Before beginning, I offer the disclaimer that I am not an unbiased writer of this Great Actors profile. I have a tattoo of Barbara Stanwyck. It’s an image of her as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) wearing that perfectly noir pair of sunglasses as she does in her local Los Angeles supermarket. On my arm she’s been recognised by friends and even by strangers – an important metric for telling me who is a worthy Classical Hollywood fan – but more than that, she is for me. I love her so much and my life would not be the same without her – without her comedies, her melodramas, her noirs, her westerns, and her grand, sassy presence. As Lily Powers in Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933), arguably Barbara Stanwyck’s most important role of the pre-Code era, Stanwyck speaks this line with her trademark wry wit: “I’m a ball of fire, I am.” She was predicting a role of great recognition in her future. Sugarpuss O’Shea in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), which would garner Stanwyck her second Academy Award nomination, was a tough cookie, a gangster’s moll with killer legs, a comedienne with a Brooklyn drawl.

For Stanwyck, the eight years between these two performances were some of the richest and busiest of anyone working in front of the camera in Hollywood. Rick Burin emphasises this, noting that between in just two-and-a-half years between 1939-1941, she “embarked on perhaps the most dazzling purple patch in the history of American film: five of the greatest performances in cinema…a quintet of distinct and unforgettable characters who had one thing in common: a tough carapace that split open to reveal the softest of centres.”1 Her stardom was such that by 1943 she had become the highest paid woman in the USA. That output was all but eclipsed the following eight years, and even the next, which had slightly fewer film outputs but saw a career begin in television. With reportedly universal on-set respect and an off-screen “public persona as a consummate professional,”2 Stanwyck almost never stopped working between the late-1920s and the mid-1980s, and she has a rich and diverse career to show for it. 

Asked, once, what contributed to her greatness as a performer, Stanwyck replied – with her typical no-nonsense attitude – “What the hell, whatever I had it worked, didn’t it?”3 Many writers, occupying the positions of academic and cinephile and fan, have attempted to grapple with this question. Andrew Klevan, certainly one of the best writers on Stanwyck, notes that she “is one of the outstanding film stars, but she is particularly difficult to pin down.”4 Yet despite all that has already been written, to someone who adores Barbara Stanwyck, there is an intense joy in writing more. Whatever she had – whether or not we can define it – made her one of the greatest actors to transition from Broadway to Hollywood, from stage to silents to talkies to television. Thus it is a tall order to compose a relatively short assessment of a vast career that spans seven decades, almost right up until her death in 1990, and to do it justice. This reflection will cover some of Stanwyck’s most famous roles, but necessarily omit some in favour some lesser-known films.

Ball of Fire

A key to Stanwyck’s appeal is that her performances reward multiple viewings. She is an actor whose smallest movements convey meaning across great distances, whose gestures and glances are integral to each emotion. Dan Callahan writes that “Stanwyck’s style is almost entirely based on the smallest movements of her eyes and shifts of her facial expression to convey her feelings.”5 She would do this in favour of drama, emotion, urgency, desperation, tenderness, and love. With the slightest flicker of her eyelids or shift in her glance she could communicate exactly what her character was thinking – or, if it was called for, disguise her character’s inner thoughts. One of the things I love most about Stanwyck’s eyes is the way she looks a man up and down, almost like no one else can. In Ladies They Talk About (Howard Bretherton, William Keighley, 1933), she sizes up a security guard when targeting a bank for a hold up. In Baby Face, she victimises several men as the target of her disapproving or opportunistic gaze. In Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948), a flashback returns to a time before her Leona Stevenson became an invalid, trapped in a Manhattan mansion. Sitting in a car with Burt Lancaster, Stanwyck’s eyes give it away before she leans in for a seductive embrace. There are so many more of these moments, and so much has been written on them. They are all worthwhile. 

