default avatar
Welcome to the site! Login or Signup below.
Logout|My Dashboard

Barbara Stanwyck

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2011 12:00 am

Professional Actress

by Ray Hagen

What did all the legendary Hollywood goddesses of the 1930s and '40s have in common? Exclusive iron-clad contracts with major studios; Garbo at MGM, Davis at Warners, Crawford at MGM and then Warners, Dietrich at Paramount, Hayworth at Columbia, Grable at Fox. That's the way it worked. Studios made fortunes by building their stars' careers, publicizing them, pampering and protecting them, actually creating them. And, not incidentally, owning them.

Barbara Stanwyck, alone among the supernovas, chose to go it alone, juggling short-term contracts with all the majors but never aligning herself exclusively with any one studio. She wanted the freedom to pick and choose her roles and control her own career. She wouldn't be forced to do whatever the studio dictated under threat of suspension. That was the downside of the studio contract system. But she missed out on the great upside as well; no one studio had a vested interest in promoting her to the skies, buying the best properties for her, giving her the great roles, and creating a legend around her. She had to do that herself.

That she was actually able to do so was testament to her steel-willed tenacity, her unwavering popularity with moviegoers through good movies and bad, and the sheer range of her talent. And it certainly didn't hurt that the bitchiest screen virago of them all was indisputably the most beloved of stars by directors, crews and fellow actors, who dubbed her "The Queen." She never threw tantrums or demanded star treatment, was always on time and totally prepared, knowing not only her own lines but everyone else's as well, and had the lifelong work ethic (and vocabulary) of a stevedore.

In his 1959 autobiography, Cecil B. DeMille paid Stanwyck his most sincere tribute: "I am sometimes asked who is my favorite actress among those I have directed. I always dodge the question by explaining that I have to continue living in Hollywood. But if the tortures of the Inquisition were applied and an answer extracted from me, I would have to say that I have never worked with an actress who was more co-operative, less temperamental, and a better workman, to use my term of highest compliment, than Barbara Stanwyck. I have directed, and enjoyed working with, many fine actresses, some of whom are also good workmen; but when I count over those of whom my memories are unmarred by any unpleasant recollection of friction on the set or unwillingness to do whatever the role required or squalls of temperament or temper, Barbara's name is the first that comes to mind, as one on whom a director can always count to do her work with all her heart."

Her evaluation of herself: "I'm just a tough old dame from Brooklyn."

She entered the world as Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the fifth child of Byron and Catherine McGee Stevens. There were three older sisters (Maude, Mabel and Mildred) and one brother, Malcom Byron, two years older than Ruby and her closest companion. They lived on Clausen Street in a drab and tough neighborhood. When Ruby was two her mother accidentally was pushed from a moving trolley car and died two days later. Her father soon deserted his children and it was left to oldest sister Millie, a showgirl, to care for them. As Millie was often on the road, Ruby and brother Malcom were put in a series of foster homes, sometimes together and sometimes not. It wasn't so much a cruel childhood as simply an impersonal and loveless one.

Dancing in the streets to hurdy-gurdies, common then among tenement children, was one of her rare pleasures. Another was the movies, and her idol was serial queen Pearl White, whose elaborate stunts and physical daring thrilled her. When sister Mildred could afford to take Ruby with her on her road show tours, she would watch entranced from the wings, and learn all the dance routines. Her ambition was set.

After graduating from grammar school at age 14 she got her first job as a pattern-cutter at Conde Nast, but her lack of basic skills got her quickly fired. She then spotted an ad for chorus girls at the Strand Roof and dance director Earl Lindsay hired her at $35 a week. The new chorine learned quickly, and so impressed Lindsay that he used her in future Broadway revues. Now a hard-working professional, between 1922 and 1925 she danced in nightclubs and cabarets, occasionally doubling in sketches and doing the odd specialty turn. On Broadway she danced in George White's Scandals (1923), Artists and Models ('23), Keep Kool ('24), and Gay Paree ('25). She also appeared in the 1924 touring company of Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, doing a striptease in silhouette, back-lit behind a white screen, and tossing her discarded duds into the audience. And let it not be forgotten that she was the third light to the left in a human chandelier.

Ruby was now rooming with fellow chorines Mae Clarke and Walda Mansfield. The trio were regulars at Billy LaHiff's West 48th Street restaurant, The Tavern. LaHiff was known for letting unemployed actors dine on-the-cuff and he befriended Ruby. When he learned that actor-producer-director Willard Mack needed four chorus girls for his new play, The Noose, he introduced him to Ruby and Mack hired her as a chorus girl. She got him to hire her roommates as well. She played a cabaret dancer in unrequited love with a man who'd been condemned to death, and she had only a few lines. But when the play was going badly during the out-of-town tryouts, Mack made some changes. A major shift concerned a scene near the end when his society girlfriend pleaded for his body so she could have him buried in a nice cemetery. When told that he has not been hanged after all, she hysterically pleads with the governor not to tell him of her visit. Mack decided to have the scene played not by the society girlfriend but by the lovesick young dancer instead. It was a powerful scene for an inexperienced actress to carry.

Mack also renamed her, feeling that "Ruby Stevens" sounded fine for a stripper but was too common for a dramatic actress. He found an old turn-of-the-century Belasco Theatre program for the play Barbara Fritchie starring British actress Jane Stanwyck, combined them, and presented Ruby with a new name to go with her new identity.

Barbara later described her transformation: "Only through Willard Mack's kindness in coaching me, showing me all the tricks, how to sell myself by entrances and exits, did I get by. It was Willard Mack who completely disarranged my mental make-up. The process — like all processes of birth and death, I guess — was pretty damn painful. Especially for him. I got temperamental. The truth is, I was scared. I'd storm and yell that I couldn't act — couldn't, and what's more, wouldn't. I think I can honestly say that this was my first and last flare-up of temperament, because Mr. Mack — who had flattered and encouraged me — shrewdly reversed his tactics. One day, right before the entire company, he screamed back at me that I was right, I was dead right. I was a chorus girl, would always be a chorus girl, would live and die a chorus girl, so to hell with me. It worked. I yelled back that I could act, would act, was not a chorus girl — was Bernhardt, Fiske and all the Booths and Barrymores rolled into one."

