Dan Callahan, one of my favorite writers on pre-“New Hollywood” Hollywood, brought us the full life in under 300 pages last year, winning praise far and wide for Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman. But the oft-touted range, the emotional depth and fierce strength of the actress has tempted others to pull up closer and go long. Way long. Victoria Wilson‘s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940, the first of two volumes, runs over 1000 pages and has occasioned a major retrospective at New York’s Film Forum, opening tomorrow and running through December 31. Wilson will present “Stanwyck Before Hollywood: An Illustrated Talk” on Sunday and will be just generally on hand tomorrow, Tuesday, and again on Sunday, December 29. Earlier, we pointed to reviews of the book from Aljean Harmetz (Thompson on Hollywood) and Michelle Orange (Slate).
Imogen Sara Smith goes pretty long herself in a new piece for Moving Image Source, a survey of the first half of Stanwyck‘s career broken down by genre: “She made every kind of movie, equally at home in comedy, melodrama, noir, westerns, period epics, and smash-and-grab pre-Code programmers. Equally at home yet, in some troubled and propulsive way, never at home.” Still, “some things remain constant: her greyhound figure, her stripped-down acting style, her volatile mixture of hard shell and wounded heart. Wasting no effort, she brings to every scene the flexed focus of an athlete, an archer taking aim at the bull’s eye.”
“It’s tempting, however foolish, to conflate the actress’s grit with that of several of the characters she played at the outset of her movie career,” writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. “From 1929 through 1933—the glory years of loose-morals Hollywood—Stanwyck was often cast as an indomitable cynic who frequently used sex as a weapon, whether to advance to the 1 percent in Alfred E. Green‘s Baby Face (1933) or to be sprung from San Quentin in Howard Bretherton‘s Ladies They Talk About (1933)…. By 1944, Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the U.S.—and, as platinum blonde Phyllis Dietrichson, the most fatale of femmes in Billy Wilder‘s noir paradigm Double Indemnity. “I’m rotten to the heart,” she tells Pacific All-Risk Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, another frequent co-star) in the movie’s closing minutes. But Walter had been aware of—and turned on by—her lack of scruples since their very first encounter, when she, a married woman in Glendale, greeted him in little more than a towel and an anklet.”
At the L, Miriam Bale recommends The Miracle Woman (1931), a “shockingly good Capra film” screening tomorrow “about a born-again lady evangelist based on Aimee Semple McPherson. The director knew how to milk hysteria, strength and tragic dignity out of Barbara Stanwyck, and he frames it with fire, lions, screams and spectacle.”
Update, 12/6: For the Notebook, Adrian Curry collects some of the best posters for Stanwyck’s films.
Update, 12/7: The series opened with The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), “a bravura spectacle, shameless in its celebration of almost everything that the Motion Picture Production Code wanted to take off the screen,” writes David D’Arcy for Artinfo. “No stereotype was left unexploited, and Stanwyck, seasoned in the pot-boiling wise-cracking shockers of her time, was game for it all.”
Updates, 12/15: “I believe Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress ever to step before a movie camera,” declares Vince Keenan. “Many of her performances remain startlingly fresh, her presence almost contemporary. It’s at once resilient and sad, marrying the confidence of a thoroughgoing professional with an uneasy watchfulness. Being abandoned by your widowed father at the age of four and having to make your own way in the world as an adolescent can do that to a girl…. Steel-True is like a marathon, a long haul requiring time and commitment. When it’s finished, you feel spent and exhilarated—and immediately start planning the next run. The book ends with the world plunging into war and Stanwyck poised to play her greatest parts: [The Lady Eve], Ball of Fire, and Double Indemnity, not to mention one of my favorites, Sorry, Wrong Number. Volume two cannot come soon enough.”
And Wilson’s a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show.
“The currency of stars in the era of classical Hollywood could be reduced to and recognized by an easily citable and often eroticized quality, usually a unique trace of some sort adorning the face,” notes Michael Blum at Hyperallergic. “Claudette Colbert had her chestnut eyes, Lauren Bacall her felinity, Cary Grant his dark, deep-set eyes and butt-chin dimple, and Greta Garbo her masklike countenance (plaster-like and Platonic, as Barthes remarked).” What made Stanwyck “a veritable star was her poignant tenacity, her toughness, and her knack for playing the roles of women who cut against the grain of most precedents for female roles in film.”
Update, 12/22: “When you think about it, there are not many Christmas-movie heroines,” writes Sadie Stein for the Paris Review. “But then, nobody ever put Barbara Stanwyck in a corner—and with Christmas in Connecticut’s Elizabeth Lane, she gave us a character who was tough, smart, and irrepressibly modern. Christmas in Connecticut is not a great movie. I thought I loved it until a few days ago, when I forced a friend to sit through it with me and realized I only really liked the first twenty minutes before it gets farcical, and not the parts on the boat or the hospital, and that I absolutely loathe the smarmy love interest, played by the fatuous Dennis Morgan, and any scene involving his smirking face. Nevertheless, this is my Christmas movie recommendation.”
Update, 12/26: For the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot posts a list of ten favorite Stanwyck performances in alphabetical order.
Update, 12/27: David D’Arcy on Remember the Night (1940), in which Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, whose “arrest for stealing a bracelet from a 5th Ave. jewelry store at Christmas time threatens to ruin her holiday—or does it? This is a screwball script by Preston Sturges, directed by Mitchell Leisen, so any pivot in a haywire direction tends to lead to laughs and wild flourishes. Ever the satirist of middle-class propriety and pomposity, Sturges turns a court scene into a farce of faux-sentimentality as John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), an affable assistant district attorney, faces the impossibility of getting a jury to convict a woman at Christmas time. ‘It’s very hard to put a woman in jail, no matter what she’s done,’ he’s told, even though the defendant has a record, ‘a first offender at Christmas time is tougher than tiger meat.’ Typical Sturges parlance.”
Update, 1/2: “Steel-True works the way all good biographies do, as a mini-history of the world around a person,” writes Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice. “This is a pointillist book: Wilson, a vice-president and senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, builds her story detail by detail, and while some of the dots may not seem so important by themselves, their shifting colors settle into place as the chapters roll by.”
Updates, 1/7: Steel-True is an “enormously informative tribute—juicy yet dignified, admiring yet detached,” writes Molly Haskell in the New York Times Book Review. Wilson provides “context of extraordinary breadth, taking in not only Stanwyck’s life, her beginnings in poverty and tragedy and her emergence as an emblem of self-sufficiency, but also the world through which she moved: the cultural and political forces that shaped her years in show business as she went from burlesque and theater in New York to the turbulent Hollywood of the 1930s. Each film from this period is recounted in detail—indeed not just the films she made, but the ones she almost made and the parts she didn’t get. These descriptions are interspersed with mini-biographies of the various participants, forays into Stanwyck’s social life (or antisocial life, as the case often was), along with politics, both local and national.”
“During the heyday of moviegoing, decades before the rise of home video, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast versions of popular theatrical releases to millions of living rooms across the nation,” writes Morgan Wilcock for Film Comment. And “Lux’s favorite guest, by far, was Barbara Stanwyck, who appeared 23 times from 1936 to 1955. Stanwyck had a knack for radio. Industrious and capable of staying cool under pressure, she was well suited to the show’s frenetic pace of production.”