A Nice Coat

More-or-less orphaned at the age of four, Ruby Catherine Stevens grew up in Brooklyn and, after some odd jobs as a young teenager including one at the Strand Rooftop, she became a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies. While performing on Broadway, Barbara Stanwyck adopted her now iconic, striking stage name. Speaking of her younger years, trying to work her way through poverty, Stanwyck said, “I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat.”6 While it was her husband’s career that took her to Hollywood, it’s testament to her unique talent and work ethic that she independently became one of the hottest actors in town. After an uncredited appearance in her only silent picture (now lost), Stanwyck made The Locked Door (George Fitzmaurice, 1929), and was then brought into Columbia for the gambling drama Mexicali Rose (Erle C. Kenton, 1929). Although the latter was unsuccessful – and she didn’t like either film – Stanwyck’s persona as a knowing “tough cookie” is already clear from these works, and it must be said that her presence at this studio sealed her fate. At Columbia, she screen-tested for Frank Capra and scored the leading role in Ladies of Leisure (1930). The director was drawn to her and she would make four more films with Capra, three of them before the end of 1932 (the last of those, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, was released in January 1933). Her whole life she was determined to acknowledge this and thank him for showing her the ropes in Hollywood – “each day was a learning process,”7 her humble reflection – and it seems likely that their early relationship led Stanwyck to develop her famous professionalism. 

Jeanine Basinger espouses the importance of this relationship, suggesting that “until Frank Capra got a hold of her, no one knew for sure what Stanwyck would turn out to be.”8 It’s quite incredible that this did begin almost immediately, with her first performance as party girl Kay Arnold in Ladies of Leisure. Andrew Klevan notes its importance in establishing key aspects that align with her much-admired independence. This is established in the first minutes she is on screen, Klevan writes of her self-sufficiency, her determination, her physicality, her defiance, her Brooklynese speech, that she is a “‘no-nonsense’ girl from the streets who has ‘been around’ and knows her mind”.9 Her voice, particularly, deepens as she ages but is already established in this younger period, “modulated and enriched by all the under- as well as overtones of a young woman already burdened with a full, often checkered past.”10 It was an independence that came across in persona but also in her career, for Stanwyck remained a freelance negotiator (that is, a star without a tie to any one studio). 

From a distance of 90 years, it might be difficult to settle on what gave her such a huge career in the space of such a short time, and allowed her to thrive over decades. Unlike many women who came into the system around the same time, she did not have the support of a major studio who marketed her as an asset. However, she did have clear support of studios and directors with whom she worked, and built a strong camaraderie with crews and personnel on sets. I’ve never heard that she had aspirations to be a director or a producer, but as an actor she negotiated, and fought for, an array of roles and projects. There is certainly evidence that some things would not have happened without her influence. Like many of her above-the-marquee peers, she was not a cog used by the industry but an active professional interested in herself and her audience. 

Stanwyck’s status as a freelance operator is arguably a factor that led to her career longevity. It also allowed her to work with all the major studios, across a range of genres and character types, and with many of the best directors in the industry. She did have contracts, but against industry standard was never tied to just one studio. In the 1930s, she secured a range of short-term contracts with Columbia, Warner Bros., RKO, and Twentieth Century-Fox, all with “story approval, star billing, and the right to make outside freelance deals,”11 which she did with Paramount, MGM, and United Artists. While in 1931 she did face an early contract dispute, rather than impede on her career this instead established how in-demand she was as an actress and a box-office star. Emily Carman notes that in those years, popular fan magazines reported on the dispute, on Stanwyck’s threat to resign the business, and framed her persona as that of a resilient “trouper.”12