The Noose opened at the Hudson Theatre on Oct. 20, 1926. Mack's show was a hit, and so was his new dramatic discovery. Her notices were uniformly splendid, none more so than the N.Y. Telegram, whose critic raved: "There is an uncommonly fine performance by Barbara Stanwyck, who not only does the Charleston steps of a dance hall girl gracefully, but knows how to act, a feature which somehow, with her comely looks, seems kind of superfluous." Variety noted that "Miss Stanwyck . . . was last season disporting herself in a side street nightclub chorus as Ruby Stevens, but she's through chorusing forever after this bit."

It was during the show's run that she went to Cosmopolitan's New York studio to test for the leading role in a silent backstage movie, Broadway Nights. She lost the role to Lois Wilson, but played a smaller part as a producer's dancer-girlfriend. Filmed in New York while she was playing in The Noose, her movie debut (and only non-talkie) was released in May, 1927. As with so many other silent films, the negative has long since crumbled to dust.

Broadway producer-director-playwright Arthur Hopkins then tested her for the leading female role in his upcoming production Burlesque. Impressed with her quality of "rough poignancy," he cast her opposite musical comedy actor Hal Skelly. Again she was a dancer, but this time her role was substantial and demanding. She and Skelly played a pair of vaudevillians whose career and marriage go through disappointments and turmoil, their ultimate reconciliation occurring as they perform their small-time dance act in a tank-town theatre. It opened on September 1, 1927. The stars were critically lauded for their fine performances, the show was a hit and, at age 20, Barbara Stanwyck became a bona fide Broadway star.

"She and Skelly were a great team," wrote Hopkins in his autobiography, To a Lonely Boy, "and they made the play a great success. I had great plans for her, but the Hollywood offers kept coming. There was no competing with them." In an interview shortly before his death he described Stanwyck as "the greatest natural actress of our time."

Also in the cast of Burlesque was Oscar Levant. During the run he introduced Barbara to his friend Frank Fay, then riding high as "Broadway's Favorite Son", as he was billed. Fay, a showbiz veteran since childhood and now at the peak of his fame, had recently completed a record 12-week run at the Palace. On August 26, 1928 they were married. Their marriage, Fay's third, would, in time, become the stuff of Hollywood legend.

The movies had just learned to talk and Hollywood was raiding Broadway for actors who could walk and talk at the same time. The Fays were both offered film work and they moved to California. As Arthur Hopkins later complained, "One of the theater's great potential actresses was embalmed in celluloid."

Barbara's talkie debut, The Locked Door (1929), a creaky old melodrama, co-starred Barbara with silent veterans Rod La Rocque and Betty Bronson, both of whose performances could most charitably be called dreadful. It sank like a stone, and Barbara told the Los Angeles Times in 1958, "They never should have unlocked the damned thing."

Although she had no experience in film acting, her own performance was remarkably simple and honest, given the chaotic surroundings. But her next opus, Mexicali Rose (1929), starred Barbara as the title vixen, and she was utterly at sea. Another dud, it was the first "bad girl" role she ever played and all she knew to do was sashay about with her hands glued to her hips, her rotating elbows endangering everything not nailed down. Her Brooklyn accent didn't help. A disaster all around, and what turned out to be the only really bad performance of her entire career. She later said that Mexicali Rose "reached what I shall always believe was an all-time low."

Fay, meanwhile, brimmed with confidence as he began what he was certain would be a standout film career. Barbara was becoming more and more depressed as one screen test after another yielded no results.

By the time she was interviewed by a young director named Frank Capra for his next movie at the minor-league Columbia studio she was ready to pack it up and go back to New York. Truculent throughout the interview, she finally said, "Oh, hell, you don't want any part of me," and stomped out. But when Frank Fay showed Capra a color test she'd made under Alexander Korda's direction, her big speech from The Noose, he knew she was exactly what he wanted for the role of Kay Arnold, the street-smart yet vulnerable "party girl," in Ladies of Leisure. "Underneath her sullen shyness," Capra later wrote, "smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt. Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about make-up, clothes or hairdos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces . . . She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped."

Ladies of Leisure was a great hit, a major step up in the ascension of Columbia, and it made movie star of Barbara Stanwyck. Critics raved about this lovely young actress, effusively praising the naturalness and honesty of her acting, her unique voice and her strong presence. Photoplay rhapsodized about "the astonishing performance of a little tap-dancing beauty who has in her the spirit of a great artist . . . Go and be amazed by this Barbara girl." "Is this just a flash in the pan," asked another fan magazine, "or the beginning of a major career?"

She signed non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warners and was immediately put to work in one starring vehicle after another, a pace that wouldn't slow down for the next quarter century.

Meanwhile, Frank Fay's career turned to ashes as his movies flopped and his performances bombed. Barbara's sudden ascension to stardom and his profound public fall from grace were much noted, Fay becoming unemployable and hitting the bottle as Barbara became the star (and breadwinner) of the family. It was the Fay-Stanwyck marriage that inspired the soon-to-be Hollywood classic A Star Is Born. The writers had to step very carefully to avoid being sued and many alterations were made but, at its basic core, A Star Is Born is very much the story of Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck.

Throughout the 1930s she worked like a mule, grinding out over 30 movies at all the major studios. A few were worthy of her, most were run-of-the-mill programmers and some were out-and-out stinkers, but they had one thing in common—all were "Barbara Stanwyck movies." Along with Crawford, Hepburn, Davis, Dietrich and Garbo, it was her name that sold them and her fans that supported them. But she differed from all those ladies in some key respects. She lacked their exaggerated facial features and vocal mannerisms (mimics and drag queens never did camped-up Stanwyck impressions), cared not a whit about elaborate lighting, hairdos or wardrobe and never considered herself glamorous or even beautiful. She simply loved acting, took her profession seriously and wanted to work. All stardom meant to Barbara was that it allowed her to continue doing so.

