Fierce: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck cons clueless millionaire Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ hilarious screwball comedy The Lady Eve


Heard of her? Probably. Name a film she’s done? Not so easy. Barbara Stanwyck earned a deserved spot in the A-List of classic Hollywood celebrity in her day. She played in 85 films over the course of 38 years, a Nick Cage-like pace punctuated with terrific range from comedies to tear-jerkers to hard-boiled film noir. She was nominated four times for Best Lead Actress but never won (though she did take home several Emmys for her later work in television), and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. To contemporary eyes she’s in a bit of a fog, not as clear a classic figure as the sharp-witted Katharine Hepburn or the tough gravitas of Bette Davis. Part of that haze is due to Stanwyck’s chameleonic range, the ur Meryl Streep if you will, as she tackled so many different kinds of roles with fluid aplomb. For the next two months, TIFF Cinematheque shines a light on Stanwyck’s wide-ranging career, revealing a fierce, independent icon from a bygone era. Bold and brassy, she’s all the reason they’re calling the program Ball of Fire.

Stanwyck entrances Gary Cooper (and a few others) with her sassy stripper on the lam in Ball of Fire


Stanwyck has one of those movie-star origin stories that says destined for fame with its lurid twists. Born Ruby Stevens, she grew up in Brooklyn. At age four, a drunk pushed her mother off a streetcar, killing her due to complications from a miscarriage. Two weeks later her father fled to go work on the Panama Canal and never returned, leaving Stanwyck and her siblings as orphans. All of nine, her older sister Mildred took care of her and her brother Byron at first, but that simply wouldn’t fly, and they headed to a series of foster homes. Fiercely independent even then, Stanwyck regularly ran away. Eventually, she was released back into the custody of Mildred, who’d become a showgirl. Young Ruby toured with her, learning the routines and becoming enamored with the lifestyle. She dropped out of school at age 14, took an assortment of shopgirl jobs, and, in 1923, at the ripe old age of 16, landed a semi-permanent gig as a showgirl with Ziegfeld Follies. After a few years she branched out to Broadway, and in 1927 landed her first lead role in the hugely successful show Burlesque. With her theatre breakthrough, Hollywood was knocking at her door almost immediately, and within two years she and her husband had moved to Hollywood and she was a leading lady. Her first bit movie role came back in 1927 as well, as a dancer in Broadway Nights (1927). The producers thought Ruby Stevens sounded too burlesque for their taste, so the fresh ingenue was rechristened Barbara Stanwyck.

Stanwyck is luminous in the gripping, sordid Baby Face

Throughout the dirty 30s, Stanwyck was a hard-working star, all of her roles characterized by strong, independent women. In Night Nurse (1931), she’s a wise-cracking private nurse who sets out to save two little girls from villainous chauffeur Clark Gable. In the sordid, sizzling Baby Face (1933), Stanwyck is an ambitious woman from the wrong side of the tracks, sleeping her way to the top of a big bank. (TIFF has unearthed an uncensored version from before the moral machinations of the Hays Code, revealing an early Hollywood at its licentious best). Tear-jerker extraordinaire Stella Dallas (1937) finds Stanwyck as a determined working-class gal who marries up but is rejected for her gauche behaviour, and finds herself forced to sacrifice everything for her daughter’s happiness. In The Lady Eve (1941), Stanwyck boards a cruise ship to con a hapless snake expert and heir to a huge family fortune played by Henry Fonda. It’s a classic screwball comedy, directed by Preston Sturges, and both leads are marvellous.

In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck defines a femme fatale for the ages (bad luck for Fred MacMurray)

All of these were very successful, enjoyable films, but for lasting influence, nothing beats Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944). Adapted from the hard-boiled crime novel by James M. Cain, Stanwyck is riveting as homicidal housewife Phyllis Dietrichson. Stuck in a loveless marriage, she ensnares cocky insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Using her considerable feminine wiles she motivates him to cook up an airtight murder and insurance scam, and then do the deed with her help. It’s a chilling performance, with nothing held back in her cold sexual calculation, and it set the bar for countless evil murderesses to follow. Billy Wilder’s terse direction and the inky cinematography are all classic, immediately spawning the brilliant film noir genre with movies like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) to Chinatown (1974), Memento (2000) and TV series like Twin Peaks and True Detective. 

Barbara Stanwyck introduces her new step-mom to the scissors in The Furies.

She kept finding success in her later career, portraying melodramatic, independent women, often in Westerns. The Furies (1950) from director Anthony Mann is emblematic of this period. A peculiar blend of Western and film noir, Stanwyck is the hard-nosed daughter of a rakish cattleman. Their complicated relationship and the interventions of various calculating lovers makes for a heady psychodrama. It’s a weird wild ride into a pretty dark canyon, with Mexican squatters, currency manipulation, land-grabs and a heaping plateful of Electra complex to warm it all up. In the final phase of her career, Stanwyck moved to TV. She kept on winning there, too, pocketing a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her appearance in the mini-series The Thorn Birds (1983).

With such range and so many good movies to choose from, it’s a crime for Barbara Stanwyck to be forgotten. In fact, her fame was a big reason behind the bulge of Barbaras born in the thirties, forties and fifties, which is why so many older moms out there are named Barbara (my mom was one of them). Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck is a great opportunity to get a little closer to her fiercely intelligent presence. Just don’t get burned.

The series is already on at TIFF in Toronto, and runs until April 4th. For more information on the series films and festival box office, see here. If you’re not in Toronto, these films are hard to track down online. Double Indemnity is available on iTunes, and a lot of the rest can be found on old-school DVDs (remember those things?) on Amazon.

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