Promotional material for Baby Face

Throughout her prolific early screen career, during which she proved herself one of the most confident and sexually alluring stars, Stanwyck’s professionalism meant that she could adapt to many types of roles as the industry climate changed. Catherine Russell notes that she “made fourteen films during the pre-Code years (1930-34), in which she consistently received top billing, and they are in fact incredibly varied.”13 In So Big! (William A. Wellman, 1932) and Forbidden (Frank Capra, 1932), Stanwyck showed her range by ageing decades in only 80-odd minutes, and a decade later she would age to 100 in Wellman’s The Great Man’s Lady (1942). Night Nurse (Wellman, 1931) is one of her many pre-Code highlights, and stands out because, amongst other things, seeing her and Joan Blondell on the same screen is an undeniable treat. Her professionalism also lent a scent of respectability to the saucy screenplay for Baby Face, which attracted attention from prude censors and was subject to self-regulation before production started. James Wingate, director of the Studio Relations Committee, wrote that “the fact that Barbara Stanwyck is destined for the leading role will probably mitigate some of the dangers of her in view of her sincere and restrained acting.”14 And for sure she’s sincere, but boy, did she show them. As I’ve written elsewhere, both the theatrical release version and the original cut “prove transgressive of moralistic codes of conduct and accepted notions of gendered behaviour.”15 Stanwyck dictates the terms on which her body and her intellect are received, and this film is essential to understanding her feminist independence in Hollywood.

In an Orry-Kelly design for Baby Face

In the second half of the ‘30s, Stanwyck divorced Frank Fay, and after a few years courting she married Robert Taylor. A gossip piece appeared in Photoplay in January 1939 that declared the couple one of “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives” and put them under quite a bit of scrutiny.16 All the while, she kept working. During this period she began her significant connection to Joel McCrea, with whom she starred in six films. The first was Gambling Lady (Archie Mayo, 1934), then Banjo on My Knee (John Cromwell, 1936) and Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937). Perhaps their most epic collaboration was Union Pacific (Cecil B. DeMille, 1939), where Stanwyck adopts something of an Irish brogue as the sassy Mollie Monahan and slaps McCrea’s Captain Jeff Butler the first time they meet. It is clear from this performance that she is having great fun in an action epic, a sort-of western on a train that crosses the country, and she still balances herself with understated emotion where it counts. A fourth pairing with Wellman saw the film The Great Man’s Lady, and fifteen years later, McCrea and Stanwyck appeared together for the final time in Trooper Hook (Charles Marquis Warren, 1957), a strange dramatic western valuable for its performances, and its exploration of very interesting racial terrain.

In addition to her five collaborations with Wellman – the final being Lady of Burlesque (1943), which has the distinction of Stanwyck singing, undubbed, as a nightclub performer dressed by Edith Head – there is another historical connection between actor and director outside of the films they worked on together. Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937) tells of a relationship between Hollywood stars Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) and Norman Maine (Fredric March) that breaks down when fame and jealousy intervene. The basic story idea was reportedly based on Stanwyck’s marriage to Frank Fay, as her success superseded her husband’s once she got into pictures. The couple can be seen together, briefly, in The Stolen Jools (William C. McGann, 1931), an early short featuring a who’s who of Hollywood’s elite. Playing themselves, Stanwyck and Fay are visited by a detective investigating the titular jewels. Their scene ends with, from what I can tell, an offscreen depiction of spouse-endorsed police violence on “Mrs. Fay”, and I can’t find a generous way to interpret it. In the context of Fay’s possessiveness and abusive behaviour, it is a very unpleasant appearance.17

After filming Remember the Night (Mitchelle Leisen, 1940), screenwriter Preston Sturges told Stanwyck that she was funny and insisted on writing a comedy for her. She opened and closed the following year with two comedies at two different studios, by the master directors Sturges and Howard Hawks, and became Hollywood’s reigning queen of refined screwballs. A popular opinion shared by Klevan is that The Lady Eve (Sturges) and Ball of Fire (Hawks) feature her “two finest comedy performances,”18 and the roles certainly broaden the perception of her abilities. Carman suggests that with The Lady Eve, “Stanwyck’s free agency directly correlated with her ability to off-cast herself and redesign her star persona, just as she had with Stella Dallas four years earlier.”19 With Ball of Fire, having contractual leverage to demand that Edith Head design all of her wardrobe,20 “Head’s costumes helped revamp her image as a bona-fide sex symbol.”21 Without a doubt, 1941 was a fantastic year.

