lady Eve
2. the Miracle Woman
3. Forty Guns
4. Baby Face
5. Remember the Night

StinkyLulu said...

This year: Ball of Fire.

(Email me - I've got a proposition:
stinkylulu at comcast dot net)

OutOfContext said...

Double Indemnity and Ball of Fire. I suspect Double Indemnity is as much for Wilder as Stanwyck. Ball of Fire is all Stanwyck. I have to admit I'm not a big Stanwyck fan. I did love her as a radio performer, especially as a guest on the Jack Benny Program. Here she is doing a version of "Golden Boy" in 1940 and receiving a visit from Jack and a couple of cadets in 1942.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

My Top 5 favorites are:
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Double Indemnity
The Night Walker
Walk on the Wildside
Stella Dallas

She was so lovely, but also tough as nails. I love that combo!

FDChief said...

"Why Hopsie! You ought to be kept in a cage!"

Possibly the, ahem, climax of the sexiest seduction scene ever filmed. So yes, for that among the others, "The Lady Eve". She does it all: funny, smart, satirical, sexy, angry, loving and love-able.

What a terrific actress.

Anna said...

Babyface of course, I love it when the old man tells her she should leave the saloon and she says in her best toughgirl accent - "Where'm I gonna go, Paris? I got two bucks."

Peter Nellhaus said...

Awww, thanks for the mention. Bitter Tea of General Yen is available as an R2 DVD. I'd love to see your take on a late Stanwyck film, Gerd Oswald's Crime of Passion with Babs as a "career gal" married to cop Sterling Hayden.

The Siren said...

Exiled, without a doubt Robinson is my favorite thing about Double Indemnity, despite Stanwyck's brilliance.

Brian, bet you will love The Furies.

Stinkylulu: will do! my favorites change from year to year as well.

Kim: so glad you like Martha Ivers too. I think she is able to give that particular femme fatale some real layers; you understand Martha and her twisted nature. She is great in Walk on the Wild Side, which several have mentioned, though the movie has some real problems I think. I do enjoy the hell out of it though. Best credit sequence ever.

FDchief, I had forgotten that line. All this is really making me want to see Lady Eve all over again.

Outofcontext, thanks so much for the links! I will look forward to them both.

Anna, Okay, I will bump Baby Face up the old Netflix queue.

Peter, I have not seen that one but Stanwyck/Hayden sounds like a great matchup.

edo said...

No one's mentioned "There's Always Tomorrow", perhaps Sirk's best film and by that measure one of the best films ever made. Stanwyck is wonderful in it.

The Siren said...

I didn't mention it because I haven't seen it yet, alas! It is a triple treat for me because it's one of the last major Sirks I haven't seen, and also stars Joan Bennett, whom I have been catching up with. And I am almost a little sad to check that one off the "seen" list, like I was sad after I read my last Jane Austen novel.

Gareth said...

Get Baby Face to the top of thy queue as soon as you can; although the movie has its flaws, Stanwyck is at the peak of her powers, and I enjoyed her performance almost as much as I did my favourite Stanwyck outings (The Lady Eve is top of my list).

Anna said...

Ooh, yes, get Babyface as fast as you can. If you like hard boiled Depression era dames like Ginger Rogers, this one's right up your alley (although by no means a comedy). It's a performance and a half - like an early Jean Harlow role only deadly serious with only a few really bitter laughs. And she's got a lesbian side-kick (not pointed out in 1933 of course, but today its easy to see there's something hinted at and all reviewers today mention it.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great tribute. Love the quotes you've found, and everyone's comments. Don't think I have a favorite, at least none I can put in order.

Stella Dallas
Meet John Doe
Christmas in Connecticut
Lady Eve
Ball of Fire
Double Indemnity
Oh, heck. I can't do this. I really do like just about every performance she's in. She's like watching a great athlete. I find her technique fascinating, and something I cannot name that strikes me as almost unbearably poignant and moving. Very please she's getting the recognition her career deserved. Wish she had gotten in sooner.

Operator_99 said...

Mission Impossible - but not wanting to cop out and say all of them, I have to go with Baby Face (should be included in the dictionary definition of Pre-Code), Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Ball of Fire and ...all right, all of them.

Thanks for the tribute - she just had it, knew how to use it, and clearly cared about her craft.

Scandale said...

Wonderful tribute, thank you for writing about her. Barbara Stanwyck IS my favorite actress !

#1)Ball of Fire - She's funny and exceptionally beautiful in this film. Thank goodness for the DVD because i've worn out the VCR tape of this one.

#2) His Brother's Keeper - I love to watch the sparks fly between Barbara & Bob Taylor. He sure was easy on the eyes !

#3) All of the rest

I'm also a fragrance fanatic and i've been searching forever for information on her favorite perfume, if she wore any.

Anyone ???

Bob Turnbull said...

