Classic Film : Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck

What I love about Stanwyck is that she was a superb dramatic actress, but she could also do comedy with the best of them, and with great honesty. She was both "bad" and "good" depending upon the material. Sometimes I think of her as the quintessential film actress, someone the camera loved and who never seemed to have a false moment in any performance. A natural truth-teller.

There's a great story about Double Indemnity: She didn't want to do the film because to her the character was so unsavory (she was apparently a very nice person in real life). And Billy Wilder only got her to do it by asking, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" Or words to that effect. Of course, she acquiesced.

I especially love her in these films:

Double Indemnity
Meet John Doe
The Lady Eve
Remember the Night
Christmas in Connecticut

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

She's terrific also in Sorry, Wrong Number, a terrific, underrated movie.

I like her also in Fritz Lang's Clash By Night, world weary and unashamedly middle aged in looks and attitude.

Noir was a good niche for Stanwyck. I think of Witness To Murder and Crime Of Passion.

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Re: Barbara Stanwyck



Thanks for the bump, Spiderwort. Yeah, I know they called her Missy but I think of her as Babs. Anyway, I like Babs best when she's bad or semi-bad. Sorry, Wrong Number is half-way there, what with her psychosomatic illness and the like, always bidding for attention and sympathy.

In Clash By Night she's not quite the train wreck she was in that one but still, not an easy woman to satisfy. Just restless; a woman not yet ready to settle, much less settle down, least of all with someone like teddy bear Paul Douglas. Robert Ryan was freakin' dangerous, and that suited her fine till he proved to be a weakling in the end.

She was at her best as a good girl in Meet John Doe, maybe not her best performance but a very good one, especially as it was a "Jean Arthur" role, and yet Babs served the material well, and emotional outburst near the end was deeply felt.

Meet John Doe

Agree with everything, telegonus, though I do think in real life she was "Missy." Those who knew her really loved her and loved how she behaved around them.

And I adored her in Meet John Doe. I think that and Christmas in Connecticut are probably my favorite of her films (and I actually think John Doe is one of her best peformances. And Double Indemnity, of course, in which she was the femme fatale personified. And yet, by the end of the film, one could feel compassion for her and the fact that her epiphany came too late. That's one of the things I always loved about her - that even when she was out on the edge, there was something profoundly human about her. She was always important to me for that.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Thanks for the rapid response, Spiderwort. Double Indemnity does draw out Stanwyck's humanity in a strange, twisted way. She's on the edge in that one. A femme fatale, but an ambivalent one. There's no way she could ever win or ever have won. She was self-destructive by nature, put herself into "impossible" situations, couldn't get out of them. Another good one for her, the 1957 Crime Of Passion (I think it's Gerd Oswald who directed), this time contending with Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr.

Double Indemnity

Perfect assessment of that character, tele. If you haven't read the novel, I highly recommend it. It's even more brilliant than the film. And the final pages (quite different from the film) are haunting.

As for Crime of Passion, I don't remember seeing that. But I'll make a point to if it shows up on TCM. Gerd Oswald - now that's a name I haven't thought of in a long, long time. Remember him mostly for television and for A Kiss Before Dying.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

To get a copy of Executive Suite it was cheaper to buy a Stanwyck boxset than get individually. Discovered a very nice melodrama called East Side West Side.
Also like her in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers , also with Van Heflin.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

I like her very much in all of those, Aussie, but especially in East Side, West Side and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. That's one of my favorites. She's really terrific in it in her vulnerable femme fatale way. Great direction by Lewis Milestone in that one, too.

One of the neat things about Executive Suite, if memory serves, is that Holden got her added to the cast as payback for her getting him into his break-out film, Golden Boy. That's Hollywood collegiality at it's best.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

I've never seen East Side, West Side. They'd run the previews on the local TV station when they were planning to show it back when I was a kid. Killer cast in that one. MGM still in "Grand Hotel mode" as to casting top star names. Executive Suite is more of same, and a very good movie. I think some of that superstar allure began to fade with the coming of color and the wide screens, although at the time it looked like "bigger" would mean better, as in better movies, bigger and better stars, etc.

Early widescreen and color

First, East Side, West Side isn't great, but it's definitely worth a look. I like Executive Suite a lot more - smarter script and direction, I think; and, of course, a great cast.