The Mad Miss Manton

There are, however, other performances that deserve highlighting. The Mad Miss Manton (Leigh Jason, 1938) doesn’t get brought up often but it contains the grains of these later all-out comedy performances. Stanwyck is the kooky socialite of the title, who in the opening scene discovers a dead body in a deserted Manhattan home. Speaking no longer with that famed Brooklynese that she spoke at the start of the decade but with a refined drawl that would reappear in The Lady Eve, she phones the police; when they arrive she’s more interested in filling them in on details of the ball she’s just been to than circumstances of the crime scene. As a party girl surrounded by a group of girlfriends, Stanwyck proves her skills in sass, romance, and tenderness, building on an acting persona that she had established in a range of earlier roles. When accused of being an idiot and hiding something from the police and reporters, she turns serious and serves them a no nonsense warning. Then, immediately, she asks her friend for a lipstick. “Any time you want a job as a reporter, come to me,” says the editor of the New York Star, after Melsa’s freelance investigative prowess shames that of the city police. This would set Stanwyck up for her role in Meet John Doe (1941), her last and arguably most recognised association with Capra, the delightful holiday film Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945) and later in Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957). She and Henry Fonda have a tangible chemistry that would get taken to the extreme by Sturges in The Lady Eve, and again by Wesley Ruggles in You Belong To Me (1941).

Sturges was right that Stanwyck did not need an explicit comedy to be funny. Beyond these performances, Stanwyck shows off comedic finesse in other roles, in films ranging from melodramas to thrillers and beyond. The success of her titular performance in Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), for instance, one of the great melodramas with one of the most emotionally full performances, works so well because Stanwyck resonates with a sense of humour. Returning to the way Stanwyck looks at things, the way her eyes move and the smallest gestures contain great meaning, this film is all about how she looks. It opens as a young Stella is watching people walking past her on the street from her modest front yard, returns multiple times to her looking at herself in the mirror, looking in wonder at a motion picture screen. She tells her daughter, whom she loves desperately, “I just want to look at you,” and this is indeed how the film ends. Stella Dallas was the first film to garner her an Academy Award nomination, and it truly is one that makes her a new kind of actress; as Stanley Cavell might say, her final walk towards the camera at the film’s heartbreaking final moments, “is allegorized as the presenting or creating of a star.”22

Perhaps it was worth it to her

Watching her across so many genres, it becomes clear that the key to Stanwyck’s performances was control. She had no formal acting training, but the way she holds herself, shapes her characters, responds to her scenes and acting partners, and smokes cigarettes with a rich understanding of the difference between seduction, reflection, regret, and anger, shows evidence of superb skill. Even in moments of spontaneous intensity, her command of emotional expression is supreme. This is expressly evident across the range of genres, and particularly melodramas, she made during the middle years of her career. 

She is broadly acknowledged as one of the silver screen’s darkest murderers; Billy Wilder “taught me to kill,” she said when accepting her AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.23 This type started with her role as Phyllis Dietrichson, the icy housewife in Double Indemnity who lures a hapless insurance salesman into her murderous web. But she gave even her fiercest characters a warmth and vulnerability. I always come back to the moment when Walter recounts the tale of a woman who killed her husband and ended up in prison. Phyllis, a wonderful actor herself affected with what seems like a painful vulnerability, responds, “Perhaps it was worth it to her.” This line is her most sincere, the line which Stanwyck expresses with the most pathos. Phyllis is often described as the femme fatale least plagued with remorse, but Stanwyck gives her depth. If it weren’t for all of her other sociopathic desires, that line, and that look, might almost make me understand that she is a woman stuck in a system without many choices. She is a woman trapped in a home with no social or financial independence. Russell expands Phyllis’ position to Stanwyck’s: her “performance in Double Indemnity arguably inaugurated a new New Woman who had learned the art of masquerade, with which to deflect the misogyny that was built into the studio system.”24

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Stanwyck would remain a staple of film noir, alternating between a heartless femme fatale and a woman made cruel only as a victim of a system around her, and she would play romantic leads well into her forties. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), she’s the duplicitous woman of the title. The File on Thelma Jordon (Robert Siodmak, 1949) features a photograph of Stanwyck donning a blonde wig, linking her mysterious femme fatale of the title unmistakeably to Phyllis Dietrichson. In No Man of Her Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1950), she is an unmarried pregnant woman who essentially steals somebody else’s life. In Blowing Wild (Hugo Fregonese, 1953), she’s a wife stuck in the oilfields whose emotional desperation pushes her to murder. In Sorry, Wrong Number she is the loaded heir to a pharmaceuticals company who is murdered by her shallow, gold-digging husband. This is a strikingly claustrophobic film, and Litvak’s directorial vision is as important to it as Stanwyck’s gripping performance, for which she would lose her fourth and final Academy Award nomination.

