by Susan King
During her six decade career, Barbara Stanwyck never stopped working. This led one of her directors, Jacques Tourneur, to say: ”She only lives for two things, and both of them are work.”
But what work.
She received four Academy Award nominations for lead actress: Stella Dallas, (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). And in 1982, she received an honorary Oscar for being “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress and one of the great ladies of Hollywood.''
And an artist who refused to dye her hair when she started going gray before she turned 50. When she was in her seventies, she told an interviewer: “You have to know when you’ve had your hour, your place in the sun. To be old is death here. I think it’s kind of silly. Be glad you’re healthy. Be glad you can get out of bed on your own.”
Directors loved her. Cecil B. DeMille, who directed her in Union Pacific (1939), noted he never worked with an actress “who was more cooperative, less temperamental and a better workman to use my term of highest compliment.”
When Stanwyck died at the age of 82 in 1990, the New York Times wrote: “The actress played a rich mix of characterizations in more than 80 films but developed a distinctive image as a gutsy, self-reliant and self-assured woman whose husky voice and cool exterior usually masked a warm heart.”
Very few actors have had a decade Stanwyck did in the 1940s. Everything came together for the actress born Ruby Stevens in 1907. She earned three of her four Oscar nominations, worked with some of the best directors including Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Capra, Lewis Milestone, Preston Sturges and Mitchel Leisen. By 1944, Stanwyck was the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
Stanwyck’s best-known film is Double Indemnity, Wilder’s delicious film noir based on James M. Cain’s best-seller, for which she earned her third Oscar nomination. She’s audaciously and seductively evil as Phyllis, an unhappy and angry housewife who proves to be catnip to a shallow insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray, who broke out of his comedy image) and soon they are plotting how to murder her husband.
Double Indemnity wasn’t the first time Stanwyck and MacMurray worked together. Four years later, they starred in Leisen’s holiday dramedy Remember the Night, penned by Sturges. Thanks to cable and DVD, Remember the Night has become a popular Christmas staple. And for good reason. It’s s a lovely delicate film with pitch perfect performances by the two leads. Stanwyck plays a young woman who went to the school of hard knocks who is arrested from stealing jewelry from a store. MacMurray is the assistant district attorney assigned to her case. Since the trial is about to start before Christmas-he fears the jury will be too filled with the holiday spirit to find her guilty-he has the trial postponed on a technicality. And before you can say perfect plot twist, she is spending the holidays with him and his family in Indiana.
It was Stanwyck’s professionalism that lead the film being completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Leisen recalled “she never blew one line through the whole picture. She set that kind of pace and everybody worked harder, trying to outdo her.”
The New York Times’ Frank S. Nugent praised the film and Stanwyck for playing “the girl with grave understanding and charm, rounding out the character rather than stamping it out by stencil, advancing it by easy degrees to and past the transitional stage.”
Besides MacMurray, Stanwyck starred with some of the best and the brightest leading men of the decade. In 1941, she made two very different movies with Gary Cooper-Hawks’ crazy comedy Ball of Fire, in which she earned her second Oscar nomination as Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub performer who ends up falling in love with a shy academic and Capra’s political drama Meet John Doe. This time around, she plays a tough and ambitious newspaper columnist who hires a gullible homeless man to be the face of a fictional “John Doe” who threatened to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.
Despite the fact Stanwyck earned the Oscar nomination for Ball of Fire, she should have won the Academy Award for Sturges’ The Lady Eve. She gives a brilliantly funny and sexy performance as Jean Harrington, a con artist who works cruise lines with her equally greedy father (Charles Coburn). And they have set their sights on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a snake expert who is the heir of Pike Ale. Charles is painfully shy amongst women, so it doesn’t take much for Jean to wrap him around her well-manicured finger.
“Barbara Stanwyck as the lady in the case is a composite of beauty, grace, romantic charm and a thoroughly feminine touch of viciousness,” wrote the New York Times' Bosley Crowther.
Stanwyck and Fonda, who first appeared in the 1938 screwball comedy Miss Miss Manton, also starred together in another 1941 comedy, You Belong to Me. And in 1962, she worked with Fonda’s daughter Jane in the controversial drama, Walk on the Wild Side.
Stanwyck also introduced two legendary actors in her movies. Back in 1939, Stanwyck starred opposite 21-year-old William Holden in his film debut in Golden Boy. When he was overtaken with nerves and missed the first week of shooting, it was Stanwyck who defended him and prevented Columbia studio head Harry Cohn from firing him. And in 1954, they reunited for Robert Wise’s Executive Suite. They remained close friends through the years.
In fact, when they appeared together at the 1978 Oscars, Stanwyck called him "my “golden boy. And tears welled in her eyes in 1982 when she received an honorary Oscar. Holden had died in the fall of 1981 at the age of 63.
“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 I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish.”
Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.
Susan King narrates our companion video in our "Legendary Faces" series.