Critics repeatedly called Stanwyck's performances "natural," "honest," "sincere." She'd become Capra's favorite actress and he directed her in three more Columbia dramas. The Miracle Woman (1931) was an initially daring attempt at telling the story of a fraudulent preacher, based on the notorious Aimee Semple McPherson. Barbara delivered a strong performance but the cop-out script sank it. Forbidden (1932) was a mawkish soap opera worthy of neither of them. The Bitter Tea of General Yen ('32) was a truly strange tale with Barbara as the captive and lover of a Chinese warlord, but casting Swedish Nils Asther as General Yen was pure racial cowardice. None approached Ladies of Leisure in quality or box-office success.

At Warners, a studio more in synch with her slangy energy, she did a trio of films with William "Wild Bill" Wellman, who saw Barbara's strengths in a less romantic light than did Capra. After directing her as a gritty, two-fisted Night Nurse (1931), he cast her as the heroine of Edna Ferber's So Big (1932), a farm saga in which she ages twenty years with grace, skill and a minimum of old-age makeup. Her performance was widely admired but the film's scant 80-minute running time undercut its potential. They then collaborated on The Purchase Price (1932), a tale that took her from hardened nightclub chanteuse (singing on-screen for the first time) to plucky, loyal, weather-worn farm wife. Early in that script she delivered a short speech that must have had an eerie resonance for her: "I've been up and down Broadway since I was 15 years old. I'm fed up with hoofing in shows. I'm sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers and smart guys. I've heard all the questions and know all the answers. And I've kept myself fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache."

She always considered Wellman, Capra, and Billy Wilder her favorite directors.

Also at Warners, she did three zippy pre-Code programmers that solidified her image as a sexually liberated, been-through-the-mill tough dame, equally handy with a withering wisecrack, a solid right hook or, if needed, a pistol. In Illicit (1931) she defiantly preferred "living in sin" to the joys of wedded bliss. Ladies They Talk About (1933) had her slugging fellow high-heeled inmates in a prison replete with beauticians and designer uniforms. Baby Face (1933) became notorious for its depiction of an amoral slut who escaped the coal town where her father doubled as her pimp, moving to the big city where, the ads punned, "she climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong." Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About are great fun to watch and she never dogs it for a second, her performances fully committed to her characters and never descending to camp or kitsch.

In 1932 she was seen for the only time on film with Frank Fay in an all-star short spoof, The Stolen Jools. That year she and Fay adopted a boy, Dion (later called Tony), in the hope of strengthening their marriage.

The following year she returned to Broadway with Fay in Tattle Tales, financing it with her movie earnings in a doomed attempt to bolster his sagging career and ego. It opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on June 1, 1933 and limped on for 28 performances. Fay appeared in witless comedy sketches and Barbara did scenes from Ladies of Leisure and The Miracle Woman. It was her final stage appearance.

She returned to Hollywood and continued grinding out programmers. A welcome respite was Annie Oakley (1935), her first western. Her feisty energy and humor made for a welcome relief after so many weepies, and it was a much-needed hit.

In late 1935 she divorced Frank Fay, by now alcoholic and physically abusive. After winning a long and bitter custody battle, Barbara sent their son off to a series of boarding and military schools, eventually cutting herself off from seeing or even discussing him for the rest of their lives. Not her proudest achievement.

The following year was quite notable for her. She signed with Darryl Zanuck to do two Fox films with varying results. A Message to Garcia had her ludicrously miscast as a Brooklyn-accented Cuban senorita, but Banjo on My Knee was a popular riverboat comedy-drama with music that had Barbara singing with Tony Martin and hoofing with Buddy Ebsen. Martin praised Barbara in his 1976 joint autobiography (with wife Cyd Charisse), The Two of Us. It was his first dramatic role and he hadn't a clue how to get through a particularly difficult scene with her. As he wrote: " 'It's a tough scene,' Barbara said. 'I'll tell you what let's do. I'll meet you here at eight o'clock in the morning and I'll help you.' So that's what we did. We met at eight, before anybody else was there, and she showed me how to do the scene. I'll never forget her kindness to me. Everybody liked her. She had the vocabulary of a Marine sergeant and I guess that's what made the crew putty in her hands. She catered to them. And, in return, they couldn't do enough for her." Ebsen later happily recalled, "She gave me my first screen kiss. When she finished I couldn't remember my next line."

The Bride Walks Out (1936) was her first all-out comedy, albeit a weak one, but His Brother's Wife (1936) had a major effect on her life. It was her first film at MGM and she was co-starred with America's new pretty-boy sensation, Robert Taylor. The picture was pure soap but the stars had fallen in love, becoming one of the film world's glamour couples. She was four years older, not a great beauty, was from a tough, hardscrabble New York background and had been a highly regarded star actress for six years. He grew up in Nebraska, was new to big-city life in Hollywood and his beauty was such that he could have his pick of anyone he wanted. Why, everyone wondered, choose Barbara Stanwyck? His oft-quoted, classic reply: "Barbara is not the sort of woman I'd have met in Nebraska."

They again co-starred in This Is My Affair (1937), a period piece, by which time their romance was widely known. The ads, not to mention the title itself, didn't fail to capitalize on their relationship. They made a dazzling couple and audiences thronged to see the real-life lovers. Barbara, as a cafe singer, positively glowed, singing five numbers amid the melodramatic goings-on.

That same year she worked with the Abbey Players in a dull version of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars under John Ford's direction, but it was her next film that gave Barbara's career its biggest boost to date.

When Samuel Goldwyn decided to film Olive Higgins Prouty's Stella Dallas it was already a dated, shameless tear-jerker of self-sacrificing mother love, but Barbara wanted the role and fought for it. Goldwyn considered her too young and inexperienced with children, but she won him over by swallowing her pride and making a test. He caved. Her portrayal of the loud and vulgar Stella who nonetheless would make any sacrifice for her beloved daughter was a personal triumph. The film worked because Goldwyn, Stanwyck and director King Vidor so believed in and committed themselves to the story. For Stella, she copped the first of her four Oscar nominations and was profoundly disappointed at losing (to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth). As she later said, "I poured my blood into that one."