Expanding on her rich portrait of womanhood, Stanwyck worked with Douglas Sirk in two wonderful black-and-white melodramas that confront Linda Williams’ précis on the genre: “Time is the ultimate object of loss; we cry at the irreversibility of time.”25 In this pair of films with Sirk, she plays middle-aged women who are drawn to distant memories of their younger lives. Both women return to the towns and the lovers they once left; Stanwyck excels at this kind of melancholy and sadness, and has a similar role in Fritz Lang’s fiery melodrama Clash By Night (1952). In All I Desire (1953) Stanwyck is Naomi Murdoch, a mother who left her family and their small-town life to become a great actress in the city; when she returns to them after a decade, she attempts to hide her bitterness that she has settled as a travelling vaudeville actress. It’s a big role, filled with those famous small movements and expressions, and Tom Ryan notes that “if Stanwyck’s previous career hadn’t already established it, the actress achieves greatness here.”26 There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) reunites her with Fred MacMurray for the fourth and final time. (Their third meeting, The Moonlighter (Roy Rowland, 1953), was for a fun 3D western, produced by an independent studio and released without box office success by Warner Bros.) Her Norma Vale is a successful fashion designer (and she looks it, decked out in wonderful outfits) living in New York who returns to Los Angeles on business and visits MacMurray’s Clifford Groves, who is a former colleague and, it becomes clear, an unrequited love. This is a perfect melodrama in the sense that everything, including yearning and a declaration of love, comes too late; twenty years delayed, and then just a few minutes. “For a little while, time stood still,” says Norma to Cliff on the night they are reunited as friends, but later she realises that she cannot ignore that time is irreversible, and that they are both older. Stanwyck is beautiful, too, still with the poise and posture that defined her younger self, proof that age is certainly not a curse. Stanwyck herself has criticised the dearth of roles for older women. In There’s Always Tomorrow, the creases around the folds of her eyelids and soft wrinkles tell stories of a life lived, and Sirk absolutely mines her for a performance of suffering, longing, lost opportunities, and impossible tomorrows. The tears that she sheds in the film’s final moments are some of the best she ever shed.

There’s Always Tomorrow

Jean Negulesco’s Titanic (1953) sits alongside these films, in time period and melodramatic intensity; Stanwyck’s character is imbued with a profound sense of loss that deepens as she is more able to understand it.27 Stanwyck is Julia Sturges, attempting to leave her snooty husband Richard (a terrific Clifton Webb) and save their two children from a life of arrogant entitlement. Julia is refined, well-dressed and with an excellent sense of decorum, but clearly covering up her natural lower-class instincts. Her expressions, the rich tones of her husky, cigarette-deepened voice communicate this. She married into wealth and society, much like Stella Dallas, and Richard bitterly shames her for her past. In a discussion of the earlier film, Klevan brings up Wendy Lesser’s 1991 comment that the film is “so subtle an exploration of women’s roles and women’s relationships that it has yet to be surpassed.”28 Such an exploration is another angle to Stanwyck’s lasting and contemporary relevance that can be identified across many of her roles, something that Jeanine Basinger achieves at length throughout A Woman’s View.

