Friday, 3 April 2009

Barbara Stanwyck and why I love her

I envisaged this post a few weeks ago, albeit in a slightly different form. I got the idea for it while watching my third Barbara Stanwyck film of the weekend, Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night” (1952) – the other two being Robert Siodmark’s “The File on Thelma Johnson” (1950) and Douglas Sirk’s “There’s always Tomorrow” (1956). It was meant to cover all three films, and my general love for the actress. On top of these, in the last few months I had a chance to see “Meet John Doe” again and watch “The Furies” and “You Belong to Me” for the first time (the latter in a Sony release for Portugal and Spain which left a lot to be desired). Sadly have yet to finish “Clash by Night”, so let’s see where this post goes.

If my memory doesn’t betray me, and going through her filmography on IMDb, I’ve seen around 25 of her films, am halfway through two (“East Side, West Side” is the other), have still to watch three I owe and have one more on the way. And there’s still many more I would like to see – she was arguably the queen of pre-code (“Baby Face” is amazing and I was quite impressed with “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”), a gifted comedienne (“Ball of Fire”), excelled at drama (the Sirk melodramas, “My Reputation”) and created one of the definitive femme fatales in “Double Indemnity”. But there’s no love like the first, and of her films my favourite is “The Lady Eve”. Of all the leading ladies of classic Hollywood none can match her range, and in my eyes the only one who I love more is Bette Davis post-1938, William Wyler and “Jezebel”.

True, she sometimes indulges in too much hysterics. The opening scene of “Forbidden” is a tad too much, as is most of her (small) part in “Executive Suite”. Her work in the early 1930s is not always balanced, her body posture is often too aggressive, too out there – “Night Nurse” is ok but “The Miracle Woman” and “Forbidden” left me cold. I much prefer her 1940s stuff. She’s more subtle – Hawks in “Ball of Fire” and Preston Sturges in “The Lady Eve” seem to have had a touch in that, as probably did Edith Head, who did her costumes for most of her Paramount films. Less aggressive, more vulnerable, capable of producing an amazing performance as a widow falling in love with a soldier who was considered her social inferior (“My Reputation”). Almost like a WWII version of “All that Heaven Allows”. In the 1950s, when she had the luck of good material she gave an amazingly touching performance like in “There’s Always Tomorrow”. But now she was, more often than not, the mistress of all men in tough Westerns like “Forty Guns” – not my favourite genre. Finally, in one of her final films she steals the screen with her lesbian madam preying over Capucine in “Walk on the Wild Side”.

I know exactly how all this started. I caught “The Lady Eve” by accident – As simple as that. I was going through a phase where I taped every old film of television as my mother put it, which I have to say was a great education. I fell in love with Stanwyck immediately (and the film) and thus started a love affair through the silver screen that still lasts. A few scenes pop to mind – the first few scenes with Henry Fonda at the boat, the ones on the train when she tortures him with the made-up stories of her past lovers but above all, the scene where she hatches her plan, when in a close up full of mischievousness and in a posh English accent she utters the words “I shall be as English as necessery” (yes, I know it’s wrongly spelled, it’s on purpose). I honestly think her Oscar nomination for “Ball of Fire” should have been for “The Lady Eve”.

My first contact with the films of Douglas Sirk was because of her (I saw “All I Desire” many years ago at the Portuguese Cinematheque during a Sirk retrospective). Later, “Double Indemnity” (Billy Wilder AND Barbara Stanwyck, how could I resist it?) was top of my want-to-see list for ages until I got the original R1 DVD in 2002. Definitely she was one of the deadliest of all women in film. There are still loads of her films I would love to see, mostly pre-codes (“Illicit”, “Ladies they talk about”, plus “The Purchase Price” which is arriving soon), but also some of the comedies and noir (“The Two Mrs Carrolls”, which I know will be out on DVD eventually as it has Humphrey Bogart in it).

She is unusual for her time, as rather than be signed to a single studio, she had short-term contracts. Her pre-codes are mostly at Warner or Columbia, the comedies mostly at Paramount and RKO, the noir and the melodrama again at Paramount and Warner. She later also did films for Universal, MGM and Fox – she worked with all seven majors (and some independent ones as well).

Mmm… this is massive now. I think I will leave a post on “There’s Always Tomorrow” for later.

1 comment:

VP81955 said...

Stanwyck is one of my three favorite actresses, along with Lombard and Loy, and nobody excelled in so many genres. (And that includes Davis -- I could never imagine her in a western; Stanwyck was right at home in them, despite being a Brooklyn girl.)