Forty-three words! Forty-three hundred words couldnít do justice to Stanwyck. But this week and last, Iím trying, Iím trying if only in gratitude for the pleasure her work still offers. The actressís film career boasted not only a lot of intelligent vigor, rendered in perfect pitch, but a dramatic arc of what we may call the Barbara Stanwyck character: A complex amalgam of sex and class, charm and power. The four phases of Eve.
In her early Warner Bros. films, like "Baby Face," we see her coming to understand the nature and uses of this power. (And then, the scripts ordain, she falls in love.) By the time of "The Lady Eve," she is amused by the speed with which well-bred naifs swoon under her spell. (And then she falls in love.) In the melodramas from "Double Indemnity" through the end of the 1940s, Hollywood turns her strength into sickness. Now we could see how the strong Stanwyck woman appeared to the men she dominated: bitter, belittling, demeaning, deaf to his reason or his pleas. (And then she kills him.) Finally she recognizes that a superior woman is a solitary one. She retreats to the elemental surroundings of the Old West, where she finds emotional release in running things a ranch, a town and seems as eager to ride a horse as have any man harness her. (And then she falls in love.)
1. THE GOOD-MAD GIRL
"Youíre fat! Youíre enormous!" teases the doting beau in "Illicit," Stanwyckís first starring role at Warners. "Iím not," she teases right back. "Iím willowy and fragile." Willowy, for sure. Fragile, never! Not on screen, not off. And in Hollywood, not ever. At 23 the young actress was already her own woman; when virtually every other star was indentured to a single studio, Stanwyck was a bigamist, splitting time between Columbia and Warners. And she had started to define the modern woman, as surely as Hepburn did when she came to movies a year later. They were low and high, pugnacious or imperious, versions of the same dame: on her way to hell or heaven at breakneck speed, and daring any man to come along for the ride. (They never made a film together what man would've been worthy for them to fight over? but Stanwyck was offered the role in "Holiday" that Hepburn eventually claimed, and played Kateís "Morning Glory" in a radio drama.)
In "Illicit," Ann enjoys a cozy, loving, intimate relationship with Dick (the appealing James Rennie), a wealthy fellow who wants to marry her. She has other ideas: she thinks love can survive only as a perpetual courtship. "Love canít stand the strain" of a marriage; she dreads "the intimacy that makes you small and helpless and dependent on one another." When they do get married, and things go flat and sour, she insists, "Iím not going to have a child just to keep my husband." Even for the anything-goes movie standards of the 1930s pre-Code era, these are fairly radical sentiments. "Iím not awfully concerned about the good opinion of society," she says. Yet Stanwyck delivers her dicta in a tone of impassioned reason. And she has already mastered two clever acting tricks: The knack of gazing down thoughtfully, as if she could see the future, because she has a bit of a past; and the gift of looking up to reveal eyes moist with worthy emotion.
In "Illicit" the two lover-combatants are equally matched. Soon, Stanwyck films would become star vehicles, and the men would recede in importance and potency. In Capraís "The Miracle Woman," she's a bitter evangelist out to make the world pay for her fatherís death; and her foil is a blind musician. In William Wellmanís "Night Nurse," she serves as ministering angel to a wounded bootlegger and two rich children being starved to death. "Ladies They Talk About," directed by William Keighley and Howard Bretherton, has her strutting as a gun moll sent to prison, where she plots her revenge against a well-meaning crusader who loves her so much that, after she shoots him in the climactic scene, proposes marriage! Sheís the toughie; heís the softie, leading with his heart, trying to tamp down his prim lust.
"Ladies They Talk About" is a typical Warners programmer from 1933: Cynical and bustling, with a dozen briskly sketched supporting roles, and tough-gal dialogue that makes little sense ("Yeah," Stanwyck barks at a prison rival, "and when they add you up, whadda you spell?") but still sounds swell. Even the filmís genesis would have made a pretty good movie. Consider this: In the late Ď20s, actor Paul Kelly beat actor Ray Raymond to death. Kelly did two years in prison for manslaughter. Raymondís widow, the stage actress Dorothy MacKaye, also spent time in the womenís unit of San Quentin. Based on her experiences there, MacKaye would co-author the play "Women in Prison," which Warners bought and made into "Ladies They Talk About." In a kooky coda, Kelly and MacKaye the murderer and the wife of the man he killed were later married.
