Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Many Faces of Barbara Stanwyck

Maybe you’ve never heard of Barbara Stanwyck. She certainly isn’t the first star that comes to mind when you think of classic Hollywood. Ask for a screwballer and I’ll say Katharine Hepburn; ask for a drama queen and I’ll give you Bette Davis. Other stars had more active love lives, more stunning faces, more Oscars, more drama. But then ask me for my favorite films, and Stanwyck’s all over the place, lilting into scenes, making me fall off my chair laughing and/or crying, riding “all the way down the line” in, let’s just be honest here, the best film noir that isn’t Sunset Boulevard. She averaged five films a year, playing the tomboy, the burlesque dancer, and the good girl with equal skill. She was everywhere and everything in the very best of ways.

Stanwyck wasn’t as stunning as Lana Turner or as piquant as Hepburn, but she was the so-called best actress never to win an Academy Award, despite being nominated a billion times. In her best films, she eats the role for breakfast. She’s delicious to watch, and, much like Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, made me realize that there was a time when being smart and sexy onscreen weren’t mutually exclusive. More than any star I’ve written about, her magic was in her films, not her fan magazine spreads or the way people talked about her. Which isn’t to say she didn’t take a damn good glamour shot — I mean look at this awkward diving board pose! — but that the source of her charisma was so heavily textual, rather than extratextual. I believe we call that acting

Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens and spent her early years in Brooklyn. But at age four, a drunk pushed her mother off a streetcar, killing her, and two weeks her dad fled to work on the Panama Canal, leaving Stanwyck and her siblings as orphans. Her older sister — but only slightly older — took care of them at first before they headed to a series of foster homes, from which Stanwyck regularly ran away. At some point, she was released back into the custody of her older sister, by then a showgirl, and 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 age of 16, landed a semi-permanent gig as a showgirl with Ziegfeld Follies.

Just so deliciously gorgeous. She worked the midnight to 7 a.m. shift; she apparently taught dance lessons at a gay and lesbian speakeasy? She was, in other words, awesome. Next she found her way to Broadway and was cast in Burlesque (1926) for her “rough poignancy.” It was a huge hit, which led to her first bit role as a dancer in Broadway Nights (1927) for First National. But she couldn’t be Ruby Stevens — the producers thought it sounded, well, too burlesque. And so she became Barbara Stanwyck: smooth off the tongue, with a bite at the end.

Stanwyck had an awesome, deep voice, and her new husband, Frank Fay, whom she'd met while making Burlesque, moved with her to Hollywood and helped make her some sweet deals, working between Warner Bros. and Columbia without ever having to sign a long-term deal with either. She made some shimmery Capra films and worked steadily — even if none of her films were particularly memorable, she did get to look like this in Forbidden:

She was, as they say, a “hard-boiled girl of easy virtue,” which is another way of saying that she was smart and had a good time, and that I would want to be her friend. She also bore the brunt of The Hays Office’s decision to finally tamp down on “Pre-Code” films, a.k.a. films that flaunted the existing censorship guidelines. In the original script for Baby Face (1933), she plays a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, stuck in a steel town, exploited by her bootlegger father. She takes up some Nietzschean philosophy and decides to use the big city and big money guys to get what she wants — just like Nietzsche would say she should. So she gets a job at a bank and uses her “feminine wiles,” if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, to make her way up the food chain, seducing one executive after another, before making her way to one who was very engaged ... to a big exec’s daughter. And then Daddy Big Exec falls for her, puts her up in a love palace, and gets her a MAID, before original fianced executive finds her there and SHOOTS BIG EXEC AND HIMSELF. Amazing. Just amazing. The new head of the company banishes her to Paris, but she works her magic there as well — and when the new head comes to visit, HE FALLS FOR HER TOO. Barbara!

The bank fails, the new husband is blamed, Barbara refuses to return all her fancy-pants stuff to save the bank and flees to Europe, triumphant. Husband shoots himself, the end. Man-eater in-fucking-deed.

And so the film would have ended, but The Hays Office had other plans. Baby Face was one in a series of “kept-women” films, including Possessed (Joan Crawford) and Red-Headed Woman (Jean Harlow) that a) featured women using sex to get what they wanted, and b) had proven enormously popular. Red-Headed Woman was such a sensation that Joseph Breen, the “enforcer” at the Hays Office, feared that all the other studios would try to top it by making their female stars even more manipulative and destructive, and end up in even more luxury and bliss.

Baby Face did just that — and while most of these kept-women films had taken place at the department store, this one took place at the bank. The year was 1932. Stanwyck caused the fall of the bank. In other words, women like Stanwyck were responsible for THE ENTIRE DEPRESSION.

The Hays Office thus suggested a major revision: When Stanwyck leaves the new husband and makes her way to Europe, she has to realize that she actually loves him — is, herself, a victim of love — and would give back all of her goods in order to be with the man she loves. The revision should, according to official correspondence...