And I agree with you about the allure of widescreen color films (with a few exceptions - East of Eden being one, the first in 1955 that I remember really used the canvas well). Bigger definitely did not mean better, as far as I'm concerned. And with the exception of a few like Eden, so many of the widescreen films early on seemed to fall back into the dull proscenium look. I enjoy Desk Set, for example, but it looks so much more like a play than a film that it's almost unbelievable. Maybe some of the epics were a bit better; don't remember many of them. And maybe the musicals. But generally, with the exception of East of Eden, which used canted angles, lots of foreground objects, interesting depth of field shots - in other words beautiful cinematic design - along with a few others that came a bit later, like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Bridge on the River Kwai, et al, I don't remember liking the early widescreen format at all.

But I'm probably in the minority. And there are doubtless other titles I just don't recall. . .

Color, Wide Scree, Todd A-O & All The Rest

Yup, Spiderwort. Color, wide screen, all the new sound improvements and various other kinds of film enhancements, gimmicks and the like, such as 3D, probably confused moviegoers. CinemaScope was a likely selling point for two three years; then VistaVision came along; 3D proved to be a fad, though it was a fun one. Was there ever a serious movie made in that process? Okay, Dial M For Murder, although it was rather "Hitchcock Light", don't you think? Not that serious, really. A good, "clean" murder mystery

East Of Eden has fallen in my estimation of it,–as a masterpiece, when I was a teenager–to an ambitious, rather artsy mainstream picture, full of powerful moments and fine performances–but now it seems awfully loud, the color especially, but also Leonard Rosenman's insistent score. Elia Kazan was a good director for actors but his technique had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Yet I agree with you, as I think about it: there's something brassy, ballsy, deeply felt and express train powerful about it. Overdone by today's standards, especially the extreme emotionalism, James Dean's performance has taken some hits over the years, and yet he seemed absolutely perfect (to those who liked him and sympathized with his uber-angst).

There've been all those debates, many on the old IMDB over whether Dean "rates" with his (apparent) idol, Marlon Brando. I've read some good "defenses" of Dean, too, however: of his energy, his sincerity, his near "possession" when playing his two iconic screen roles, in East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, and I've grown fond of Dean all over again. What do his critics day about him? Over the top. Involved, yes, and not a cool guy. He didn't "go for subtle". Good for him.

Kazan was probably not the right director for James Dean. He'd mentored, cultivated and championed so many like him before (and after as well). Nor did he particularly care for Dean as a private person (he called him "a little pudding of hatred"). Yet Dean was there, in all his glory, his "over-emoting", and East Of Eden is probably the film that best matched his style: larger than life, in your face, nervous, colorful, innovative, busy and…have I miss something? Personally, I like Dean's work in Rebel Without A Cause for Nick Ray somewhat better. It's a quieter, more thoughtful movie, and Dean's just one of many "wild kids" in the film. Also, it's a beautiful film just to look at. I could watch it with the sound off.

East of Eden, James Dean, and Rebel Without a Cause

Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about both East of Eden and James Dean, tele. But thanks for the great reply. I have a lot of respect for your intellect and your knowledge of films. I hope you know that. Even when we disagree. 😊

It Took A While

It took a while to respond: you're welcome, Spiderwort. 🙂 Maybe I just prefer movies that are unashamedly melodrama to movies that aim higher. That is, when the melodrama works, as I believe it did, beautifully in Rebel Without A Cause. The photography was so stunning, in a quiet way; and the relationships between the teens so credible (for a movie, I mean), that it wins me over.

Also, Rebel may be the first major film to deal with the issue of what, ten years later, would be called the Generation Gap. The adults don't understand the kids, the kids don't dig the grownups. Boys look at their fathers and say "never!", which is to say "I don't ever want to be like that, be like him. The mothers didn't seem to be so bad (or "bad"), but the fathers didn't cut it in the eyes of their sons, or even with their daughters for that matter.

Earlier films, from City Across The River, with its Amboy Dukes, to The Wild One, with its bikers, seemed to focus more on class issues. It's heavily emphasized in the former, more implicit in the latter. The "misunderstood youth" of the kinds of pictures that starred the likes of Tony Curtis and John Derek just a few years earlier were more old school and formulaic, with their bad boys basically the Dead End Kids of the postwar era.