Stanwyckís next film, "Baby Face," has been called "the ĎGone With the Windí of pre-Code." Our gal is tops as a Scarlett woman from the urban north who turns the battle of the sexes into an uncivil war. The writers (including Warners production chief Darryl Zanuck) and director Alfred E. Green punch out a story of a slum girl on the irresistible rise. Over the remorseless 70-min. running time, Stanwyckís Lily Powers accumulates a half-dozen lovers, triggers a murder and two suicide attempts, nearly brings down a venerable New York bank and never for a second relinquishes the audienceís fascination.
In a dirty mining town, where coal dust blights the flowers in a window box, Lily Powers is the daughter of a speakeasy owner who pimps her out to his customers; in the heat of one argument he calls her a "little tramp." This provokes a prime Stanwyck rant a feature of most of her early films, where the star drops her usual cynical poise and spits out an aria of blistering hatred. "Yeah, I'm a tramp," she shouts, "and whoís ta blame? My father! A swell start you gave me. Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And youíre lower than any of Ďem. Iíll hate you as long as I live!" Dad conveniently dies in a fire, and Lily is off to New York with her only friend, a black girl named Chico (Theresa Harris), to see whether she can turn the hard lessons she learned back home to profit in the big city.
Lilyís first stop is the Personnel office of the Gotham Trust Company, where she is appraised by a heavy-set man named Pratt. She says to him sweetly, "I know some prats where I come from." (In fact, Stanwyck had known some: Her first Brooklyn home, at 268 Classon Avenue, was on the edge of the Pratt Institute campus.) When Pratt asks her, "Have you had any experience?" she replies, "Plenty," in a flat tone that speaks worlds of sexual weariness. Lily studies hard for her new roles, reading an etiquette book and changing her hair style from brown to a platinum bride-of-Frankenstein marcelled look. To attract a man, she sends signals of availability and vulnerability: crossing her legs and burying her head in her hands in an attitude of agony.
A fast learner at work and play, Lily screws her way up through the Gotham Trust building: from Personnel (Prattís domain) to Filing (where a young John Wayne is her conquest) to Mortgage (where that perennial corporate slimeball Douglass Dumbrille mistakenly thinks he can handle her) to Accounting (where she catches the attention of Donald Cook, a comer in the company and fiancť of the bossís daughter). As the movieís original adline proclaimed: "She climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong!" Her early life has schooled her to despise men even as she uses them. Her every caress is sandpapered by hatred for what is, to her, the weaker sex. Besides, itís the Depression. "What could I do?" she rhetorically asks about one office liaison. "Heís my boss, and I had to earn my living."
Faithful to her code, Lily is serially monogamous: she dumps each man after a newer, bigger fish swims into view. "Iím sorry," she tells the recently disposable Wayne when he persists in asking her out on a date, "I have to go to bed early every night." Eventually she has both Cook and the company boss (Henry Kolker) dangling from her little black heartstrings. When Cook discovers Lilyís love nest with the boss, then kills Kolker and himself, Lilyís response is to peddle her diary to a tabloid for $10,000. Called into a meeting of the companyís board, she is quizzed by the new man in charge, patrician polo player George Brent. "When this thing happened, were you working very hard?" he asks. "Yeah," she says tersely, "but not at the bank."
All this is prelude to a Stanwyck-Brent romance: Lily is sent to the Paris bureau, where her skeptical new boss falls in love with her; they marry, and Lily must decide whether to hock her hard-won jewelry to save the bank. Some admirers of "Baby Face" have criticized its final third for capitulating to conventional sentiment. But the straightfaced romance in Act III seems cloying only because of the whirlwind cynicism of what preceded it. Besides, how many films allow viewers the climactic tingle of wondering whether the heroine is going to lead her nice-guy husband to ruin and early death?
2. THE GOOD-BAD WOMAN
It was to comedy that Stanwyck could bring all her gifts: The exquisite timing, the economy of gesture, the come-hither-at-your-own-risk glance. By now she knows exactly the aphrodisiac effect she has on men. One Stanwyck moue or mot tossed at Fred MacMurray in "Remember the Night," or Fonda in "The Lady Eve," or Cooper in "Ball of Fire" or "Meet John Doe," and the winsome hero was vanquished, totaled, hers. What Charles Coburn says to Stanwyck, of Fondaís strangulated attentions, could apply to any of these lucky, doomed swains stumbling into her sights: "Of course heís in love with you. Who is he not to be in love with you who beautify the North Atlantic?"