Big moves on the small screen

Stanwyck’s final films provide an interesting conclusion to her time in the movies, but like many of her peers she had a significant coda on the small screen. After working in television as the decade of the ‘50s closed, Stanwyck helmed her own anthology show for one season from 1960 to 1961. Russell notes that she “was very much the driving force behind the series, starring in all but two episodes, and it was she who pushed for the series in light of the paucity of roles she was being offered at the age of fifty-three.”29 Each episode took the shape of a different story, with Stanwyck introducing each one and almost always playing the lead, further diversifying her collection of roles. One of the best episodes is “Sign of the Zodiac”, written by A.I. Bezzerides and directed by Jacques Tourneur, a not unusual high calibre of creatives. The episode reunites Stanwyck three decades later with her Night Nurse co-star Joan Blondell, and also features Dan Duryea as kooky psychic who claims to be in touch with Stanwyck’s deceased husband. It’s kitschy fun, and thanks to a sharp script and cinematography by Hal Mohr, it has a distinctive look amongst similar shows. 

Stanwyck then starred in Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk, 1962), which has a bad reputation but is a film I adore for its portraits of perverse women. Oddly, Russell writes that Stanwyck’s “final role as a criminal” was in Crime of Passion, “in which her killer instinct is closely tied to a critique of middle-class suburban society and its circumscribed gender roles.”30 She is also a criminal in Walk on the Wild Side, as the fantastically cruel and gloriously sinful lesbian madam of a New Orleans bordello who ends up with her picture on the front page of a newspaper above the heading: “Sentenced to life imprisonment”. By the time of Roustabout (John Rich, 1964), Stanwyck’s position as an aged actress giving way to the new youth is made clear: she has a supporting role alongside star Elvis Presley. Her final film is the silly yet excellent fun The Night Walker (William Castle, 1964), which reunites her with ex-husband Robert Taylor and benefits from Castle’s joyful sense of play. It is the closest film she made to the exploitation pictures made by her colleagues, like Bette Davis, Shelley Winters, Gloria Swanson, and her close friend Joan Crawford, but suggests that, approaching 60, a different direction was necessary.

Having starred in a range of westerns throughout her career and proved herself as an able equestrian after a serious back injury on the set of Forbidden,31 she established herself in a long-running television series. She was truly brilliant in the genre – “I’m a frustrated stunt woman. I’m crazy about westerns, that’s why I’ve made so many of them,” Stanwyck told an interviewer32 – starting early as the rosy-cheeked sharpshooter in Annie Oakley (George Stevens, 1935). Later she would clash with Walter Huston and gash Judith Anderson’s face with sharp scissors in The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950), ride down a town’s main street in Cattle Queen of Montana (Allan Dwan, 1954) defiantly flanked by members of the Blackfoot Nation, and run decisively down another main street in Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957). In fact, in this film she perhaps unknowingly speaks her feminist voice when she evocatively spits out the immortal line, “I was born upset!” In line with her fierce independence in persona and drive, it was fitting that “The Big Valley was the result of her persistent requests to network executives for a western series.”33 Western television shows like Wagon Train (1957-65) and Rawhide (1959-65) were brilliant terrain for stars ageing as the Hollywood studio system broke down, and this was particularly so for women who were able to remain in strong, feisty roles they had earned throughout their careers in film. The Big Valley gave Stanwyck the role of wealthy widowed ranch matriarch Victoria Barkley from 1965-69. 

Forty Guns

After this, three television movies serve as a refuge for Stanwyck’s talent. In The House That Would Not Die (John Llewelyn Moxley, 1970), her line reads are far superior to anything or anyone else who occupies the haunted house and its surrounds. I have much the same opinion about the same director’s A Taste of Evil (1971) in which Stanwyck is a once-wealthy woman who conspires to inherit a mansion, although it’s a little blander. Her segment in the jejune anthology film The Letters (Gene Nelson, Paul Krasny, 1973) is of appropriately soap opera-esque proportions to be deserving of a big Stanwyck performance; she is all big line reads and gleefully hammy expressions. 

