Commentary Magazine

Going On and On and On About Barbara Stanwyck

How long should a biography be? Most modern readers seem to agree that the story of anyone other than a major world-historical figure or an artist of the highest significance can be adequately told in a single volume of roughly 400 pages. This is especially true of artists whose work is more interesting than their lives or personalities, as is typically the case with film actors. It is rare to encounter a movie star who, like James Stewart, also led a consequential life off-screen (he commanded a bomber squadron during World War II). Far more common are performers such as Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart whose “real” lives are to be found in their films and whose private lives, though not without interest, do not lend themselves to memorable extended discussion.

And yet Hollywood biographies have grown longer in recent years, and 2011 saw the publication of a 1,024-page study of Spencer Tracy, whose off-screen life, though spectacularly tempestuous, did not come close to justifying so lengthy a volume. That landmark of excess, however, has now been surpassed by Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940. A book even longer than James Curtis’s Spencer Tracy: A Biography, Steel-True ends not with its subject’s passing but around the time of Stanwyck’s 34th birthday, before she made any of the films—most notably The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire (both 1941), and Double Indemnity (1944)—for which she is best remembered today.

In her lifetime, Stanwyck would never have been deemed suitable for such exhaustive treatment. She was, to be sure, a star, but not one of the first rank, like Bette Davis or Clark Gable. And because she started appearing in leading roles in 1929, at the beginning of the sound era, her celebrity declined after World War II, by which time she was in her late 30s—old for a female film star. Outside of her painful childhood and her failed marriages, to the vaudeville comedian Frank Fay and the film actor Robert Taylor, little of interest seems to have happened to her. As the director Jacques Tourneur said, “She only lives for two things, and both of them are work.” So why, then, is she now the subject of what will eventually become a double-decker biography? And why are so many reviewers taking Steel-True seriously? It is dully and at times ineptly written, with regular descents into adolescent gush (“She was being loved, openingly, adoringly, by Bob Taylor without the twisted darkness or fear that had been so entwined in her love with Frank Fay”). Moreover, Steel-True is not so much a “tell-all” as a “tell-everything”: At least half of the text, which consists in large part of irrelevant historical excursuses and excruciatingly detailed plot summaries of Stanwyck’s first 37 films, could have been cut without disturbing the book’s continuity.

The fact that Wilson is one of New York’s most powerful book editors likely had much to do with her being allowed to publish a thousand-page biography that shows no signs of having been edited by other hands. And two other aspects of Stanwyck’s life surely explain why Wilson and others might think her worthy of a two-volume biography. Not only was she a proto-feminist “strong woman” who (in the words of the playwright Alan Bennett) “seemed to want to be a man and certainly behaved like one,” but she is widely rumored to have been a lesbian, despite having been married twice. Out of such unproven gossip has many a Hollywood biography been spun.

To her credit, Wilson makes no mention of these rumors, apparently because she has found no evidence that they were true, at least prior to 1940. For all its weaknesses, Steel-True is scrupulously sourced and deals only in matters of verifiable fact (though Wilson is far too quick to take at face value the contents of movie-magazine “interviews” with Stanwyck). And it does manage, if only through sheer accumulation of data, to explain what it was about Stanwyck that made her stand out from her Hollywood contemporaries.

Born into a working-class Brooklyn family in 1907, Stanwyck was effectively orphaned at the age of four: Her mother died in childbirth, and her father subsequently deserted the family, dying in Panama a few years later. Forced to fend for herself, she became a professional dancer in 1921, joined the chorus of Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies the following year, and began acting in 1927, launching her career with two consecutive stage hits, The Noose and Burlesque. Both plays were written and directed by men, Willard Mack and Arthur Hopkins, who sought to bring a heightened degree of naturalism to the American theater, and Stanwyck, who had no training in acting, responded eagerly to their guidance, giving a pair of performances that received favorable reviews—and caused her to be noticed by the film industry.

When sound came to Hollywood in 1929, film studios were forced to reconsider every aspect of the art of moviemaking. Not surprisingly, they turned to Broadway in search of performers who were comfortable delivering dialogue, but quickly discovered that the “presentational” projection of classically trained stage actors came across on screen as no less exaggerated than the melodramatic pantomime of their silent-film counterparts.

What was needed was a different kind of personality, and up to a point the young Stanwyck filled the bill. Unpretentiously attractive but in no way glamorous, with a strikingly direct gaze and a Brooklyn-flavored accent, she was well-suited to play contemporary urban characters. She had the good fortune to start working early on with Frank Capra, who directed her in her third sound film, Ladies of Leisure (1930), in which she played a “party girl” (a sexually available woman who was one step up the ladder from a prostitute). Capra, who understood that sound had turned film into an essentially realistic storytelling medium, made sure that Stanwyck was costumed in a simple way suited to her commonplace good looks and encouraged her to act more straightforwardly. “I try to let a person play himself or herself,” he explained after the film was released. “Miss Stanwyck is a natural actress…I let her play herself, no one else.”