If you donít know "The Lady Eve," what a treat you have in store; for this is Hollywood romantic comedy at its blithe, brittle best. In "Talking Pictures:Screenwriters in the American Cinema," I wrote at length about the film and its author, and I wouldnít stop interested readers from buying a second-hand copy. (On the websites itís going for what you'd pay for a frappucino and a danish.) So weíll shorthand the movie here. Fonda is Charles "Hoppsy" Pike, an ale heir and amateur ophiologist; heís come from a year up the Amazon and hailed a cruise ship sailing for New York. On it are a gentleman card shark the Col. Harrington (Charles Coburn), who is no gentleman and his savvy daughter Jean. They plan to fleece this fine "specimen of the sucker sapiens"; but as Jean works her expert moves to dazzle Hoppsy, she starts to feel the heedless stirrings of ardor herself. Disappointment; betrayal; an elaborate plan of revenge, in which Jean will pretend to be Lady Eve Sidwich and seduce her mark one last fatal time.
If you do know the film, you donít need me to say that it has the funniest, most brilliantly modulated seduction scene in movies the verbal equivalent of expert heavy petting. Jean's stateroom is a moodily lighted Garden of Eden, and she is at once Eve, the apple and the serpent. (When they return to the Colonel, he tells Jean, "Well, you certainly took long enough to come back in the same outfit," and she replies, "Iím lucky to have THIS on.") Sturges had a five-year stretch in which he wrote and directed a couple of films a year, investing each with enough easy epigrams to make Oscar wild with envy. He may say of his facility with dialogue what the Colonel says after displaying some masterly legerdemain with a deck of cards: "You donít really need it. Itís just virtuosity."
Sturges had penned the Stanwyck-MacMurray "Remember the Night," a semi-sweet Christmas romance with just the right mixture of, as he put it, schmaltz, schmerz and schmutz. (It was also the first of 23 films in which the star was clothed by Edith Head, who had found the secret of camouflaging Stanwyck1s low-slung derriere.) At the time Sturges promised to write a comedy for the actress, who oddly had done only a few.
"The Lady Eve" plays to all her strengths: the intelligence and assurance, the drive and vulnerability, the Lefty Grove-like spin on a line of dialogue. The voice has deepened, become more artfully modulated; what was once a brass instrument is now a woodwind. It helps Stanwyck melt in sympathy when she spots a mopey Fonda ("You look like the last grave over by the willow"). And it puts a delicious chill on her plan for vengeance ("I need him like the ax needs the turkey"). It helps make Jean humorous, human and, despite her worst instincts, classy. She might have taken the Colonel1s advice at the start of the film: "Let us be crooked but never common."
If "The Lady Eve" is a shipboard version of Eden story, then "Ball of Fire" is "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in jazz lingo. But the two films are really the same tale: a criminally innocent man wins over a divinely cynical woman by appealing to a better nature she didn't know existed. Another Stanwyck gun moll, Sugarpuss OíShea, moves in with some unworldly professors assembling an encyclopedia. The scholars, led by Professor Potts ("Pottsy," she calls Cooper, in a clear echo of Fondaís Hoppsy) are thrilled to blushing that sheíll help them understand American slang; "This is the first time anyone moved in on my brain," she accurately notes. In fact, Sugarpuss is on the lam from the cops. Sheís Eve again, too, alluding to the law of gravity; she tells Potts she wants him to look at her as "just another apple." And she has the same troubling cocktail of two perplexing new feelings: love and guilt. She also sings a game "Drum Boogie," with Gene Krupa on skins.
Stanwyck copped the second of her four Academy Award nominations for her eloquent body English in "Ball of Fire"; the others were for "Stella Dallas," "Double Indemnity" and "Sorry, Wrong Number." As it happens, she never did win a Best Actress Oscar. In 1944, though, she received what may have been a more impressive honor from the Internal Revenue Service: it announced that Barbara Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the United States. Ruby Stevens had made good and earned every penny.
3. THE MAD-BAD WOMAN
"Some of my most interesting roles have been completely unsympathetic," Stanwyck told the Saturday Evening Post in the late Ď40s. "Actresses welcome such parts, knowing that vitriol makes a stronger impression than syrup." Her early roles had their caustic sides, but Stanwyck movies usually concluded with a redemptive spoonful of sugar. Hollywood didnít mind presenting the strong, rebellious woman, so long as she got some form of romantic religion, however perfunctory. No renunciation scene required.
