Saturday, February 13, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #4: Barbara Stanwyck

First Movie I Saw Her In: Double Indemnity (1944)

Three Favorite Movies: Ball of Fire (1941); The Lady Eve (1941); Meet John Doe (1941)

Honorable Mention: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Favorite Performance: Drama: Double Indemnity (1944); Comedy: Ball of Fire (1941)

Why I Like Her: Barbara Stanwyck is the Golden Age actress I was ever exposed to, via The Big Valley (1965-69), the Western TV show where Babs played Victoria, the matriarch of the Barkley family. She was billed as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck" and even to my child brain of thirty years ago, she made an impression. I knew that this woman was something special (even when I wasn't gawking at Stanwyck's ravishing co-star, Linda Evans). Stanwyck was the first movie star-turned-TV-star that I ever watched with regularity.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that I would reconnect with Stanwyck and this time, it would be her her film career, which I had been vauguely aware of but hadn't seen. Discovering Barbara Stanwyck the film star was a constant, unfolding joy. In fact, it remains one of my favorite discoveries since my full-fledged obsession with classic film.

Stanwyck was brilliant at both comedy and drama, played cold-bloodedness and jubillance with equal expertise and I was stunned at how sensual and hypnotic she was as Phyllis Dietrichson, the black widow of Double Indemnity. It was a helluva introduction to this side of the actress! However, the "lighter side" of Stanwyck was what made me like her even more. Once again, a woman who can be funny is a guaranteed success in my book. My three favorite Barabara Stanwyck performances all come from her stellar year of 1941 where she appeared in Ball of Fire; Meet John Doe; and The Lady Eve. In the last film she tantalized and beguiled Henry Fonda and in the first two movies Stanwyck and Gary Cooper were simply wonderful together. Never in a million years would I think that that combination would work as well as it did.

Stanwyck will never be thought of as a great beauty but as Sugarpuss O'Shea in Ball of Fire, she has a sexy, playfullness about her that makes her wonderfully appealing. Proof once again (as if anyone needed it) that beauty is a way of being, not looking. Stanwyck has Cooper and company eating out of her hands in that film.

In an earlier, largely unread post I put forth the theory that Barbara Stanwyck's legacy has grown bigger in the years since her death in 1990. I confindently place her "up there" with three other major actresses of the 1930s-40s. Stanwyck was well-respected in her movie star prime, receiving four Oscar nominations but never winning. The Academy finally honored Stanwyck with an honorary Oscar. Better late than never. Go here for her emotional acceptance speech.

Given my long history and lifelong appreciation for Stanwyck, it wouldn't surprise me if she eventually rises to the top spot on this list. I still need to see her more obscure 1930s work. It'll no doubt be just as rewarding as first seeing her as the tremndous performer she revealed herself to be when I was just discovering her as a movie actress.


  1. Barbara Stanwyck is my all-time favorite -- you'll definitely like her even more when you see her earlier movies. She's so full of spunk in them! And I really can't think of anyone who does heavy melodrama like Stella Dallas or Forbidden equally as well as broad comedy like The Lady Eve. Have you seen Remember the Night or The Mad Miss Manton? They're not quite as good, but definitely along the same lines as Ball of Fire & The Lady Eve :)

  2. Actually, the "largely unread post" was how I came across your blog.

  3. Thanks for the great link to that great speech. I LOVE your blog!!

  4. She is absolutely incredible in "Babyface" (1933). I had not appreciated the pre-Code films very much until I saw it...

  5. She was fabulous! I have also really enjoyed her pre-code films such as "Baby Face". I'm loving this series of posts!

  6. Kate Gabrielle: I'll watch Stanwyck in anything but I have yet to see those films; must correct that! :)

    Miguel: I'm glad that you've stuck around! I've been "hemorrhaging followers lately.

    L: Thanks!

    Quirky Character: I loved Babyface especially in how it showed what a slum her character came from. It still packs a punch.

  7. Women like Barbara, Katharine Hepburn and the like are a shining example of how an intelligent face is always beautiful. But, besides, she had such light-radiating eyes.

  8. She was gorgeous. A movie no one mentioned that I love her in is the gothic inspired The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. LOve that film!

  9. Amanda: Me, too!

    Stella: Well said. I wish I'd thought to write that!

    Didi: I was thisclose to making "Martha Ivers" my Honorable Mention pick but I figured Double Indemnity was enough of the "sick and twisted" Stanwyck! ;) I also came close to picking The Furies (1950).

  10. Absolutely one of the best. Even in movies that aren't great, she is outstanding. Witty, sharp, and sultry. BTW, I awarded you an award. Check out to find out more about it.

  11. I'm only just now discovering Stanwyck, as horrible as that is to admit. I discovered her over the holidays with "Christmas in Connecticut." "Ball of Fire" is at the top of my netflix queue and I cannot wait to see it!!

  12. I recently really got into Stanwyck and think she is wonderful - thoroughly enjoying watching her 1930s films at the moment! Judy


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