“...indicate that in losing Trenholm [final boyfriend] she not only loses the one person whom she now loves, but that her money also will be lost. That is, if Lily [Stanwyck] is shown at the end to be no better off than she was when she left the steel town, you may lessen the chances of drastic censorship action, by thus strengthening the moral value of the story.”

Fox continued with production, and may or may not have taken all of the advice to heart. But in the intervening months, a confluence of events changed the way that censorship would function in Hollywood. [If you’ve heard the Hays Code/Censorship Lecture before, either in one of my previous columns or in RTF 314 Fall/Spring 2009/2010, feel free to skip ahead.]

To be reductive, up to that point, there had been rules about what films could show and imply onscreen — 11 Don’ts and 25 Be Carefuls – but Hollywood had effectively ignored them. They became increasingly flagrant in their flouting, as evidenced by the success of Red-Headed Woman, a slew of gangster films, Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks, and Mae West’s beautifully subversive She Done Him Wrong.

At the same time, Hollywood was in financial peril. Roosevelt had just been elected. The individual censorship boards at the state and local level were threatening to collaborate with the national government to put the industry in what they believed to be its place — with the support of the Catholic League of Decency and some of the leading (and most prudish) fan magazine editors. The studios, in other words, were over a barrel. So they agreed to allow the Hays Board to “enforce” the Production Code, and from that point forward — until the Code itself began to disintegrate, for various economic and cultural reasons, in the 1950s — it would have the final say on what would and would not be given the “Seal of Approval.” And without a Seal of Approval, a film simply did not get distribution. To be clear, the studios were not censored by the government. Rather, they censored themselves, lest they lose their audience. And indeed, that’s how the most insidious censorship actually works — with the willing cooperation of the cultural producers themselves.

Back at the end of Baby Face: Stanwyck now comes back from Europe all sorts of repentent, finds that her husband has shot himself, but OH WAIT it’s not fatal, she comes to his bedside, where he awakes to her smiling, supplicating face. She is, we are to believe, a changed woman, and from this point forward will stop causing financial crises. The kept-woman cycle was effectively over.

Which isn’t to say that Stanwyck wasn’t still playing slight variations on the same kind of woman. They just always fell in love at the end instead of causing deaths and financial ruin. She plays an “honest gambler” in Gambling Lady, and a stable hand who makes everyone fall in love with her in The Lady in Red before switching to a loose agreement with RKO that allows her to freelance at will.

Stanwyck was also in the process of separating from her husband, who had initially been all sorts of helpful when they first moved to Hollywood, making deals and opening doors. Yet after Stanwyck’s fortunes rose and his fell, husband began to wallow in despair, throwing her around and getting wasted. In other words, he turned into the male lead in A Star Is Born — a narrative long-rumored to be based on their lives. The two divorced at the end of 1935, with Stanwyck gaining custody of their adopted son.

A series of lackluster films followed — I mean, all right all right, I’d watch her as Annie Oakley all day, but the rest of them are just okay — but lady worked. Between 1934 and 1937 she made 15 films, including the saddest film to end all sad films, the grandmother of all weepies, the movie that will dehydrate you in one sitting...


Stanwyck is Stella, a social climber in a relatively loveless marriage to a formerly wealthy man. As she ages, she makes the classic decision that if she can’t find happiness in the upper classes, then perhaps her daughter could in her stead. Because the daughter is of “high stock,” she’s naturally able to snag all sorts of young rich hotties, but her mom is there to be gauche and embarrassing and get in her way.

Complex plot twist leads to complex plot twist leads to Stella self-sacrificing the shit out of herself for her daughter’s happiness, culminating in this killer shot:

I mean, I realize I made it sound like a Hallmark movie, but just remember that there always has been and always will be a fine line between film melodrama and Hallmark movies, and that fine line is the presence of BARBARA STANWYCK. The plot is ridiculous. The way it valorizes self-sacrifice is ridiculous. But if you’ve ever been embarrassed by your mom, ever wanted to dispose parts of yourself/your past in order to get a guy, ever just wanted to live with the normal people up the street — this movie will speak to you. And then it will make you collapse in a pool of your own tears.

And what I love about Stella Dallas is how it fits within the Stanwyck pantheon: it’s a melodrama-fest, and she’s great and dramatic and winning all the awards, but then you can watch The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, both from ‘41, and realize what an immaculate comedienne she is.

But The Lady Eve! You guys you guys you guys you guys Henry Fonda is an ophiodiologist. A snake expert. Who just happens to also be the heir to an enormous fortune. He finds himself on a cruise ship with Stanwyck, the perfect con-woman, and her partner-in-crime, also known as her father. I always think of Henry Fonda as a self-serious stick in the mud, Tom Joad etc. etc., but then I remember that he’s actually the perfect straight man for others’ humor: just watch him get silently teased in My Darling Clementine, or play the bookish scientist who gets the hiccups and doesn’t realize Stanwyck’s trying to seduce him.

This clip is two kinds of perfect: Stanwyck talking fast watching Fonda thinking slow.