From the mid-Ď40s on, though, the Stanwyck woman went a little mad, and her face reflected the change. Starting with "Double Indemnity," Stanwyckís eyes, the focal point of her appeal in the early films, seem smaller; they donít dominate her face any more. Now one concentrates on the mouth. When she was young, it had those pert little parentheses at each end, which lent her a kewpie-doll insouciance when she wanted it; now her lips were painted with garish lipstick to give her a mean and spoiled look. Her hair, which used to be shorter, now is as full and long as a judgeís wig in a burlesque skit itís a helmet for Attila the hon to wear into sexual battle. A final touch: the script put a gun in her hand. Now sheís a killer.
When Walter Neff (MacMurray), a bright insurance peddler, meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), does he think she is simply a restless, selfish woman with an anklet at the base of a lovely leg? Canít this movie male sniff out the sulfur under her perfume? Isnít he hep to her plan to use his sexual avidity to kill her cranky, unloving husband and then take the rap for the crime? Of course not, because the type hardly existed in Hollywood films before. He couldnít be blamed for not recognizing the difference between a romantic sand dune and a moral sump hole. In the approaching night of a new era of treachery, anybody would squint.
TIMEís own Richard Schickel, in his engrossing monograph on "Double Indemnity," notes that Stanwyck was originally reluctant to play such a malefic siren, until Wilder goaded her into it. Like Sturges, Wilder worked with Stanwyck first as screenwriter only (on "Ball of Fire"), then as writer-director. Heíd been able to observe her from a distance, gaining an informed appreciation of her talents, before moving in on her mind with "Double Indemnity." And she gave him the goods, neither softening Phyllisí black motives nor diminishing her stark seductiveness. Stanwyck was like a blues thrush who puts all of her skill and soul into a rendition, whether she singing "Drum Boogie" or a Black Mass for the Dead.
"I think youíre rotten," Phyllis tells Neff in an early encounter, to which he replies, "I think youíre swell so long as Iím not your husband." At the end, just before dissolving her contract with an uppity insurance salesman by plugging him in the chest, sheís confessing, "I never loved you, Walter, you or anybody else. Iím rotten to the heart." After "Double Indemnity," she got to be, or had to be, rotten in film after film. In "Clash by Night" Paul Douglas, as her cuckolded husband, tells her, "Youíre no good. Youíre rotten." In "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," honest Van Heflin says, "Youíre sick so sick that you donít even know the difference between right and wrong any more." Martha did know, of course; she just didnít care.
In "Sorry, Wrong Number," sheís a bed-ridden wife driven frantic by a series of phone calls. For once, it initially appears, sheís a pure victim. But she is neither; sheís bossy and vindictive, in a characterization so acutely unpleasant that Stanwyck dares to spit the audienceís reflexive sympathy back in its face. Who wants this harridan to survive her spooky evening alone? She has become the disposable spouse from "Double Indemnity," and the viewer starts feeling sorry for her duplicitous husband, especially since heís played by young Burt Lancaster - another smart, tough New Yorker, up from the streets. (Lancaster was the male Stanwyck, if thatís not redundant.) No wonder that, in the '50s, she left the pavement for the prairie, where a woman could be a warrior, and a gun was as handy an accessory as corrosive wit was to Stanwyck in her blooming, blistering movie youth.
In any relationship, Stanwyck always wore the pants. But in the Ď50s, she had to, if she was to ride a horse (never side-saddle). That was when everybody made westerns Marilyn and Marlon, Grace Kelly and Jerry Lewis but Stanwyck loved the wide open West, had been a fan of the genre since childhood and jumped at any excuse to mount a steed. Sheíd also enjoyed playing Annie Oakley back in Ď36.
So she rode the postwar prairie with a king (Elvis, in "Roustabout") and a future president (Reagan in "Cattle Queen of Montana"), as well as Joel McCrea ("Trooper Hook"), Glenn Ford ("The Violent Men"), Barry Sullivan (Sam Fullerís "Forty Guns") and MacMurray ("The Moonlighter," in 3-D). Then she ran a TV ranch in "The Big Valley." When she was hospitalized just before her death, she told designer Nolan Miller: "I never expected to become an invalid. I always thought Iíd be trampled by a wild stallion or run down by a stagecoach."