Her 1938 vehicles were fairly minor, though one — The Mad Miss Manton, a so-so screwball comedy — teamed her for the first time with Henry Fonda.

She was one of the many actresses briefly considered for Gone with the Wind — hard to imagine Scarlett O'Hara with a Brooklyn accent — but she wasn't a serious contender. Instead, 1939 found her in Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific, a rambunctious railroad saga co-starring Joel McCrea and Robert Preston. The focus was on the men and the trains, but Barbara was a lively and playful Irish lass who held her own through all the battles.

DeMille found her a dream to work with and, although Union Pacific was their only film together, he used her often on his Lux Radio Theatre, radio's most popular and prestigious dramatic series. Barbara recreated many of her film roles, eventually appearing in seventeen shows between 1936 and 1954. She also starred in roles made famous by other actresses, including Wuthering Heights, Morning Glory, Smilin' Through, Penny Serenade, These Three, and Dark Victory. The latter was aired in 1938 before the film was made and Barbara wanted it to be a test run for a movie version. Losing the part to Bette Davis was a crushing disappointment.

Her final 1939 film was Clifford Odets' Golden Boy. It had been a high-profile hit on Broadway and the movie version was marred by a happy ending, but Barbara was well received for her unflinching portrait of a hard-edged "dame from Newark" who falls for the young hero. The boy, an extremely demanding role, was played by a very nervous newcomer, William Holden. It didn't start out too well. When she got word that he was going to be fired she threatened to walk off the picture, and then spent every available moment coaching and working with him. With her help, Golden Boy made William Holden a star, and every year for the rest of his life he sent her flowers on the anniversary of the film's starting date.

(Many years later, when Holden and Stanwyck were introduced together as presenters at the 1978 Academy Awards, he unexpectedly ditched their prepared script, saying instead: "Before Barbara and I present this next award, I'd like to say something. Thirty-nine years ago this month we were working in a film together called Golden Boy, and it wasn't going well because I was going to be replaced. But due to this lovely human being and her interest and understanding and her professional integrity and her encouragement and, above all, her generosity, I'm here tonight." Surprised and overcome, her eyes filled with tears as she embraced him.)

In the midst of shooting Golden Boy, on May 14, 1939, she and Robert Taylor were quietly married. They became Hollywood's brightest star couple for the next dozen years.

The forties brought a new Stanwyck to the public with her first 1940 release, Remember the Night. The short, flattened, marcelled hairdos of the 1930s, never very flattering to Barbara, gave way to more softly waved, longer styles and gave her a far more attractive appearance. Remember the Night, beautifully written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen, presented a softer, lovelier Barbara. She was a shoplifter who was reformed by assistant DA Fred MacMurray and the mix of toughness, tenderness and gentle comedy made for a delightful movie. MacMurray and Stanwyck were a dynamic team, and Leisen called Barbara "a woman of unlimited ability and, with Carole Lombard, the easiest woman I ever worked with."

Dramatic radio had become one of Barbara's favorite performing venues and remained so till its demise in the mid-fifties. She did all the movie-adaptation series (Lux, Screen Director's Playhouse, Screen Guild Theatre) as well as a wide variety of dramatic and comedy shows. In 1940 she made the first of a half-dozen guest appearances on The Jack Benny Program. The Bennys and the Taylors were close friends and Barbara delighted in sending up her own movie star image on the Benny shows, frequently lampooning her own movies.

In 1941 she was co-starred with Gary Cooper for the first time and was happily reunited with Frank Capra in Meet John Doe, a condescending tribute to "the common man" by filmmakers who were now out-of-touch millionaires. It was a big hit nonetheless, but it was her other major 1941 release, The Lady Eve, that shot Barbara into a new realm of stardom. A brilliant and now-classic comedy, it was a joyous reunion with Preston Sturges and a fortuitous re-teaming with Henry Fonda. Critics went into astonished tailspins praising the textbook comic performances of Stanwyck and Fonda.

One other reason for Barbara's huge success in The Lady Eve was Edith Head's trend-setting and figure-flattering wardrobe, the most glamorous Barbara had ever worn. Previously, Barbara's indifference to clothes had been legendary, allowing costumers to outfit her however they wanted, feeling that was their department, standing for fittings patiently but passively with her back to the mirror. But now, after a dozen years in movies, Stanwyck suddenly became one of the sexiest babes and savviest clotheshorses in the business. She and Edith Head became friends for life and Barbara began taking her along on almost every movie she made.

Her third movie that year was You Belong to Me, another comedy with Fonda, not bad but not a patch on The Lady Eve. "Stanwyck can act the hell out of any part," Fonda later said, "and she can turn a chore into a challenge. She's fun, and I'm glad I had a chance to make three movies with her. The Lady Eve was the best. She's a delicious woman." (The 1978 AFI Salute to Henry Fonda prompted Barbara to make one of her exceedingly rare appearances, delivering a lovely Fonda tribute. When it came time for Fonda to speak he expressed delighted surprise that Barbara had shown up, adding, "I fell in love with Barbara when we did Lady Eve. I'm still in love with her, and Shirlee [his wife] can live with it.")

Ball of Fire (1942) solidified her new glamour-girl image, her naturally thin upper lip now enlarged and reshaped with artfully flared lipstick. (She retained this lush-lipped look for the next fifteen years.) She was Sugarpuss O'Shea, a leggy, bespangled striptease tootsie on the lam from the cops, hiding out in a houseful of stodgy professors and falling for the youngest of them (Gary Cooper). Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote the delightful script, Howard Hawks directed, and Barbara's hyper-energetic performance was a critical and popular triumph, earning her another Oscar nomination.

Her two other 1942 releases weren't quite as successful. The Great Man's Lady was meant to be the epic tale of a woman in the pioneer old west, aging on-camera from 16 to 101 ("and looking 35 throughout," as one critic sniffed), but in black-and-white and at a mere 90 minutes, it didn't really jell. It was a great personal disappointment to Barbara. Her other 1942 release, The Gay Sisters, was another soaper that came and went.