While she starred in a few episodes of Dynasty and had an unhappy experience on The Colbys in 1985, Stanwyck’s last big role was in The Thorn Birds (Daryl Duke, 1983), a miniseries set along the East Coast farmlands of Australia but filmed entirely in California. The show is a sweeping saga of survival and place in a harsh colonial landscape (unsurprisingly for a foreign production, with no mention at all of traditional owners), but nothing is more epic than Stanwyck’s performance. At the age of 75, playing an aging, horse-riding, and – again – widowed ranch matriarch full of fire and determined to teach all around her a lesson, she truly owns the screen (although Jean Simmons puts up a fight). While she still has a subtle control over her eyes here, this is mostly a big performance, full of outbursts and melodrama that keeps the small screen alive. Lines like, “Without Satan there’s no struggle, and it’s the struggle that keeps us alive!” pled to a priest, earned her Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. For Russell, “Stanwyck’s portrayal of an older woman with bodily desires makes her much more sympathetic than she might otherwise have been.”34 It’s due to Stanwyck’s talent, intensity, and emotional restraint that this comment could be made about so many of her characters.

The Thorn Birds

It is difficult to reconcile this love I have for Barbara Stanwyck with the knowledge that, being part of a generation too early for such frameworks, she would certainly not call herself a feminist. But I have to think that, like the great Jane Fonda, she might have come around had she been challenged.35 Stanwyck is a fast talker, she talks rough, and she doesn’t mess around, on screen or off. More importantly, she fought for control over her body and her agency through her behind-the-scenes choices and onscreen performances. Watching her films now, and through a feminist lens as many of her admirers do, “she offers a strategy of unpacking the structural misogyny of the industry in which she worked.”36 This is evident from her life and from her roles. We have Mexicali Rose and Ladies of Leisure, but Basinger also makes it clear this has been present from the earliest, suggesting that Shopworn (Nick Grinde, 1932) demonstrates that “[w]omen depend on men, and men can’t be relied on.”37

Such a feminist perspective, along with stories about charitable generosity, make it easier to accept that politically she was almost everything I am opposed to. Stanwyck was a staunch Republican and was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a militant group determined to uphold “the American way of life”, a phrase that is rightfully as terrifying as it sounds. She did not testify before HUAC, but her second husband Robert Taylor was a noted friendly witness. An early role in Red Salute (Sidney Lanfield, 1935) has her character turn from an idealising Communist dreamer to a shallow general’s daughter who improbably falls for a character called Uncle Sam. Thankfully, there aren’t many other films that call for her to be so blatant. The lite political drama B.F.’s Daughter (Robert Z. Leonard, 1947) doesn’t turn out as bad as it seems to begin with, and more importantly Stanwyck gets to wear some excellent outfits. 

These politics contrasted with her own emphasis on her role “as a worker who had little patience with Hollywood elitism and snobbery.”38 In almost every appearance I’ve seen, she always acknowledged the writers and crews who worked with her. There was a warmness to her public persona. Accepting her Honorary Oscar at the 54th Annual Academy Awards, Stanwyck dedicated the award to the late William Holden, “my golden boy”, with whom she shared a very close friendship after she mentored him on the set of Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939). Like so many stars, and so many regular people, she was a woman of contradictions. Through this, though, her star persona, her screen presence, and her expressive, cigarette-afflicted voice has so much to give. Emerging in the public eye just as Hollywood was transitioning to an industry and an art of talking pictures, she produced a career of more than eighty films and numerous television appearances, she is rightly one of the most enduring figures. 

Remember the Night

Remember the Night is the film I watch religiously once a year, during that perfect nothing time in the week following Christmas Eve. It is a beautiful film and one that contains, perhaps, the most “Barbara Stanwyck” of all her performances in that allows all her sensitivities as an actor to emerge. Her bewitching shoplifter Lee Leander is smart, cynical, warm, bitter, underprivileged and lucky, all at once. This film marked the official beginning of Stanwyck’s design partnership with Edith Head (although Head had worked with Stanwyck as an assistant before, beginning with Internes Can’t Take Money), and to me she is at the height of her glamour and beauty here. She is given the opportunity to perform physical and screwball comedy, tender romance, melodramatic sacrifice, and indeed Stanwyck “said it was among the best scripts she’d ever read.”39 Stanwyck also praised the scripts for The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, and Double Indemnity, and even if she made no other films this collection would make her rightfully one of the most important actors of the 20th century. 