On screen, in chaps or crinoline, Stanwyck was a manís woman. And the man in this womanís life was often the father. Past or present, fathers are among the most looming figures in the Stanwyck canon. They came in all varieties: Good (the minister in "The Miracle Woman," killed by the grief his parishioners laid on him), bad (the pimp saloonkeeper in "Baby Face") and benignly amoral (Coburn in "The Lady Eve"). Not to mention any number of grouchy patriarchal husbands and avid sugar daddies. But she needed, for once, to make a film in which the father-daughter bond was explicitly competitive and implicitly incestuous. Anthony Mannís "The Furies" was the one: Freud on the range.
Stanwyck is the tough, proud daughter of T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a wild rancher who monopolizes her fear and love; when he aches from an old wound, she scratches it. Sheís called Vance; her soft, malleable brother is Clay (symbolism was swift in the Old West). Vance has tender feelings for a Mexican (Gilbert Roland), but apparently reserves her lust for father until she meets up with a gambler named Rip (Wendell Corey). At first she wants to run things; on a buggy ride, she asks, "Mind if I take the reins? I like to know where Iím going." But as soon as she declares her romantic interest in Rip, he gives her a few hard slaps. (Hold on! The genteel Corey as Stanwyckís sado-dominator? Thatís like the parson pushing around the teamster.) Seems like Vance is looking for a man to challenge, even mistreat her, the way her daddy has.
T.C. does two things that rile Vance. He marries a gold-digging Easterner (Judith Anderson); and he hangs Vanceís soulful Mexican. Now she revs up for another fabulous rant: "Youíre old and youíre getting foolish and youíve made a mistake. Itís me you should have hung. Because now I hate you in a way I didnít know a human could hate. Take a good long look at me, T.C. You wonít see me again till the day I take your world away from you." Darrow diagnoses her fever acutely: "Youíve found a new love in your life, havenít you, Vance? Youíre in love with hate." Eventually, she does bring her father to financial disaster, and he admires her for the sheer vindictive balls of the gesture. "I never thought a girl could really ride a bull," he crows. "But you did it, Vance. You rode me proper and you throwed me proper." It is T.C.ís last speech. He promptly dies, leaving Vance free to marry Rip. Jeez! Luke Skywalker had a less complicated relationship with his dad.
The femme-fatale scheming, the twisted father worship, the need to be whupped by the proper ranger all this was enough to wear even a strong woman down. It was time to play an emotionally exhausted woman, and in Fritz Langís "Clash by Night," from a Clifford Odets play, the Stanwyck character wears her fatigue like... well, like fatigues. "Iím tired of looking after men," growls Mae Doyle, just returned to a California fishing village after untidy adventures back East. "I want to be looked after. ... I want a man to give me confidence. Somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods. Somebody to beat off the world when it swallows you up." Her voice sounds sad, hollow and remote, as if she were calling up to ground level from the dank well of her past. The place where sheís landed could be the canvas of a boxing ring, thatís how happy she is to be home. "Home," she says, "is where you come when youíve run out of places."
And out of choices. The fall line of men is on the tatty side: a gruff, naive, salt-of-the-sea fisherman (Douglas) and his sexy, sociopathic pal (Robert Ryan). So she marries one, glumly, and shares some hot, desperate pash with the other. "Always take the man whoíll kick the door down," she tells her brotherís dishy fiancee (Monroe). "Advice from mother." Ryan will kick the door down and her teeth in, if she got on his thin nerves. Now sheís traded boredom for guilt. Hollywood morality of 1953 allowed adultery but demanded reconciliation. At the end, for the sake of their child, Mae has to go back to the lug she doesnít love. Itís a depressing resolution for a Stanwyck heroine: to do the dutiful thing. The viewer wants to grab her, put her on a horse, slap its haunches and set her gallop off to her destiny alone, far from the movie men that, for a quarter-century, she had battled, coddled, tested and found wanting.
Yet Stanwyck was no Garbo, majestically aloof. Sure, sometimes Stanwyck drove men to their doom, but she wanted to go along for the ride. The best part of the women she embodied is that almost all of them are still around, still kicking and biting having a hell of a time, and giving one. You can join her in the edifying fun by watching some of her films. They offer thrilling proof of her ferocious artistry. Hustonís enthusiastic testimony about his daughter in "The Furies" is just as true of Stanwyck: "Sheís one in a nation!"