She was another sassy stripper, Dixie Daisy, in Hunt Stromberg's Lady of Burlesque (1943), based on Gypsy Rose Lee's 1942 backstage mystery novel, The G-String Murders. It was a most agreeable comedy-mystery, briskly directed by William Wellman. Barbara dipped freely into her chorus-girl past, singing "Take It off the E-String, Play It on the G-String" and dancing with the accomplished moves of a star showgirl, replete with full splits and cartwheels. Surrounded by a battalion of wisecracking floozies, Barbara seemed to be enjoying herself enormously.

After appearing opposite Charles Boyer in one third of the three-part drama Flesh and Fantasy, Barbara got the role of her life, the one that permanently redefined her star image. And she didn't want to do it. In a 1968 TV documentary, Barbara Stanwyck: Portrait of a Star, Barbara told of her initial reservations after Billy Wilder sent her the script of Double Indemnity: "I had played medium heavies, but not an out-and-out killer. I was a little frightened of it, and I said, 'I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines, to go into an out-and-out cold-blooded killer.' And Mr. Wilder — rightly so — looked at me and said, 'Well, are you a mouse or an actress?' And I said, 'Well, I hope I'm an actress.' He said, 'Then do the part.' And I did and I'm very grateful to him."

Wilder assembled a perfect star trio: Barbara as the definitively amoral Phyllis Dietrichson, an icy schemer with the conscience of a cobra and a heart of pure anthracite, Fred MacMurray as the chump insurance salesman Phyllis seduces into knocking off her husband (whose first wife she had already knocked off), and Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray's suspicious boss. Double Indemnity (1944) is now regarded as a quintessential film noir and Barbara's chilling, uncompromising performance is the standard by which all femmes fatales have come to be judged.

Double Indemnity was a smash, and audiences loved seeing Barbara in that sort of role. She scored her third Oscar nomination, but Gaslight's weepily sympathetic Ingrid Bergman took home the prize.

By now she was mainly hopping back and forth between Paramount and Warners and working non-stop at a height of popularity she'd never before attained. In 1944, the U.S. Treasury Department listed Barbara Stanwyck as the highest-salaried woman in America.

She had another hit in 1945, Christmas in Connecticut, an ingratiating comedy (released that summer, oddly), co-starring Warners' popular crooner, Dennis Morgan. The two made a charming and believable couple, thanks mainly to her flexibility as an actress. Barbara never overwhelmed her leading men, instead adapting herself to their energy and rhythms, working with them, not merely at them. Frequently paired with lower-key leading men (Morgan, Joel McCrea, George Brent, Herbert Marshall), she never rode roughshod over them. Rather, they were often at their most effective when working with her.

Paramount's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) was a gleeful return to the shady world of noir, her Martha looking gorgeous as she killed and schemed her way to her own eventual destruction. She now had no reservations about going the limit and her performance was neurotically succulent and corrupt. With her dancer's grace, economy of movement and venomous eyes, she was certainly by now the most dangerous woman in movies and the poor saps who got tangled in her web paid a fearsome price. No, it isn't so pretty what a dame without pity can do. If Double Indemnity started that engine, Martha Ivers put it into overdrive.

Her next release that year couldn't have been more dissimilar. In My Reputation (actually filmed in 1944, right after Double Indemnity) Barbara is a widow and mother of two sons who has to deal with a hidebound mother (the great Lucile Watson), lecherous neighbors, and gossipy friends as she slowly begins a romance with a soldier (George Brent) while fighting off her own loyalty to her husband's memory. It was a mature, beautifully controlled and multi-faceted performance, never descending to the mawkish or the obvious. A big hit with audiences, it was one of Barbara's favorite roles.

In the middle of these high-grossing hits, The Bride Wore Boots emptied out many theatres. It was lousy, and, sadly, was to be Barbara's final comedy feature. But she made another friend-for-life in leading man Robert Cummings.

The year 1947 was not her most successful, even with five Stanwyck films in release. California was a big, overstuffed western with Barbara in the sort of lady-with-a-past role that Claire Trevor had made her own. It was, if nothing else, her first Technicolor film. Variety Girl was another all-star extravaganza with Barbara guesting as herself. The Two Mrs. Carrolls was a wasted chance to co-star with Humphrey Bogart with both stars wildly (in Bogart's case hilariously) miscast. She matched wits with Errol Flynn in another mystery drama, Cry Wolf, and neither won. And in The Other Love Barbara was a famous concert pianist confined to a Swiss sanitarium where her doctor (David Niven) has fallen in love with her even though she's dying of — well, something or other, perhaps that thing Ali McGraw had. It didn't help that Barbara never looked more radiantly healthy or more serenely beautiful. Ania Dorfman dubbed Barbara's piano playing and coached her so she'd appear believable. She practiced the pieces three hours a day for a month.

Also in 1947 she and Robert Taylor visited New York. Frank Fay had just made a high-profile comeback in the new Broadway hit Harvey and a reporter asked if she'd planned on seeing it. "No," she replied, "I've seen all the rabbits Mr. Fay has to offer."

About this time, while still a certified superstar, Barbara's auburn hair started slowly turning gray. What did she do about it? She did what no other name actress in America dared to do — absolutely nothing. The press reported this shocking decision with continuing wonder. Her standard line when questioned about why she didn't hit the dye-pots: "Only the young dye good." She'd never lied about her age and wasn't about to start now, and beauty parlors weren't her style. "I simply couldn't face sitting there six hours every two or three weeks." She'd wear a wig if a script called for one, but otherwise her hair grew publicly grayer by the year until finally turning snow white. For the rest of her life, Stanwyck was the only star actress of her generation who wasn't a blonde, a brunette or a redhead.

By 1948 Barbara, along with every other female in America, had succumbed to The New Look, the fashion revolution that wiped out the forties' padded shoulders, long hair and short skirts, substituting padded busts, short hair and long skirts. Her new short bob pretty much transformed her lushly glamorous appearance into a more mature, even matronly look (though she never lost her trim dancer's figure). The new Stanwyck was seen that year in B.F.'s Daughter as the wealthy and overly ambitious wife of a struggling economist. He was played by Van Heflin, her Martha Ivers co-star, and they paired beautifully. As with her last half-dozen films, it wasn't much of a standout.

