Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Pretty good getting for a gal that came up the hard way"

- Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) from the 1941 film "Ball of Fire"

Barbara Stanwyck is my new all time favorite actress. Sorry, Katharine Hepburn, you've been displaced. Some would claim your range is greater, but could you play a lovable stripper, or perform stunts that involve you getting dragged by a horse, or appear in an Elvis film without looking like a complete loser has-been? No, I didn't think so.

My recent Stanwyck kick began with a holiday viewing of "Christmas in Connecticut". I had dragged Dan to a screening and I guess he enjoyed it because he surprised me with a Stanwyck biography for Christmas. The book focuses mainly upon her films, with bits about her personal life sprinkled in between. Yet what little I could glean about her upbringing and journey to stardom (as well as her career decline in middle age) inspired me, just as much as her wonderful performances in films like "Ball of Fire", "The Furies" and "Double Indemnity".

Barbara Stanwyck had a miserable childhood. Her father abandoned the family and died at sea. A drunk knocked her mother off a moving streetcar, making Barbara an orphan at age 4. After years of foster care and sleeping on various floors all over Brooklyn, she graduated from school at age 13 and went to work.

She toiled at odd jobs for a few years, and at age 16 fibbed about her age so she could became a chorus girl at a nightclub. This eventually led to a Broadway break at age 18. She found even greater success a year later in the 1927 production of "Burlesque".

Stanwyck moved to Hollywood with the hope of recreating her "Burlesque" role on the big screen, but that didn't happen. In fact, she found the transition from stage to film quite difficult. She became frustrated and began to lose hope, which led to the unfortunate occasion when she stormed out of an audition with director Frank Capra, shouting, "Oh, hell! You don't want any part of me." Fortunately, Capra gave her a second chance which led to a five film collaboration, including the Gary Cooper classic "Meet John Doe".

Like so many other directors, Capra loved working with Stanwyck because she knew her lines, worked hard, and neither threw fits nor picked on less experienced actors. Stanwyck insisted upon performing her own stunts, even into middle age (she did that getting-dragged-by-a-horse stunt when she was pushing fifty).

But they also loved her for her talent. Capra noticed that she tended to do her best work in the first take, so he would make everyone else rehearse without her. As soon as all the other actors were ready to finally nail the scene, he would bring her in to get it done in one take.

She had a magnetic presence and an honest grit that made even her most ridiculous characters seem real. For instance, in the film "Roustabout" she portrayed a feisty carnie who hires Elvis to be the star of her traveling stage show. Aside from being dumb, this is a remarkably boring film. Presley's love interest, played by Joan Freeman, is a total snooze. They have no chemistry. The music is unmemorable. Yet Stanwyck's scenes are so mesmerizing that you could edit the film down to her 30 minutes and have a thoroughly entertaining film. If any 56 year old woman is going to play a salty carnie who puts a perpetually pouting Elvis in his place, it may as well be a spry, silver-haired pro who can render inane dialog believable. And she still looked totally hot, too.

When Stanwyck had a great script in her hands, she made unforgettable films. I first saw the film "Ball of Fire" when I was 14 years old and wasn't able to get it on DVD until a few years ago. I was thrilled to find it an even better film than I'd remembered. In another pretty ridiculous scenario, Stanwyck played Sugarpuss O'Shea, the stripper girlfriend of a vicious mobster. Just as she's looking for a place where she can hide out from the district attorney, she meets Gary Cooper, a nerdy English professor who needs help with the slang portion of his encyclopedia. Sugarpuss later shows up on the professor's doorstep, much to the delight of his elder bachelor colleagues. Billy Wilder's hilarious script is perfect fodder for Stanwyck and her gaggle of old men (Wilder intended it as a demented "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"), an ensemble of the very best character actors of the 1930s and '40s. Again, Stanwyck made a ridiculous character tough, sympathetic and real, maybe because she understood her better than most movie stars could.

Despite her four nominations, the Academy never recognized Stanwyck for a specific performance, though they did present her an honorary Oscar in 1982. In accepting the award, Stanwyck gave special thanks to the crews and especially the stunt people who taught her so much throughout her career. She'd had decades to consider that speech and who she might thank, and her choosing to recognize a group of people who rarely receive even passing thanks in most other Oscar speeches was a testament to her thoughtfulness and class.

And that's just another reason why Barbara Stanwyck has become my newest artistic role model. When I get discouraged because I can't think of what to write, or how to say it, or why I bother in an era where so few people read, using a medium that makes the act of reading unpleasant, I think of Barbara Stanwyck. I think about her terrible upbringing and her early trials, and I remind myself that she worked very hard and very smart. And as much as I would want to emulate her fortitude, I would also want to be as gracious. Whether or not I have a shred of that innate talent she possessed, I don't think I can go wrong by aiming to be the kind of artist she was.


  1. One of my favorite movies is STELLA DALLAS (1937)--one of the best Hollywood melodramas, made by one of the great directors of the Golden Age, King Vidor. Enjoy!

  2. STELLA is definitely on the last. We just got cable/DVR, so I'm looking up all the Stanwyck movies and getting ready to record. I figure it's just a matter of time before TCM shows STELLA...