Last night my friend Shelby and I were watching television, and hitting the clicker she landed on an old black and white western film on TCM. There was no question that the star on screen was the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck, but we weren’t sure what the film was. We watched for a while before Shelby gave in and dialed up the answer on the Internet Movie Database. It was the 1942 picture, The Great Man’s Lady starring Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, one of those flashback movies in which 100 year-old pioneer woman Hannah Sempler Hoyt (Stanwyck) tells her story, beginning with the early days of helping found a city in the wilderness and continuing across eighty years. The actress portrays Sempler from age twenty to 100. Neither Shelby nor I had seen a Barbara Stanwyck picture in a long time and sat enthralled by the actress’s skills.
Barbara Stanwyck’s great talent lay in her ability to display such extreme contrasts in her roles. Her film characters were alternately sultry and sweet, vulnerable and tough, funny or dramatic, joyous or tragic. No one could doubt she was simply one of the greatest actresses working in film during Hollywood’s Golden Era. It was tough-minded feminism in the weepy Stella Dallas released in 1937, madcap glamour in the 1941 comedy The Lady Eve, and a poisonous vixen in the 1944 classic Double Indemnity. Surprisingly, in spite of a virtual catalog of unforgettable performances, she never won an Academy Award for her work, and like other aging glamour girls before her, moved reluctantly into television work in the 1950s and 1960s when her movie career declined. She became an even bigger star on television. Like no other actress of her generation Barbara Stanwyck enjoyed a long, varied career in film and television, always beloved by her millions of fans. She made eighty-five films in thirty-eight years before turning to television, was nominated for an Academy Award four times, won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award. Raising herself from Brooklyn’s working class, acting aside, her business acumen made her one of America’s richest women. Oddly enough, though hugely popular among her peers, she died a virtual recluse.
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907. With stubborn perseverance she hammered her way into the chorus line of a few Broadway shows, but ambition quickly pushed her to center stage. Broadway producer David Belasco liked her and suggested she change her name to “Barbara Stanwyck,” then casting her in his play, The Noose. The play was a smash hit and the twenty year-old Stanwyck was suddenly a stage star. She starred in another hit play, which attracted the attention of a film producer, and soon after won a small part in the 1927 silent movie Broadway Nights. Something about film work intrigued the young actress and she left New York for Hollywood to try her luck in motion pictures.
Her movie career took off quickly, and catapulted into leading roles she never looked back. From the beginning she was bright, beautiful and ballsy with a presence that propelled her solidly into class A films. Stanwyck’s career flared with roles tailored to her matchless combination of attitude and allure. She began making three or four pictures a year and earned a reputation as one of the hardest working women in Hollywood. The movies were not always first rate, but nobody questioned Stanwyck’s performances. Her star rose steadily through the 1930s, but it was her powerful performance in the romantic drama Stella Dallas that put her among the elite of Hollywood actresses. After Stella Dallas she found herself in the upper echelon of film stardom with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard.
Double Indemnity (1944) is considered by many to be the highwater mark of Stanwyck’s career in films. She continued acting in movies for another twelve years but none of them equalled the quality of her earlier films. The 1948 picture Sorry, Wrong Number was a good film and it brought Stanwyck her final Academy Award nomination, but ultimately didn’t live up to the classic Double Indemnity. Movie roles became less interesting as she aged and Stanwyck turned her attention to television. The Barbara Stanwyck Show in 1960 lasted only a single season but earned Stanwyck an Emmy Award. Next came guest appearances on Western shows like Wagon Train, followed by the western series The Big Valley. She earned another Emmy Award for her work in the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds. Next came Dynasty and its spin-off, The Colbys, from 1985 to ’87. After a lifetime of hard work she finally grew tired of the grind.
In retirement she continued to be active with charity work but a lifelong habit of heavy smoking finally caught up with her. In 1990 at the age of eighty-three she died in Santa Monica, California from congestive heart failure and emphysema.