The legendary Barbara Stanwyck, my favorite actress of all time, was born as Ruby Catherine Stevens in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York on this day in 1907. (Her neighborhood, Flatbush, is near my own as well.) By the time she was four years old, she and her siblings were orphans, left to grow up in foster homes. This upbringing gave Stanwyck an edge of toughness, but she could play sweet as easily as sassy. Time spent as a chorus girl paved the way to a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies and later success on Broadway in the drama The Noose. Stanwyck’s triumph on the stage got her a ticket to Hollywood and major stardom followed shortly afterward. I’d like to share with you six clips from films that feature some of the most superb performances from her lengthy career. The films cited below were directed by some of the most talented directors available in Hollywood, testaments to Stanwyck’s prowess as much as their own.
Night Nurse (1931, dir. William A. Wellman) – Stanwyck tries admirably to handle a soused Charlotte Merriam, whose daughter is in imminent danger. Stanwyck’s voice drips with contempt as she says, “You mother,” a line that could just barely make it past the censors during the pre-Code days.
The Miracle Woman (1931, dir. Frank Capra) – I prefer Capra’s pre-Code output to the treacly content of his later work. Miracle Woman has one of Stanwyck’s best early performances. She portrays an embittered preacher who cheats her followers out of collection money through scams, though she is eventually reformed by the love of a blind man (played by David Manners, better known for his roles in Journey’s End, Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat). The scene above has some of Stanwyck’s finest impassioned sermonizing.
The Lady Eve (1941, dir. Preston Sturges) – I believe that this is a perfectly crafted romantic comedy. Stanwyck’s clever con woman seduces the hapless ophiologist (studier of snakes) played by Henry Fonda with her midriff-baring outfit and her keen awareness of Fonda’s shyness and gullibility. The dialogue is excellent, but it’s the acting that cements the movie’s status as a classic.
Ball of Fire (1941, dir. Howard Hawks) – In an Academy Award-nominated performance as a slang-slinging nightclub dancer, Stanwyck teaches a stuffy linguistics scholar (Gary Cooper) the art of kissing, 1941-style.
Double Indemnity (1944, dir. Billy Wilder) – I consider Billy Wilder the greatest of all film directors and this collaboration between top-notch artists does not disappoint. Stanwyck is one cool customer in this masterful film noir, for which she was yet again nominated for an Oscar. Here in “the supermarket scene” (as I think of it), Stanwyck reminds Fred MacMurray that “it’s straight down the line for both of us,” underlining the impossibility for the pair to escape their shared destiny.
Clash by Night (1952, dir. Fritz Lang) – With a little help from some cigarettes, the time-tested cinematic symbol of sex, Stanwyck’s chemistry with Robert Ryan sizzles. More than twenty years after the start of her film career, Stanwyck still had it.