A sorely needed hit came along that year with Sorry, Wrong Number. It had been an extremely successful half-hour radio play by Lucille Fletcher, featuring Agnes Moorhead as a bedridden invalid who, through an accident of crossed wires, overhears her own murder being plotted over the telephone. A one-woman monologue, it tracked her futile phone calls for help. So successful was the first broadcast that Moorhead repeated her live performance many times, but producers felt a star name was needed for the film version, and Barbara got it.

The attempts to "open up" Sorry, Wrong Number with other characters (including a miscast Burt Lancaster as her weak husband) rather diluted the suspense, and a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks further muddled matters. But Barbara pulled out all the stops as the doomed, frantic wife trapped in her bed, the telephone her only lifeline. It's those bedroom sequences, now scattered amidst the flashbacks, that were the heart of Sorry, Wrong Number, and for her wrenching tour de force she was Oscar-nominated for the fourth and final time. Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) won.

She closed out the forties with The Lady Gambles as a lady addicted to, yes, gambling, and East Side, West Side, a glossy soap opera with Barbara as James Mason's wronged wife who finds comfort in the arms of dependable Van Heflin.

Though she kept working, the fifties were a difficult time for Barbara, as they were for all her contemporaries. There was an entire generation of younger stars by now and veterans from the thirties were having a hard time maintaining their film careers. And, then as now, women over forty were not Hollywood's top priorities. Barbara did keep working, but there would be fewer highlights.

Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck considered Barbara as a possibility to play theatrical barracuda Margo Channing in Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve, but Claudette Colbert was finally signed until a back injury led to her replacement by Bette Davis. Though Stanwyck had perhaps a wider acting range than Davis, it's difficult to imagine her as Margo, a role calling for self-deluding grande dame artifice on an epic scale.

Instead, she had four films in release in 1950. The File on Thelma Jordon furthered her image as a preying mantis of easy conscience (one of her lines, "Maybe I am just a dame and didn't know it," became the tag-line of all the ads) but in No Man of Her Own she was an uncharacteristically passive victim of bizarre circumstances. To Please a Lady promisingly teamed her with Clark Gable, but the script was an eye-roller. The Furies was easily the class of the lot, a big-budget psychological western in which she and Walter Huston (in his final role) were superb as bitterly competitive but fiercely loving father and daughter, fighting tooth and nail for each others' land and love. When he brings his intended new bride (Judith Anderson) to the ranch, Stanwyck hurls a pair of scissors at her, disfiguring her for life. The Furies is a wildly perverse masterwork.

In 1951 she divorced Robert Taylor. His infidelities had become common knowledge and her most passionate fidelity had long been to her profession. (In 1954 he married German-born actress Ursula Thiess and the following year she gave birth to a son, his first child. He died in 1969.) Barbara never remarried.

Clash by Night (1952) gave Barbara a chance to work with director Fritz Lang, and it was a rewarding matchup. She got to play the sort of hard-as-nails, seen-it-all woman she'd by now played so often but this time she's more weary and disillusioned than coldly vengeful, returning to the drab fishing village of her youth after messing up her chances for success in the big city. ("Home is where you come when you run out of places.") And for once she was evenly matched with not one but two powerful leading men, Paul Douglas and Robert Ryan.

Fourth-billed was starlet Marilyn Monroe, very much on the rise and very much in the news. The story of her nude calendar broke during Clash by Night's production and the press was in a frenzy. Lang recounted his memories of this period to Peter Bogdanovich in the book, Fritz Lang in America: "Barbara had a very difficult scene in a courtyard, hanging clothes from a laundry basket and speaking her lines . . . and Marilyn had one or two lines in the scene which she fluffed constantly. I never heard one bad word from Barbara; she was terribly sweet to her . . . Newspapermen came during lunch hours and, since Barbara was the star, everyone tried to make sure she was interviewed. But the reporters said, 'We don't wanna talk to Barbara, we wanna talk to the girl with the big tits.' Another woman would have been furious. Barbara never. She knew exactly what was going on."

Barbara's work in Clash by Night was outstanding, and even better was Titanic (1953). Much like the more recent megahit, it told of the disaster through the fictional stories of its passengers, chiefly Barbara and Clifton Webb as a mature couple, parents of two children, whose marriage had now collapsed. Both should have been Oscar-nominated for their beautifully modulated work but there was just a bit too much soap opera to Titanic, and too much melodrama to Clash by Night, to merit serious evaluations of her work. With her voice now deepened into the cello range, Barbara had by now slipped into the "dependable" category and even her finest performances were routinely being shrugged off with such comments as "fine as usual."

Titanic's release was bracketed that year by a pair of just-okay programmers — Jeopardy, a tight little thriller, and All I Desire, a period weepie. The supporting cast of the latter featured Maureen O'Sullivan, with whom star Barbara apparently had problems. O'Sullivan later said: "She was always so popular and everybody adored her, but I found her a cold person, and she was the only actress in my working experience who ever went home leaving me to do the close-ups with the script girl, which I thought was most unprofessional. I was quite surprised. There, that's the only unkind thing that's ever been said about Barbara Stanwyck."

Of the rest of her seven 1953-54 films, the only one worth mentioning is MGM's all-star Executive Suite (1954), her final big-budget prestige release. Barbara happily accepted the smallish part because it was her first opportunity since Golden Boy to work again with William Holden.

For the next three years she lowered her price and ground out mostly bottom-of-the-bill westerns, by now her favorite genre, delighting in doing all her own stunts. Her three 'moderns' were notable for about one reason each; These Wilder Years (1956) finally co-starred her with James Cagney, but their characters allowed for no romantic connection; There's Always Tomorrow (1956) was a weepy soap that co-starred her with Fred MacMurray for the fourth and final time; and Crime of Passion (1957) was the last in her gallery of overwrought, steel-eyed noir killers.

Television was now where the work was. She'd made her TV debut on the Jack Benny Show (CBS, 1/27/52) in a live spoof of Gaslight, titled Autolight. They made delightful hash of the Bergman and Boyer roles, though Barbara actually seemed to be sending up her own melodramatic movie image rather than spoofing Bergman's performance.