Siren, just one more vote to bump "Baby Face" up your list. Just saw if after PVRing most of the TCM tribute on Monday. She's just simply terrific throughout the entire film. Of course I'm biased because I kinda melt a bit whenever she's onscreen, but she absolutely owns every man she meets in the film - and you believe it.

"Christmas In Connecticut" would've been my answer prevous to seeing the film, but "Martha Ivers", "Double Indemnity" and "Forty Guns" would likely be next in line. I have to watch "The Lady Eve" again because it was the first Stanwyck film I saw (at least from her classic period) and I couldn't really concentrate on the story...B-)

VP81955 said...

Your headline on Stanwyck was incredibly accurate -- to me, she is easily the most versatile of the classic-era actresses. No one excelled in more genres than she did.

My favorite performance of hers is "Baby Face," arguably the quintessential pre-Code film.

Patrick Wahl said...

Lady Eve seems the popular choice, which is also my pick (I think that movie's reputation is still growing). Funny that no one has mentioned "The Furies". Its been a long time since I've seen it, and I think its a flawed movie, somewhat slow, sort of soap opera-ish, but also fun because there is lots of plot there. Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut are also good ones. Christmas in Conn. is another flawed movie, definitely hurt by having a bland leading man.

Calliope said...

Oy, that's a tough question. My favorite? The Lady Eve. Anyone who doesn't fall in love with Stanwyck when they see that film doesn't have a pulse.

Although I just saw "Baby Face" and that's one hell of a performance. Btw, Campaspe, if you rent "Baby Face" from Netflix, you'll get the TCM DVD, with both the pre-release version and the release version on it. By all means, watch the pre-release version first. Although it's only 5 minutes longer, it's far superior to the considerably softened release version.

Also, for anyone who is in L.A., the Academy of Motion Pictures is celebrating Stanwyck's centennial with a breathtaking display of posters from throughout her career. Some of the posters are the only known surviving copy. The Academy's blurb claims it "may be the largest poster exhibition ever devoted to a major film figure."

"Presenting Miss Barbara Stanwyck" is running through August 26 in the Academy's Grand Lobby Gallery -- open to the public, and free to boot!

Don't miss it if you're in town.

The Siren said...

Anna, Gareth, Operator, Calliope, VP -- All right, all right! Baby Face it is, LOL. Peter, I just ordered some Region 2s and did not even think to check for Bitter Tea, dagnabit. Next order!

Bob, I like Forty Guns, weird though it is. It would make a great double feature with Johnny Guitar. Patrick, the best part of The Furies was watching Stanwyck tear it up with Walter Huston. And that one scene (you know the one-- I won't describe it so as not to spoil it for Brian) is truly indelible.

Scandale, I have looked & looked myself, now that you ask, and have not found the perfume answer yet. If I do, I will post! I haven't seen His Brother's Keeper, am adding to my list.

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

Stanwyck is sui generis; she is hot; she rocks my world. What else can I say--at least for a family oriented audience? Even in the soapy The Thorn Birds, I thought Richard Chamberlain (not the brightest light in the firmament) was a pluperfect idiot for choosing whatshername over the eternally hot Stanwyck.

Basically The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, for the brilliance of the performances, the script, the films (well, Eve over Indemnity; I much prefer Sturges over Wilder).

That said, I think she was great, simply great in Fritz Lang's Clash by Night. Stanwyck makes Mae Doyle's desire for a quiet life (after god knows what she's done in the past) believable; you look at her and you know she's got mileage. And she makes her unholy attraction to Earl both believable AND understandable--you don't lose sympathy for her (helps that Earl's played by Robert Ryan--women who look at him in a tight shirt are forgiven for thinking dirty thoughts).

The ending is a bit idealized, but Stanwyck and Douglas (as Mae's husband) bring so much conviction into their scene together you catch your breath anyway. Yep, this is how adultery and subsequent reconciliation should play out, on the big screen and in real life.

Erich Kuersten said...

She's great in NIGHT NURSE!

Her worst, in my book, is as the over-acting wife haunted by her dead husband in William Castle's THE NIGHT WALKER. One gets the feeling she was bored or hung over or clashing (by night!) with William Castle's broad directorial style.

Ray said...

At 70, I am possibly the oldest Stanwyck fan here, I've loved her since seeing My Reputation in 1946. I have 87 of her 88 films and met her at The Lincoln Centre in 1981, even got to have my photo taken with my arms around her. Incidentally, her favourite perfume was Jungle Gardenia. Any fans are welcome to join my group for her.

lx22 said...

Night Nurse (1931)

Hanny said...

She should be number one on any list of good actresses ever made I think.

Unknown said...

Ever see a Barbara Stanwyck impression? Of course not, because she was beyond parody, a truly versatile actress who transcended caricature.

john said...

Anent Miss Stanwyck:No wonder the "Courtroom Scene" of Lady of Burlesque had rhythm!