Thanks in part to Capra, with whom she made three more films in the next three years, Stanwyck quickly found her footing in Hollywood. All that remained was for her to develop an identifiable screen “type” and refine her acting skills. The type came easily: Jeanine Basinger, the film historian, has called Stanwyck’s screen persona “tough but vulnerable.” Ernest Hemingway pointed to another aspect of her persona when he described her as “very nice with a good tough Mick [i.e., working-class Irish] intelligence.” She delivered her lines with a crisp, comprehending sharpness that suggested that intelligence—a quality by no means universal among Hollywood actors.

It took longer for Stanwyck to shed the habits of her brief stage career. Known from the outset for the intensity of her performances, she was inclined to overact. That she specialized throughout the 1930s in melodramatic “women’s pictures” (the most famous being Stella Dallas) underlined that flaw. As late as 1941, Otis Ferguson, the most acute American film critic of the period, wrote that “Stanwyck has always needed managing…her idea of a passion is still that it is something to tear to firecrackers.” It followed that she would be ill at ease with comedy, failing to see that it was what she needed to further naturalize her screen personality.

Not until 1939 did Stanwyck receive the opportunity to star in a first-rate comedy, and the experience transformed her. In Remember the Night, written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen, she plays a wisecracking shoplifter who wins the heart of the prosecuting attorney (Fred MacMurray) who is determined to put her behind bars. The combination of Leisen’s romantic visual style and Sturges’s witty dialogue put her on her mettle, with consequences well described by Wilson: “The combination of Sturges’s nuanced writing and comedy released Barbara. Her attraction to melodrama had become her signature, though in ways it confined her. With Sturges’s brilliant writing, she was freed up. On screen she is a person with weight and power, and comedy lightens her.”

Steel-True inopportunely comes to a close at this pivotal moment in Stanwyck’s career. Immediately after Remember the Night, she starred in Sturges’s The Lady Eve and Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire, a pair of screwball comedies in which she brought to fruition the newfound lightness of touch acquired from working with Sturges and Leisen. Rarely thereafter would she err in the direction of overstatement, not even when Billy Wilder (who co-wrote Ball of Fire) persuaded her to play a hard-hearted murderess three years later in Double Indemnity.

Adapted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain’s 1943 novella, Double Indemnity is an early film noir in which Stanwyck plays a frustrated housewife who seduces Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an unwitting insurance salesman, then persuades him to join with her in a scheme to murder her husband for profit. Stanwyck had never before played such a role, and she told Wilder, “I’m a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out cold-blooded killer.” Part of what makes Stanwyck’s performance so noteworthy is the way in which Wilder, whose surface cynicism concealed a romantic streak, took care to show her in a deceptively sympathetic light (an impression emphasized by the underscoring of Miklós Rózsa, whose music for the love scenes is explicitly romantic). In addition, though, she had acquired from her comic roles a deftness that allowed her to toss off the film’s Chandleresque repartée with dazzling ease: “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.” “How fast was I going, officer?” “I’d say around ninety.”

The result was a film that, together with The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, defined Stanwyck as a screen personality in a way that had hitherto eluded her—and just in time. Though she would make several more outstanding films after 1944, it was clear that her great days as an above-the-title movie star were drawing to a close. It says much about the brief half-life of female stardom in Hollywood that she was billed second to MacMurray in Double Indemnity.

Only after her death in 1990 did Stanwyck come to be widely regarded as one of the most distinctive film actors of all time. Prior to that time she was seen as something of an accomplished workhorse, an impression underlined by her decision to spend the last three decades of her career appearing in TV, at the time a sign that she was past her prime. (Significantly, she never won a competitive Oscar.) Today, by contrast, her stature is aptly summed up in this rapturous line from a centenary tribute published in the New Yorker by Anthony Lane: “When I think of the glory days of American film, at its speediest and most velvety, I think of Barbara Stanwyck.”

What explains the posthumous growth of her reputation? It arises in part from the disposition of modern-day critics to take comedy and film noir more seriously than did their grandparents. But it is also important to note that unlike such fast-fading screen idols of the past as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, she chose her roles far more carefully in her peak years. Even the finest of screen actors eventually disappear from our collective consciousness if their films are no longer viewed by the general public. Such has been Tracy’s unhappy fate, and were it not for Gone With the Wind and It Happened One Night, Gable would be in like danger of receding into semi-obscurity. Not so Barbara Stanwyck, who gave her best performances in memorable, well-directed films that were worthy in every way of her gifts. Because they continue to be remembered, she is remembered, too—as she should be.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. His first play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, will be produced off-Broadway next month.

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