Suburbia spawned James Dean and his kind. There was no Reason why they were, well, the way they were. You couldn't point the accusing finger at the tenements of the cities, at the clotheslines and rickety fire escape ladders. It was beyond the street corner. More like the "bomb", the Cold War, angst and other modern things; internal, private more than public, worse for some kids than others. This is what the Nick Ray film focused on, and I guess that's why it resonates more with me.

Rebel Without a Cause

Excellent comments, telegonus. I think in the main we can agree on this. 🙂

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Thanks, Spiderwort. I was hoping for that. Sometimes differences, even outright arguments,–we weren't even close to that–are as much a matter of semantics, how things are said (or written) and how another person interprets it and its implications more than what was in fact intended. Oh, dang, here I go getting all analytical again…🙃

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

One of my all-time favorites!! Especially loved her in pre-codes:

Ten Cents a Dance
Baby Face
Night Nurse
So Big!

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Of the ones you listed I've only seen Baby Face. Excellent and rough, it pulls no punches as to what poor girls, very poor girls, were up against back then. The New Deal hadn't really kicked in. Life in those steel and coal towns was, for most people who lived in them, something akin to living hell.

Baby Face

Very much agree with your comments about the times, tele. And I think those early (especially Warner Brothers) films so often captured that desperation with great authenticity. Not sure why, but Warners in particular seemed dedicated to achieving that. I'll always be grateful they did. Baby Face was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2005.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

I've only seen Baby Face, Mike, which I think is one of her best. I need to see the others, and I'm mad at myself for not recording So Big! on TCM recently. I've been meaning to watch it for years. God, she was an actress way ahead of her time - so natural, I mean, at a time in those early days when that was a real rarity.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

The greatest actress of all time! 💗💗💗

A few that you didn't mention that are favorites of mine:

My Reputation
The Furies
Stella Dallas
The Lady Gambles …

Never mind. It would be easier for me to list the 2 or 3 films I don't care for.
I've seen all of her films (numerous times) except for Broadway Nights (a silent film that seems to be lost forever).

fka Ethel Mertz

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Never mind. It would be easier for me to list the 2 or 3 films I don't care for.

I might have to agree with you there. She was a joy in everything, even when the films weren't that good. What an actress she was, way ahead of her time!

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

I loved her in Sorry Wrong Number. That was a great film!

Sorry Wrong Number

Haven't seen it in ages, but remember loving it - and Stanwyck.

That film was based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, who later wrote the screenplay. I'd love to hear the radio version but haven't been able to find it. But it's highly unlikely it'll be as good as the Stanwyck film is. Still, it would be interesting to hear.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

I love this movie, but it was Gary Cooper who impressed me the most.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Mort, I'm not sure which film you're referring to. But if it's Meet John Doe, I understand why you feel the way you do.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Yes, thats the one.. He was great in my favorite Capra, and probably a Top 15 favorite of mine, "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" - I love those honest populist movies.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

I love them, too. They have a fundamental decency, honesty, and humanity about them, and about the human condition under the most difficult of circumstances. I've always hated that Capra films were labelled as "Capra-corn." So many were brilliant, and inspiring, and challenging, too, especially after the time he served in the war. It's a Wonderful Life is a very dark and despairing film until Stewart finds his redemption. That darkness, within the parameters of true humanity, is what makes the film, and Capra, great. I remember feeling very much the same about one of his early films, American Madness (1932).

Frank Capra, Sicilian immigrant, who brought beauty and truth to the American silver screen.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Good points.. Can't say much more than that.

Isn't it interesting that Capra was a life-long Republican?

Frank Capra

That is interesting. But Republican or Democrat he had a heart of gold.

Frank Capra

Yes, I think direction is important. Its funny that everyone thinks Capra was a left-winger, when he was anti-FDR.

Frank Capra

To each his own. He had the humanity of FDR, even if he didn't share his politics.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

The Two Mrs Carrolls. Bogey was a cool dude.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls

Yes, a good noir for her. And, if I'm not mistaken, that's the only film she ever made with Bogart. I would have liked to have seen them together again.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck

Love Stanwyck as a feisty and formidable rancher in the Western Forty Guns in which she did her own horseback riding and stunts.

You've seen Guy Standeven in something since the man was in everything.

Re: Barbara Stanwyck