No Lady of Leisure
Barbara Stanwyck's hardworking rise to Hollywood stardom
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck:
by Victoria Wilson
Simon & Schuster
$40.00 List Price
BARBARA STANWYCK BECAME A STAR by making people cry. In 1926, at age nineteen, she was making her first Broadway outing in a dramatic role in Willard Mack’s The Noose, as a cabaret girl secretly in love with a condemned criminal. The audience roared into life after her third-act speech pleading with the governor for custody of the executed man’s body:
I’ve come to ask you . . . if we could have his body because we’d like to give it a real funeral. . . . You see he ain’t got no relatives, ain’t even got a father and mother, he told me—so nobody wants it but us. . . . That’s what I came for, ain’t no reason why I can’t have it—is there—if nobody wants it.
The New York Sun reported that she “played it well enough to make first nighters wipe tears from their eyes.” It isn’t hard to imagine the effect; the films she would be making within a few years for Columbia and Warner Brothers are full of such speeches—no Stanwyck film was complete without at least one passionate outburst—and she can still make the tears well up. Stanwyck had many gifts, but none was more central to her career than her capacity to communicate feeling in a way that seemed artless and unmediated, by mere presence, or bare utterance. She made even the best of the competition look histrionic.
Yet unlike those movie stars whose naturalness flourished in variations on a well-established persona, she created utterly distinct characters who could not possibly be confused with one another. In Mildred Pierce we contemplate another incarnation of the eternal Joan Crawford; watching Stanwyck