Late in 1956, she began appearing as guest star on episodes of drama and comedy series (Ford Theatre, Goodyear Theatre, The Real McCoys, The Untouchables, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Powell Theatre) and dived full-tilt into her beloved western genre, appearing on Rawhide, four times, on Wagon Train, and four more on Zane Grey Theatre.

She was frequently offered her own series but never the kind she really wanted, a western that celebrated the strong women of the old west. The network suits wouldn't go for it, so she eventually agreed to host and star in an anthology series, much like the successful Loretta Young Show. The Barbara Stanwyck Theatre debuted on NBC on September 19, 1960, with Stanwyck starring in 32 of the 36 half-hour shows. She did mostly dramas and a few comedies, as well as sneaking in some westerns. The opening and closing spots for each episode had her immobile, posed like a fashion model, and she was damned uncomfortable doing them. By the time she won an Emmy as Best Actress in a Series (May 17, 1961) the show had already been canceled after only one season.

Barbara was quite honest about why she was appearing on television instead of on the big screen, telling interviewer Eli Weinstein: "It isn't that I don't want to work [in movies]. The trouble is nobody asks me. Some actors and actresses in my position say they can't find the right roles, but I can't fool myself so easily . . . I don't let it get me down, I couldn't retire to a life of leisure, that would drive me mad . . . Acting is the only thing I'm good for. I've never been much for hobbies. I get a kick out of some stars who are afraid of growing old. How silly, everybody has to grow old . . . Life is a pretty difficult thing to get through. But I'm not an unhappy person. Maybe everything hasn't worked out exactly the way I hoped it would, but I've had more than my share of good times. I'm very contented now. I have my health and all the money I need, and this comfortable house. True, I live here alone."

As she continued to guest-star on TV she made her first movie in five years, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), a quirkily campy and unsuccessful melodrama in which Barbara played the vicious lesbian madam of a New Orleans brothel who had the hots for her favorite hooker (Capucine) while saddled with a legless husband. In 1964 she did what turned out to be her last two feature films. She played Elvis Presley's flinty carnival boss in Roustabout and co-starred with ex-husband Robert Taylor in a lower-case thriller, The Night Walker. "Together Again!" gushed the ads, which meant nothing to younger audiences.

Those younger audiences would discover Barbara as if for the first time the following year when, on September 15, 1965, ABC premiered its new western series, The Big Valley starring "Miss Barbara Stanwyck" as Victoria Barkley, matriarch of the Barkley clan — four robust sons (one sorta vanished after the first season) and one feisty daughter. For three hit seasons she did stunts to her heart's content; jumping into saloon brawls, riding horses, doing horse drags, hurling furniture, fighting with fists and firearms, escaping burning buildings and ruling her roost, insisting all along that professional stunt people be hired so they could get a salary whether they did the stunts or not. She became a star all over again to an entire generation who never even knew her as a movie queen.

In 1966 she won her second Emmy, the Screen Actors' Guild Award (for "Fostering the Finest Ideals of the Acting Profession") and was on every TV magazine cover. She'd become a Broadway star at 20, a movie star at 23 and now, on television at age 58, Barbara Stanwyck hit her third jackpot.

On March 15, 1967 the annual Photoplay Gold Medal Awards were presented on the Merv Griffin Show. Barbara was voted Most Popular Female Star for the second year in a row and Ginger Rogers was awarded for doing Hello, Dolly on Broadway. Early in the show Ginger accepted her award and then sang some of her movie songs. Then Barbara, after being presented her award, sat and chatted with Merv, who asked why she'd never done any TV talk shows before. Confessing her nervousness at coming out before a live audience without a scripted role to play, she noted that it was fine for Ginger to come out and sing songs from her old movies, but "all I can do from any movies I made is 'Kill! Kill! Kill!'"

After The Big Valley went off the air Barbara was seen occasionally on TV episodes and starred in three ABC made-for-TV movies: The House That Wouldn't Die (1970), A Taste of Evil (1971) and The Letters (1973).

The year 1973 saw Barbara voted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, which she considered a great honor. She'd already been made an Honorary Stuntwoman and was adopted by the Blackfoot Indian tribe as "Princess Many-Victories".

But now, for the first time in her adult life, she embarked on a five-year hiatus from acting. She was being sent scripts but didn't find any of them interesting or suitable, feeling that "I've had my day and you have to know when to quit." This, from a woman who'd always said "I want to go on until they have to shoot me." She did some traveling — the Red Sea, Russia, Istanbul, and the Acropolis — but wasn't seen publicly till her appearance on the AFI Salute to Henry Fonda in 1978. Then, two years later and to everyone's surprise, she turned up in, of all things, an episode of Charlie's Angels titled Toni's Boys, playing a female Charlie to a trio of boytoy Angels. She was as trim and energetic as always but it was a trivial use of her talents. She did it to quell rumors she'd heard that she was now an invalid, unable to walk or speak. "I figured that by going back to work, I would put an end to this rumor the fastest way I knew how."

The following year, after turning down the role Jane Wyman eventually played on Falcon Crest, she embarked on the inevitable, if overdue, awards circuit, beginning on April 13, 1981 when the Film Society of Lincoln Center staged a full-scale Tribute to Barbara Stanwyck. Her good friend, columnist Shirley Eder, talked her into coming to New York for the event. Escort William Holden joined Frank Capra, Anne Baxter and Joan Bennett in paying tribute to Barbara between dozens of clips from her films. Henry Fonda, Edith Head and Ronald Reagan, unable to attend, sent congratulatory telegrams. Barbara, at 73, looked impossibly beautiful and a good 20 years younger (yes, even up close). When she arrived there was an audible gasp from the audience, followed by the first of her standing ovations. She called her reception "a shock, but a beautiful shock."

Barbara was just as uncomfortable doing print interviews as appearing live on stage, and never did them unless she felt that she had to. On the eve of her Lincoln Center event she sat down with Aljean Harmetz for a profile in the N.Y. Sunday Times (3/22/81). Asked about this reluctance, she said, "If I don't have a job, what am I going to give interviews about? 'And then I did - and then I did -' Who the hell cares?" She did admit to regretting that she'd never returned to the stage. "But I fell in love with film. Now I'm scared to try. Now I'm a coward. They keep asking me and I wish I had the courage, honey."