But there is so much more to her than these iconic roles in these big films. Many films and shows she made are enjoyable for more reasons than her presence, yet some are enjoyable only to see her perform. Others are barely enjoyable even for her – “I’m not good enough to make junk great and I’ve done plenty of junk,” she once said in that self-effacing way40 – but they are all worth watching if only to trace that ineluctable talent, the inkling of a star most often overtaken by the professional actor beneath. Working closely with her in the 1930s, Frank Capra wrote in his diary after reflecting on their time together. “She knew nothing about camera tricks: how to ‘cheat’ her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on – and everything else on the stage stopped.”41 And we’ll probably continue to watch her, for as long as we can.


  1. Rick Burin, “A Good Dose of Schmerz”, Remember the Night, Blu-ray, Indicator, UK, 2022, p. 11-12. The performances of note are the classics Remember the Night, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, and those “conspicuously less so,” Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939) and Meet John Doe.
  2. Emily Carman, Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016), p. 98.
  3. Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner, Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004), p. 220.
  4. Andrew Klevan, Barbara Stanwyck (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 129.
  5. Dan Callahan, The Miracle Woman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), p. 221.
  6. Callahan, p. 9.
  7. American Film Institute, “Barbara Stanwyck Accepts the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGawA_3fIdA&t=1s, (October 8, 2010).
  8. Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), p. 168.
  9. Klevan, p. 6-7.
  10. Maria DiBattista, Fast-Talking Dames (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 12-13.
  11. Carman, p. 43.
  12. For a longer account, see Carman p. 95-103.
  13. Catherine Russell, The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck: Twenty-Six Short Essays on a Working Star (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2023), “I: Illicit”.
  14. Cited in Mark A. Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1999), p. 148.
  15. Eloise Ross, “‘And there we were like an uncensored movie!’: Sexual Tension and the Pre-Code Body in Hollywood, Screening the Past, Issue 43 (April 2018).
  16. Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), p. 757-8.
  17. There are many recorded or secondary references to Frank Fay’s behaviour and their marriage. For details see Wilson.
  18. Klevan, p. 57.
  19. Carman p. 44.
  20. J. E. Smyth writes, “Stanwyck, more than any other actress, was Head’s muse in the late 1930s and 1940s and key to her vision of practical American women’s fashion,” in Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 190.
  21. Carman p. 43.
  22. Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 219.
  23. American Film Institute, “Barbara Stanwyck Accepts the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGawA_3fIdA&t=1s, (October 8, 2010).
  24. Russell (2023), “C: Crimes of Passion”.
  25. Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 31.
  26. Tom Ryan, The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), p. 165.
  27. Interestingly, Linda Williams discusses James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) in her same chapter: the “death of a good person” melodramatic climax (in this case, Jack Dawson) offers “paroxysms of pathos and recognitions of virtue compensating for individual loss of life” p. 24. The same could be said for Julia’s son Norman (Harper Carter) in 1953.
  28. Cited in Klevan, p. 31.
  29. Russell, “The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Melodrama, Kitsch, and the Media Archive,” Criticism, vol. 55 no. 4 (Fall 2013), p. 567.
  30. Russell (2023), “C: Crimes of Passion”.
  31. Victoria Wilson (2013) offers details the reports around filming and injury, p. 262-263.
  32. Bernard Drew, “Stanwyck Speaks”, Film Comment, vol. 17 no. 2 (March-April 1981), p. 43.
  33. Russell (2023), “Q: The Queen”.
  34. Russell (2023), “Q: The Queen”.
  35. Jane Fonda, My Life So Far (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 235.
  36.   Russell (2023), “Introduction to Stanwyck Studies”.
  37. Basinger, p. 256.
  38. Carman, p. 98, emphasis in original.
  39. Burin, p. 9.
  40. Drew, p. 45.
  41. Cited in Klevan, p. 21.

About The Author

Eloise Ross is a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. She has a PhD in cinema studies from La Trobe University specialising in Hollywood sound studies, and writes and teaches about film.

Related Posts