And just when you thought 1941 couldn’t get any better, she stars opposite Gary Cooper TWICE: chewing some Capra-corn in Meet John Doe and sizzling off the screen in Ball of Fire. Gary Cooper! BACHELOR PROFESSORS! “Yum yums,” glitter costumes, sausage-roll bangs, and legs, legs, legs. It’s a classic Howards Hawks screwball; let’s take the day off and watch it all day.

At this point, Stanwyck had become the highest paid woman in America. "Barbara" was the third most popular baby name in America — almost entirely because of Stanwyck (if you’re wondering why so many moms are called Barbara, blame Stanwyck).

Up to this point, Stanwyck had played the seductive girl, the amiable girl, the Western girl, the screwball girl, and the self-sacrificing girl — but never the truly evil girl. When approached for Double Indemnity, she thought it might wreak havoc with her image, as her character was, to quote the script, “rotten to the core.” The plot, based on James Cain’s serialized novel, called for Stanwyck and her co-star to kill off her husband for the insurance money — and then for Stanwyck to pull a double-cross on her co-star. There was pre-mediation, lots of bared leg, insinuations of sex, but, according to Code rules, “comeuppance” for both at the end. Which is all to say it was not very Stanwyck. But Billy Wilder, crafty director that he is, asked the hesitant Stanwyck, “Well, are you a mouse or an actress?” Stanwyck took the part, and the rest is noir history:

Indemnity, like The Lady Eve, is streaming on Netflix, and both are right around 90 minutes, which is basically the perfect amount of time to drink a double Gin & Tonic, so you really have no excuse not to spend the next two nights revelling in the contrast. I rewatched it the other night and spent most of the time thinking about a) how much Fred MacMurray looks like my Granddad from that time and b) how horrible Stanwyck’s wig is but that I maybe sorta want it?

If you don’t know what film noir is, well, you actually do. Film noir is L.A. Confidential, is Memento, is Looper, is Brick. Noir wasn’t noir at the time — it was the French, looking back and being all categorical and periodizing, who gave it that name. At the time, it was just what happened when the gangster film became less popular and the murder mystery rose in its place — oftentimes based on the “hard boiled” fiction (clipped, terse dialogue and plotting) that was percolating at the time. Noir looks at the sullied underbelly: the evil, the darkness beneath the shiny exterior. It plays with shadows and slanting light, smoke and slatted blinds. Double Indemnity — and its startling success — set the tone; Sunset Boulevard, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda, and dozens more made the genre. Chinatown made it color; Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars made it television. If I had to teach one type of film forevermore, it’d be noir, no question: the psychology, the aesthetics, the powerful, enrapturing women — those femme fatales always died, but I never remember that part, just the slinking seduction.

And MacMurray and Stanwyck grating off each other — it’s a revelation. When I first watched this film, I was firm in my belief that MacMurray was exclusively the dad in My Three Sons, which I watched the shit out of on Nick at Nite. In truth, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood and fiercely popular — so much less Dad in this movie — with a convincing weakness for the way Stanwyck’s anklet pressed into the flesh of her calf. As for Stanwyck, even the bad wig — selected to highlight her character's duplicity and trashiness — can’t take away from the slink of her voice. I’d do anything she told me to.

Perhaps, at this point, you’ve realized that I’m basically just talking about how awesome Stanywck is in all her movies, and that she spent all day changing costumes and learning lines. It’s not entirely true. After her divorce was finalized in late 1935, she began filming This is My Affair with Robert Taylor, “The Man With the Perfect Profile,” then a rising star with MGM. Stanwyck was hesitant to get serious so soon after the demise of her last horrible marriage, so they flirted and totally didn’t sleep with each other for three years, until MGM finally pushed them to wed in 1939. Their courtship and marriage, if pictures are to be believed, was characterized by a lot of sport, SoCal ranch living, and natty outfits.

They were a perfect match, and not just because they could rock matching equestrian outfits. Their politics were also the same, which is to say archly conservative. Stanwyck loved her some Ayn Rand — enough to push Warner Bros. to buy the rights to The Fountainhead. She was besties with John Wayne, Gary Cooper, William Holden, Bob Hope, and Fred McMurray — the good ol’ boys club of conservative Hollywood. Taylor helped form the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944 with the explicit purpose of red-mongering and extracting Communist influence from Hollywood; as their official mission statement explained, “in our special field of motion pictures, we resent the growing impression that this industry is made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots.”

In 1947, Taylor was a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which meant he named names of supposed undercover Communists and contributed to the formation of the blacklist. Dude kinda sucked — not because he was conservative, really, but because he was a red-mongerer. The Hollywood Ten weren’t Commies in the Russian-fear-mongering sort of way; they were Commies in the 1930s-Let’s-Make-the-World-Awesome-For-Everyone sort of way.