Early in 1982 she was given the Los Angeles Film Critics Career Achievement Award. Then came the big one. That was the year the Oscar folks announced that, to atone for their past sins of omission, Barbara Stanwyck would receive an honorary Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for being "an artist of impeccable grace and beauty", presented on April 29. Following a filmed montage of scenes from her movies, Barbara came onstage to a standing ovation. She thanked her many behind-the-camera co-workers, making special mention of "my wonderful group, the stunt men and women who taught me so well." She concluded, "A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my Golden Boy [raising her Oscar up high, her voice shaky], you get your wish." Holden had died just five months earlier.

The very next day it was announced that she'd joined the cast of the ABC miniseries, The Thorn Birds. Adapted from Colleen McCullough's 1977 best-selling novel covering 42 years of angst in the Australian outback, it was a formidable project that gave Barbara the sort of role she'd been waiting for but feared would never come her way again.

At first the entire cast and crew were rather in awe of her, but she managed to gradually relax them. She would play Mary Carson, a wealthy and powerful matriarch of 75, desperately in love with the young Cardinal Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain). That was, in fact, Barbara's actual age but because she didn't look it, it was suggested that some old-age makeup would be appropriate. She agreed, grudgingly. The younger company was impressed with her total knowledge of the entire 10-hour script, not just the first three hours in which she appears. When some cuts were made that she felt affected her character's development, she informed them that "you have just cut off my balls." They looked again, saw that indeed they had, and the scenes were restored.

Mary's constant sparring and bantering with Father Ralph called for a full range of charm, humor, anger, playfulness, frustration and sexual tension. When she finally confesses her love for him and he shrugs her off, saying he's merely "the goad of your old age, a reminder of what you can no longer be," she rages: "Let me tell you something, Father de Bricassart, about old age and about that God of yours. That vengeful God who ruins our bodies and leaves us with only enough wit for regret. Inside this stupid body I am still young. I still feel! I still want! I still dream! And I still love you! Oh God, how much!" Spent and shaken, trying to regain her composure, she goes to her bedroom door and closes it with as much shattered pride as she can muster. The next morning she's found dead in her bed.

Director Daryl Duke, in Ella Smith's superb book, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, said, "This was a very important scene for Barbara; she had put everything into it. It echoed so much her personal life and her position at the end of her career. Though she and I never said it, I could tell she knew it was a great, great moment, and that she might never find a script where she could unleash her full range of feeling again . . . saying goodbye, in a way, to her life and her career - and she might never rise to that height on film again."

The first three hours aired on March 27, 1983. The critics raved about her performance, seemingly appreciating and understanding what this must have meant for her. Ninety-five million viewers made The Thorn Birds second only to Roots as the highest-rated miniseries ever.

Later that year she won a Golden Globe and her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds. The Emmys had some heavy competition that season, including Ann-Margret in Who Will Love My Children? When Barbara was presented her award she did the standard gracious speech thanking the cast and company of The Thorn Birds, but then added: "I would like to pay a personal tribute to a lady who is a wonderful entertainer, and she gave us a film last year in which I think she gave one of the finest, most beautiful performances I've ever seen. Ann-Margret, you were superb!" They then cut to a shot of Ann-Margret in the audience, gasping in astonished delight. As she later said, "That moment I will cherish the rest of my life."

She was asked to appear on ABC's Dynasty as a member of the Colby family for a few episodes, and then to join Charlton Heston in a spin-off series, Dynasty II: The Colbys. She agreed and the new series debuted on November 20, 1985. She was Constance Colby Patterson, sister of Jason Colby (Heston) and aunt to his son Jeff (John James). Her contract specified that she'd work only two days a week and that she'd never have to do interviews.

In mid-season, on Jan. 24, 1986, she was invited to the Golden Globes to accept their annual Cecil B. DeMille Award, then went back to work on The Colbys. After the first low-rated season she opted to quit, accurately complaining that she played the same scene every week, just in a different dress. It was her final role.

The American Film Institute honored her on April 9, 1987 with AFI's Salute to Barbara Stanwyck, an all-star tribute to her body of work on film. She had recently thrown her back out and was hospitalized and in considerable pain, but worked out with barbells to be able to be there. A host of her co-stars and admirers lavished their praise, but Billy Wilder topped them all: "I learned many years ago never to say, 'This is the best actor or actress I've ever worked with,' because the next time you want a star, he or she is gonna say 'Wait a minute, you said Stanwyck was the greatest, now what does that make me?' Always say she's one of the two greatest stars you've worked with and whenever you approach a star, say 'You were the one I meant.' Except, of course, for tonight. I hope nobody's watching me. She was the best!"

When, at the conclusion, Barbara approached the podium to accept her award, her response to all the evening's hosannas was "Honest to God, I can't walk on water." In thanking all those who helped her on her journey, she singled out Wilder, "who taught me to kill."

After the evening's festivities she returned to the hospital. For the next few years she was in and out of the hospital as her health continued to fail. She'd been diagnosed with emphysema in the early 1970s and now developed vision problems and chronic obstructive lung disease. Complications continued to mount until, on January 20, 1990, Barbara died of pneumonia at St. John's Hospital. She was 82.

Shortly before her death she told fashion designer Nolan Miller, "I never expected to become an invalid. I always thought I'd be trampled by a wild stallion or run down by a stagecoach."

Stanwyck was never given to public introspection, courting her fame, polishing her legend or glad-handing the press. She did her work, delivered the goods, never became a caricature of herself, and kept her private life private. She even kept her figure. She once briefly thought of writing her memoirs, then dropped the idea for good. What she was was a professional actress, and if that ate up the greater part of her passion, so be it. She made her choices and didn't complain.

An interviewer had once asked her to analyze her stardom or some such folderol, but she didn't take the bait:

"What the hell. Whatever I had, it worked, didn't it?"

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from the book "Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames" (c) 2004 Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.