When I was growing up, Barbara Stanwyck was familiar from “The Big Valley,” a long-running if mediocre TV western series that sprung up in the wake of “Bonanza.” It, and the other TV (as well as increasingly rare big-screen) appearances she made in the 1960s and 70s, were not a great introduction: She was invariably the silver-haired “boss lady” yelling strident orders at somebody, seeming equally off-putting whether her character was in the right (as was the usual case on “Valley”) or the wrong (badgering much-younger cleric Richard Chamberlain for love in later miniseries “The Thorn Birds”).
She had already been edging towards that terrain for a while, in 1950s movies like Executive Suite, where she illustrated the bitter toll the era decreed for successful “career women.” Unless playing sickly-sweet grandmas and such in the background, actresses “of a certain age” were seldom required to be sympathetic then, and Stanwyck was fine with being “tough,” brittle, and combative. I didn’t like her—and couldn’t have imagined that she had already spent decades as one of the most widely liked stars in the industry, universally beloved by costars and crew.
My first memory of maybe being wrong about that was a local channel’s afternoon broadcast of Ball of Fire, the 1941 Howard Hawks-directed screwball comedy in which the endearingly implausible, undeniably gorgeous Gary Cooper is a dithering ivory-tower academic investigating modern slang. This pursuit leads him to a nightclub where Ms. Stanwyck, as one Sugarpuss O’Shea, speaks jazzbo patois amidst a nightclub act that also involves Gene Krupa playing a drum solo with literal matchsticks. Not long after, Miss O’Shea’s need to take it on the lam (her gangster boyfriend is in hot water with the Feds) lands her on his doorstep, where he is holed up writing an encyclopedia with other unworldly fusspots. They are very much like the Seven Dwarves, though she is certainly not Snow White.
If 20 years later the actress’s enamel was hardening into armor, abrasive and humorless, here she was funny, sexy, and spectacular—so much so that Ball of Fire snagged one of her four Oscar nominations, a number that in retrospect seems too few. (She never won, apart from a blanket Honorary Award in 1982, when she hadn’t made an actual movie for 18 years.)
It turned out that the deeper you dove into the back catalog of this prolific star, the more invaluable she seemed. BAMPFA’s retrospective Ball of Fire: Barbara Stanwyck presents just seven features from a career that, if you include early stage and later TV work, stretched over seven decades, ending not long before her 1990 demise at age 82. Having started as a “Ziegfield girl” after a tough childhood, the Brooklyn-born Ruby Stevens quickly became a Broadway star, thus winding up in the first wave of “legit” talent imported to Hollywood when it became clear that many silent-era stars couldn’t handle spoken dialogue, or other skills needed for “the talkies.”
She did well almost immediately, often in films by equally fast-rising director Frank Capra. The raciest of her pre-Code vehicles is 1933’s Baby Face, in which she played a poor but ambitious girl unabashedly “sleeping her way to the top” of a benefactor ladder, among which young John Wayne is a lower rung. (This is the one film that has already been shown and will not repeat in the PFA series, which started last weekend.) But she also excelled at weepies, screwball comedies, straight dramas, historical epics (including for Cecil B. DeMille), and more.
Stanwyck’s surface toughness made her vulnerability the more touching, her understatement elevating soapy material even if it also sometimes meant she was ignored in favor of more flamboyantly scenery-chewing performers. That was not the case with King Vidor’s 1937 Stella Dallas, the best version of a much-filmed maternal-sacrifice sudser, which won her a first Oscar nomination. It did, however, lead to films like Douglas Sirk’s 1956 There’s Always Tomorrow being overlooked until critical re-appreciation much later; in it, she is a successful but lonely businesswoman (a frequent “type” for her) who isn’t fool enough to try stealing old flame Fred MacMurray from his solid suburban domesticity, though he’s game for it (or so he thinks).
Of course those two stars had already been immortalized together as the much sleazier couple at the enter of Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, the sardonic noir thriller par excellance. Her platinum-haired housewife has the sleek, lethally hypnotic effect of a cobra, to which femme-fatale attraction his supposed wiseguy falls hook, line and sinker. It’s the kind of true love match that can kill both parties.
In later years, alas, Stanwyck would be further typed as a shrill harridan, pistol-packin’ matriarch, bordello madam, or any other kind of seldom-sympathetic shrike. It was terrain she’d already flirted with (notably as the invalid murder victim-to-be in 1948’s Sorry Wrong Number, another Oscar nomination), but which grew increasingly fossilized as her material got poorer, whether she was wrangling Elvis (Roustabout), appearing “Charlie’s Angels” (in one 1980 episode), or becoming one of the comparatively trifling big-hair divas of “Dynasty.” In 1957 she could still wring some fresh notes from what would be almost her last big-screen starring vehicle, as the whip-wielding Wild West mama of Forty Guns, Sam Fuller’s deliberately over-the-top “Freudian” western.
But pretty well forgotten in the later decades of her very long career was her terrific flair for comedy, particularly in two 1941 classics BAMPFA includes: Not just Ball of Fire, but also Preston Sturges’ dizzyingly clever and funny The Lady Eve. In that, she plays a high-end con artist who lures hapless heir Henry Fonda, falls in love for real, then adopts a new persona to seduce him all over again as revenge for his self-righteous rejection upon discovering her disreputable past. As with Sugarpuss O’Shea, Stanwyck pulls off the preposterous with an exquisite poise that is both deadpan and hilarious. The film may occasionally veer toward excess, but she is always exactly right—at once glam, outrageous, and rather touching.
Never so acclaimed as Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, or even several star actresses of much lesser duration, Barbara Stanwyck arguably hit heights just as high, without ever clunking the bottom of those ladies’ most-miscast lows. Her reliable expertise may often have been taken for granted, but it also has rendered hers a talent that grows in estimation with each passing year.
BALL OF FIRE: BARBARA STANWYCK continues at BAMPFA through February 26, more info here.