So Stanwyck was a Republican. An extremely skilled actress with a seemingly boring home life, with an image characterized by dexterity, intelligence, and monogamy. She’s like the conservative Meryl Streep: When I think of both women, I don’t think of their lives, I think of their roles. I realize you could say the same for many actresses, especially if you’re not a Ph.D. in celebrity gossip, but with most stars, their personal lives and what you know of them shapes how you think of their roles. When you say “Jennifer Aniston,” I don’t think of Horrible Bosses; I think of Brad Pitt and never finding love with a subtle waft of Rachel from Friends. Which isn’t to say that Stanwyck wasn’t a star — she was, after all, still obligated to pose for publicity glamour shots like this one...

...much in the same way that Streep sits for an interview and photoshoot with Vanity Fair to promote an upcoming film. What I’m trying to suggest is that unlike Flynn or Gable, unlike Cooper or Bogart, unlike Crawford or Davis, Stanwyck didn’t just have a gloss of morality and propriety. She was seemingly nice to everyone. Film crews adored her. Frank Capra claimed that “in a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down.” She was ASB President and Valedictorian and head of the Glee Club and dating the guy with the most perfect profile in Hollywood — and if it weren’t for all those blissful, totally beguiling performances, there’s no way I’d spend 4,000 words on her.

Or, at the very least, on the first two acts of her life. The third act, though, WOWZA, let’s go:

In the years following the end of World War II, the old guard of Hollywood stars were under threat, from television, from diminishing audiences, from sexy new teen idols who appealed to the increasingly important youth audience. The aging male stars could still hang — just like today — but the female stars were gradually banished to roles as washed up stars (All About Eve) or slightly deranged single women (everything with Joan Crawford post-Mildred Pierce; helllllo, Lana Turner).

Stanwyck thus said good-bye, screwball heroines, hello, melodramatic, fiercely independent slightly aging ladies:

Keeping her bangs intact in The Furies (1950)...

Hot middle-aged make-out with Gary Cooper in Blowing Wild (1954)...

As the Maverick Queen (1957).

And love life bonus round: she and Taylor amicably divorced in 1950, and while filming Titanic, she hooked up with a young, newly minted star named Robert Wagner. He was 22, she was 44, and best of all, she was playing the mother of the girl his character courts in the film. But who can resist the Stanwyck?

Here’s what Wagner looked like around this time:

‘Pinner please. You would tap that. Their relationship lasted four years, so D.L. that you can’t find a picture of them together apart from a publicity still from Titantic. Stanwyck eventually ended things, leaving Wagner to go play with childish things like Natalie Wood, with whom he made out for the fan magazines.

What was a newly single woman with a 30-year career do? You read yourself some Ayn Rand. You star in your own television show like a boss. You do a couple of not-horrible films. You offer intimate memories of the huge shoebox of all the handsome men you’ve made out with, in and out of character.

You do charity work. You become Tori Spelling’s godmother. You star, at the age of 76, in the Thorn Birds. You appear in 85 films over your 82 years. You are the embodiment of enduring class: never flashy, always working. Never salacious, always watchable. Tough yet vulnerable, luxurious yet restrained.

Am I just thinking of Stanwyck circa 1944? Maybe? Probably. But that’s what every generation does with its classic stars: we turn them into their best, most evocative selves. It’s the selective editing of history and memory, the quiltwork of stories my granddad told me, of fan magazines that smell like smoke instead of fresh paper, of films streamed, not projected.

Something is lost, of course. But with the benefit of the wide lens of hindsight, we’re able to see the type of womanhood and female stardom Stanwyck embodied: She was less abrasive than Hepburn, less fragile than Turner. She had her shit together, and even if women’s lib didn’t turn her into a feminist, I can still read her characters that way — the same way you can read Cary Grant’s characters, or any other characters, for that matter, as queer. That’s our privilege as audiences: It doesn’t matter what she thought she was, or even what the studio framed her as, so much as what we do with her in our own minds. It’s all about subjectivity and the stories we tell ourselves. Stars become meaningful only when we allow them to.

Film critic David Thomson called Stanwyck “delectable, a stirring mixture of toughness and sentiment, a truly and creatively two-faced woman.” He was speaking, of course, of her ability to play both Stella Dallas and The Lady Eve, both a “ball of fire” and a murderess. But the conceit extends to her private life as well. Stanwyck never had a truly unique star image, a major scandal, or one thing that she meant to all audiences. Was she a man-eater or a homebody? A woman secretly dating a man half her age or an ardent conservative? Or all these things and more? I look at subtle allure of her face below, the tension between innocence and ruin, and realize that she can be whatever I — or you — need her to be.

Previously: In Like Errol Flynn

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

152 Comments / Post A Comment




@Decca Oh, I really enjoyed this. You've nailed what makes Stanwyck special: it's all about her devotion to the work. She plays all these disparate characters, but each role is united by the quality of her acting, and the spark of energy - that I can't help reading as almost subversive - in each one. She's such a lively and witty and smart actress.

I remember a few years ago reading an article about her which recounted an anecdote from back when she was a chorus girl. The musical director pulled her out of the line to tell her she was looking a little lacklustre. He said to her, "Kick high or get off the stage", and she took that as a work ethos for the rest of her career. And boy, did she kick high.

For those of you looking for another Stanwyck movie that's not mentioned in the article, I can thoroughly recommend Lady of Burlesque because (a) it was written by Gypsy Rose Lee, (b) Stany plays a wise-cracking stripper and (c) SHE BREAKDANCES IN IT.


@Decca Anne Helen Peterson made it to the fireworks factory!


@Decca STANY!!!


Maybe you’ve never heard of Barbara Stanwyck. She certainly isn’t the first star that comes to mind when you think of classic Hollywood. Ask for a screwballer and I’ll say Katharine Hepburn; ask for a drama queen and I’ll give you Bette Davis.

is bubblegum casting legitimate


THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU AHP! Just the carrot I needed to keep me working on this research critique due in 4 hours. Barbara Stanwyck, some arroz con guandules, sweet plantains and a cold beer will be tonight's reward for all this hard work (read: extreme procrastination and subsequent half-assery)


BRB moving Double Indemnity up the Netflix queue ...

(P.S. Is The Thorn Birds available on Watch Instantly? Because I have so many fond memories of that block of cheddar.)


@JanieS I love that her character was supposed to be, like, Irish, and having lived in Australia for decades, and sounded like she had just stepped off the boat from Brooklyn.



@PoBoyNation she is so amazing in the thorn birds! pawing father ralph like a BOSS


@PoBoyNation which is really funny that they insisted on that pronunciation, because it's pronounced Droida, as I understand it. (Is that what you meant?)


@Lu2 It is funny that although her character is supposed to be an Irish immigrant, and the family is supposed to be Very Irish, no one pronounces it close to what it's supposed to sound like. But I also thought it was hilarious that Barbara Stanwyck was doing her Double Indemnity thing all over an Irish-Australian rancher character.


@PoBoyNation Ah, yes! She was just talking like Barbara Stanwyck. :) I forgot that she was supposed to be an Irish immigrant, too. Ha ha!


I would absolutely tap that, you are correct, AHP.


@martinipie I would also tap *that* (*that* being the Lady Eve herself, with all due respect).


@martinipie O. M. F. G. The curls, the mischievous grin, the sparkling, knowing eyes. I am slain.

raised amongst catalogs

I once told my younger stepsister that she resembles Barbara Stanwyck and she was INSULTED.


@raised amongst catalogs Hmmmm?



That TV Radio Mirror cover's headlines.... wowza.

Also Robert Taylor sounds like Barbara's best/worst guy.


@Blondsak RIGHT??!!! "my baby girl's retarded" made me squirm, and i really want to know about these hidden kids of dean martin's.


@darthvadersmom Wow, I googled Jo Ann Castle out of curiosity...well this is what I found. http://www.joanncastle.com


And don't forget her fantastic performance in "No Man of Her Own," a sleazy noir thriller (streaming on Netflix!) Or "Christmas in Connecticut," which could have been a cloying mess without her snap and crackle performance -- and fabulous wardrobe! Girl could WEAR a mink coat. She is and will always be my favorite Hollywood actress. No one of her era even came close to her sublime mixture of wit, sexiness and intelligence. Thank you for this terrific profile!


@jenn_nyc Yes, Christmas in Connecticut! My family and I watch that almost every year. She's so great in it. So shameless the way she falls for the sailor and ignores her fiancee.


The Lady Eve is so, so fun. And more than fun, really, because she's smart and devious but genuinely wants a hot, happy thing. And goes and gets it.

Oh, and since you mentioned Veronica Mars...



The Lady Eve: great movie or the greatest movie?




@Blondsak Isn't that one the best?


@laurel ohhhhh my god someone pledged the $10,000. Wow. I can't say if I had $10,000 lying around, I wouldn't have seriously considered it, but wow nonetheless.

Also man if I got the ones where Kristen Bell follows you on twitter for a year I'd probably try so hard to be cool enough that she doesn't UNfollow me a year later that I embarrass myself entirely.


@TheBourneApproximation I am watching it RIGHT NOW and it really is the greatest. I am having so much fun!


Stella Dallas and Ball of Fire are the best. So many great scenes, when nobody comes to her daughter's birthday party, when Barb sashays across the country club without a care in the world and everyone is clowning her. UGH When she realizes that the step mom is basically perfect, the TURKEY !. I always silently ugly cry at the end, and my mom does not get it. SHE'S IN THE RAIN !

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

I'm stuck on the assertion that other stars had "more stunning faces," because I think I'm drowning in those eyes and my god the eyebrows...


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

YES. HOW CAN MY EYELASHES LOOK LIKE THAT???? SOMEONE TELL ME!!! Do I have to use an eyelash curler?

Nicole Cliffe

AHP, have you read "The Sewing Circle"?? I know it is really trashy and thinly sourced but they claim she was secretly bi???

(Like the book says about literally every Old Hollywood Actress.)

Anne Helen Petersen

@Nicole Cliffe I have not, Nicole, but I feel like all of those books insinuate the same thing with the same evidence? As you know, I'm all for believing whatever you want about these stars and their sexuality so long as it gives you pleasure.....so stitch away?


@Nicole Cliffe There's also Diana McClelland's book The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. I always want to like these books but yeah, another one that is thinly sourced and extremely speculative.
Though, if you really want to scrape the bottom of the barrel, there's the interview with Barbara in Hollywood Lesbians, by the execrable Boze Hadleigh ...

I await the day when a good book is published about the queer female demi-monde of silent-era and/or classic Hollywood.

Nicole Cliffe

I have watched "Double Indemnity" all the times.

OH, and Hume Cronyn is so good in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and was married to Jessica Tandy forever, and then when she died he got together with Susan Cooper of "The Dark is Rising" fame, who had been his writing partner for YEARS.


@Nicole Cliffe Hume Cronyn and Susan Cooper together is almost too much awesome. (Almost.)

Roaring Girl

@Nicole Cliffe Randomly signing up for the detective fiction class in college was the best thing that ever happened to me, lit-wise--it would not have occurred to me to read/watch Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, or The Big Sleep on my own, because I didn't think murder mysteries were my thing. OMG WRONG, SO WRONG.

Faintly Macabre

I saw a pre-Code version of Baby Face at some fancy old-movie movie theater in New York (my friend is studying to be an archtivist and invited me along when I visited). In the version they screened, there's all the Nietzche, murders, etc, but in the end, she runs off the boat she's fled to with all her diamonds (like Rachel on Friends!) and returns to her husband, who has indeed shot himself in the head right after she left but will probably survive. My friend said that in the Code version, instead of the old guy telling her to be ruthless, he encourages her to be ambitious but moral, and most of the implied sex stuff is somehow cut out. I'm a bit confused, because it seems like the plot of the version you've seen is in between those two.

Also, her maid is actually her black BFF, Chico. Who is just as brave and sassy and gets to wear ridiculous fancy outfits, too. I was struck by how relatively developed her character is, since I thought African-Americans were mostly relegated to stereotypical roles then. (Does anyone know better?)

In conclusion, though, the un-revised version of Baby Face is awesome. I had never heard of it or Barbara Stanwyck before I saw it, and I loved both!

Anne Helen Petersen

@Faintly Macabre Fascinating! I would DIE to see the Pre-Code version onscreen. All the information I have about the Precode version comes from Richard Maltby's article in Screen from 1986, and his research comes from the Hays archive. But this wouldn't be the first time that several versions of a film were available, and Maltby might have been referencing a script for a revision as well. Proliferating Baby Faces!

Faintly Macabre

@Anne Helen Petersen Aha, with some internet digging, I found out that it was NYC's yearly "Essential Pre-Code" at Film Forum in 2011. Maybe they'll show it again another year? It was a double feature with Two Seconds, which was also very good but incredibly depressing. (Nice guy gets taken in by femme fatale, accidentally kills his best friend, becomes drunk and destitute, commits crime of passion, ends up in the electric chair.)


@Faintly Macabre I thought that was the version of Baby Face available on DVD/shown on TCM all the time. I wonder if there's info on the DVD about which they chose.


@Faintly Macabre I saw the pre-code version too! Quite recently at a the Barbican here in London. And then after they showed two or three scenes afterwards that were changed for the Code - the cobbler warning her about morality in doom-laden tones made us laugh at how blatant the changes were. So there must be a version floating about.


I have not read yet but am so excited, because I have known since freshman Film History that if I were to ever fall into a quantum-leap scenario where I became a WWII fighter pilot, barbara would be the gal painted on my plane.


EEEEEEEE!!!!!!! Stany is my favorite!!!!! Thank you!!!!

OK, time to read the artice. :)


I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@laurel Ahhhhhhh! Her face is perfect!


@laurel I've been seeing that all over the internet lately! Which movie is it from?! (I am sadly uneducated about Stanwyck.)


@frigwiggin The Internet says Baby Face but I haven't seen it. Must rectify that.


@laurel It is indeed from the beginning of Baby Face. Watching her give men the brush off (or the hot coffee off) is one of the many joys of that film.

Faintly Macabre

@laurel Yup, Baby Face! Her dad has been selling her to local assholes for half her life, but in the beginning of the movie she gets sick of it and, completely blase, dumps coffee on a guy and hits him on the head with a bottle. It is wonderful.

Snood Mood

She is the best, especially in The Lady Eve. True story though, I saw Stella Dallas when I was a teenager and that combined with my Catholic upbringing led me to make all sorts of "noble", martyr-y sacrifices. I thought standing out on the sidewalk in the rain was where I belonged! It really messed me up for a while.

Also, my mom's name IS Barbara!

Nancy Sin

I just read the Don'ts and Be Carefuls, and aside from all of the flagrant racist and sexist stuff, this last one stood out to me:

25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy."

What on earth does that mean?

Anne Helen Petersen

@Nancy Sin "The Heavy" = Bad guy.


@Nancy Sin And just in case you were wondering about the other part instead, "excessive or lustful" probably means no open mouths. That's one part of the Code that existed well into TV days. That's why Hollywood kissing was always that weird clinchy, mashed-together closed mouths-type kissing. They expressed passion through the hardness of the clinch (MMFF! I MASH YOU) rather than the sensuality of the kiss.

Valley Girl

@Lu2 "Passion through the hardness of the clinch"! For the first time you've expressed in words what I've always vaguely understood but couldn't express about the Old Hollywood Manly Kiss Grip.


@Lu2 " MMFF! I MASH YOU" is seriously the best description of those Code-dictated kisses that I have ever heard. It sounds like something The Hulk would say.


OK, first of all, Stella Dallas sounds like it would ruin me forever in tears, because I'm the person that cries the hardest over dramatic family things in film/television.

Also, I'm having a bit of a moment here because for all my life I've never thought I looked like any celebrities and then SHABAM, I clicked on this SoCH story and I'm looking at pictures of a woman who looks enough like me that it surprised me.


Brilliant as always! Can't wait for your book!!!


Ah, Barbara Stanwyck ... I found out years after they were both enjoying old fashioneds in heaven (hopefully together) that she was my grandmother's favorite actress.

Thanks, AHP, this might be the best one yet!


Oh I love Barbara Stanwyck so much! She was perfect in Double Indemnity, just perfect.

Once, on a long flight, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a very interesting older woman and we chatted the whole time. She had been Stanwyck's nurse at the end of her life. Said Stanwyck was a lovely woman and was wowed by her presence.

Snood Mood

@faustbanana Oh my goodness, I would be so psyched to meet that woman on a plane! I have all the jealousness.


She's fantastic in Night Nurse. Clark Gable makes a good creep too!

Pound of Salt



My mama is a born-in-1944 Barbara.

I desperately want those boots that she's wearing with the jodhpurs.

And Double Indemnity is AMAZING.


@stinapag I talked to my mom after posting, and she said indeed, she was named after Barbara Stanwyck. Barbara Stanwyck was my grandfather's favorite actress, and he got to name the baby since he was going off to war. My grandfather left in October and my mother was born in February.




Who the F changes their name from "Ruby" to "Barbara"? She sounds like a total badass, but some studio exec really screwed the pooch on that one.


Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.


I often wonder how awesome and strange movies would have become if they hadn't been thwarted by the production office. I'd like to think they _would_ be awesome and strange rather than just loaded with sex and violence.

Also, I've always thought Robert Taylor was veeerry beautiful. Thanks for the pictures.

And speaking of beautiful men, "You're the mosh beautiful man I've ever seen, Ralve de Bricasshart" {grab, paw, stroke}.


The Big Valley is where I fell in love with her and her amazing voice. Ahh, the Barkleys.


@allonewordus She looked pretty awesome in those pants, didn't she? I never watched the show, but I saw it around, and I was always surprised by how gosh-darn pretty Linda Evans was in those days.


I'm very big on the pretty boys, and I've had a soft spot for Young Robert Wagner before, but gee, does he look goofy in that picture~! Curly hair, needly nose: very cute but more the type I'd like to mother. :)


I popped onto Hairpin for a quick break before the last phase of my NEEDS TO GET DONE RIGHT NOW project, saw a new Scandals, and immediately had to close the tab because I knew I'd be gone down the wormhole for at least 30 minutes. Yay compelling reading!

Rhonda Hawley@twitter

Great article, but I just want to point out one tiny thing. The picture you have of Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in "Blowing Wild" is actually from "Jeopardy". The man she's making out with is Barry Sullivan.


I have seen so many BS movies, and certain ones so many times. "Baby Face" is excellent! I love how they show her "moving up" in the company with exterior shots of the building's windows....from here...zooooooop....to here! When her man goes broke and wants to use her jewelry for collateral on a loan or something, BS is all snappish, "No! They're mine!"

In "Ball of Fire" BS is faking illness so she doesn't have to leave the professors' house. She tells one to check her throat and he says it kind of pink and she gets all annoyed. "It's as red as the Daily Worker, and twice as sore!" She also says something is corny, straight off the cob. Heh.

In SF, the 2nd annual Noir Fest pitted Joan Crawford against Barbara Stanwyck for title of "Queen of Noir". Barbara won by millions. Another one of her classic noir films is "The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers" which also has Lisbeth Scott and Kirk Douglas as her wimpy drunkard of a hubby. Recommended!

Someone mentioned "No Man of Her Own" which I watched recently on the netflix...a real twisted tale of identity theft and outta wedlock baby illegitimacy made 'right". There's another one on the netflix, "Crime of Passion"...Christ on a cracker, BS gets whiplash from spinning 180 degrees from independent career woman to bored nagging housewife in this weird ass flick. She ends up boning her husband's BOSS on the POLICE FORCE to further her husband's career. MASSIVE WTF, but in a funny way. One of her keep on trucking older lady roles.


@irieagogo A couple of bits... first, Miss Stanwyck didn't know John Wayne just 'cause of the anti-Communism... he was one of the men she worked her way up from in BABY FACE.

Also, the boss she bones in CRIME OF PASSION? Raymond Burr.
Who almost married Natalie Wood before RJ did.
But he and Miss S? *hot*.

As is her being all snappy and frustrated with her hubby Sterling "Why, yes, that's the kinda Everest *I'd* mount" Hayden.

You're welcome.


@irieagogo I watched "No Man of Her Own" last night because of this article. So good! Probably my favorite thing about Barbara Stanwyck is that so many of her movies are streaming on Netflix!


does it really take some people 90 min to polish off a double g&t, though? (kidding! off to watch double indemnity!)

Kevin Knox

@kickupdust So glad I'm not the only one who thought that...


When I got past the jump to '...STELLA DALLAS', I seriously went "OH SHIT", because that IS the weepie to end all weepies. I saw it once on TV waaaay back when, and I had never realized that Barbara Stanwyck is in it - I just remembered the UGLY CRYING.

Valley Girl

SOCH!!! AHP talking about ~The Code~!!! Forever bliss.

I was just watching this old Ann Margaret movie where she plays a little spitfire juvenile delinquent criminal mastermind and she spends the whole movie kicking ass and taking names until the last second of the film when she's killed offscreen and dies confessing and repenting for her sins. And I knew it was some tacked-on nonsense and it made me really want to find some dishy reading about other censorship fights. I've read a lot about sexploitation films and people like Russ Meyer fighting the censors but not enough about how Classic Hollywood did it.

bob stepno@twitter

Terrific article about one of my favorite actresses. She did such a great job as a reporter in Meet John Doe and Christmas in Connecticut -- was she a reporter in any that I've missed? For my project at jheroes.com, I've tried to find radio adaptations of "newspaper movies," and I'd love to find those two.
But the radio collectors don't have them, at least not with the original casts.

However, I did uncover a different switch, SHE once played Irene Dunne's part as the reporter's wife in a Lux Radio adaptation of "Penny Serenade," and that great voice of hers is wonderful radio.

If you're interested in her radio-drama appearances, here's a list : http://radiogoldindex.com/cgi-local/p4.cgi?ArtistName=Stanwyck,%20Barbara&ArtistNumber=02794


It's never too late to gush about Babs, is it?

At the film archive I work at, every male co-worker worth his salt just melts for Stanwyck. I recently viewed a 35mm print of Frank Capra's smoldering, opulent pre-code film "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" from 1933 (which Fassbinder references in "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) and despite having seen many Stanwyck films, this burrowed its way straight to my soul. It seems people try to qualify Stanwyck, they are quick to explain that her sharp wits, intelligence, or acting make up for her unusual looks. Babs has always seemed much more substantive to me than Hollywood bombshells and the more obvious "lookers". I might hold her on the same level of Jean Arthur (though, admittedly different!). I highly recommend "Bitter Tea" ... it will leave you reeling with its sumptuous atmosphere (think Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Flowers of Shanghai" in 1933, by Frank Capra of all people).

Despite Robert Taylor being a bit of a cad, he is in one of the greatest William Wellman films ever made, "Westward the Women." Dear lord, AHP tell me you've seen this film!! Robert Taylor handsomely herds over 100 women out to the Wild West, treats them with a beautiful amount of respect, and helps them become independent rassley cowboys over their trip. Words do not do it justice!


Okay, what a coincidence! My local art house cinema is having a mini Stanwyck festival. She is one of my mom's all-time favorite actresses, so yesterday, the same day this article was published, my whole family went to see The Lady Eve. Is it Barbara Stanwyck day or something? So cool!
I second AHP's rec for The Lady Eve. Fonda is SO adorably nerdy and klutzy and Stanwyck is just completely delightful. They have great chemistry, and are so sexy together without actually "showing" anything. We were commenting how it is really something that the whole family can enjoy--there's slapstick comedy for the kids, there's romance, there's plot twists, and lots of quirky supporting characters. Ball of Fire is really fun too. I haven't actually seen her in serious roles--will be checking out Double Idemnity this weekend!
Thank you for the great article!

She was a retail whore

I knew that I was familiar with her name, but I didn't recognize her face until I saw the pictures of her when she'd aged a bit. I watched a lot of Big Valley reruns when I was a kid, and I remember loving everybody on that show. I'm kind of afraid to watch it again as an adult, though, because I wonder if I'd hate it.


Right around the time "The Thorn Birds" came out, the director was interviewed for, I think, People Magazine. He talked about his first meeting with Barbara Stanwyck and how she began it by saying, "I'm too old to do crossovers, but..." He asked her what crossovers were (switching horses while they're moving) and was amazed when she pulled out her still-current membership card to the stuntman's union.


Having seen at least ten (in most cases many more) films of the classic actresses, I am prepared to give you the top five list of best actresses over the last 100 years. Best as in continuously delivering first class performances - points not awarded for one off performances (Jennifer Jones) or being a glamour queen (Joan Crawford) or media darling (Katharine Hepburn). Your opinion may vary, but there is no shame in being wrong.

5. Elizabeth Davis
4. Meryl Streep
3. Daylight
2. Daylight
1. Ruby Stevens aka Barbara Stanwyck


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