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 as the vulgar, self-sacrificing mother in Stella Dallas, we can barely connect her with the cardsharp surprised by love in The Lady Eve, the fatal seductress of Double Indemnity, or the domineering rancher of Forty Guns. Admired by her colleagues for her unimpeachable professionalism, she worked with an extraordinary roster of directors—crucially, at the beginning of her film career, with Frank Capra and William Wellman, and later on with George Stevens, Mitchell Leisen, John Ford, King Vidor, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Anthony Mann, Douglas Sirk, Allan Dwan, Samuel Fuller. The good fortune was as much theirs as hers. Right from the start her work has an aliveness fully manifested in certain inspired projects, and capable of bringing out edges of character and unlooked-for emotional truths in even the most tired productions.
The career is well known, or at least available for inspection. The life was, deliberately, more opaque. Some actors disport or destroy themselves in spectacular ways; some go to war; some go into politics. Stanwyck just worked. While she drew some tabloid attention with the breakup of her marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor, by Hollywood standards her life lacked scandal. It did not lack suffering, however, least of all in its earliest phases. The most absorbing chapters of Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907–1940, the first volume of what will be a two-part biography, lay out the retrievable details of that early life, and the process by which Ruby Stevens of Flatbush, Brooklyn, established herself by the age of twenty-four as “a new sensation in the world of pictures.” These first episodes can be taken as a key to later performances, as if in acting Stanwyck had replayed, with multiple variants and alternative outcomes, the circumstances that shaped her. She found something better than acting school to inform her work. As Wilson writes, “She was able to use her shoals of loss and regret, her feelings of being an orphan, the outsider . . . and focus these things, adapt them, to create women on the screen whom audiences admired and knew to be true.”
Her childhood has been described as “Dickensian,” and it certainly had a full measure of sadness, deprivation, and abuse. When she was four she looked on as her mother, pregnant at the time, was kicked by a drunk and knocked off a streetcar, dying of septicemia the next day. Less than a year later her father slipped away to work on the Panama Canal, and was never heard from again. (She later learned that he had been anonymously buried in Panama.) None of her three older sisters could manage to take full-time care of her and her brother Byron. “I was raised by strangers,” Stanwyck would later relate, “farmed out. . . . Whoever would take me for five dollars a week, that’s where I was. So I really didn’t have any family.”
After she got pregnant at twelve, a back-alley abortion left her unable to have children, and when her older sister Maude’s teenage brother-in-law raped her at fourteen, the event was not acknowledged even within the family. Instead of going to high school she went to work, getting herself hired successively as switchboard operator, file clerk, and seamstress, showing little aptitude for any of these employments. This was the America we know from the pages of Theodore Dreiser (a writer admired by Stanwyck), a tough school of which she made the best: “The only game I can remember playing . . . is the game of fighting.”
Her young life was not all melodrama, but it was certainly lonely and frustrated. What is striking is how quickly and surely she moved beyond its limitations. Wilson writes of Stanwyck’s childhood idolization of Pearl White in the 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline, an influence she absorbed so well that in her exuberant starring role in the 1931 Night Nurse she might almost be Pauline reconfigured, triumphing against all odds in a world of brutes and malevolent schemers. Stanwyck was a quick learner, seizing hold of every kind of knowledge and experience that came her way. She watched Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova onstage. She became a voracious reader, making her way through Conrad, Hardy, Galsworthy. When her sister Millie enjoyed some success as a vaudeville performer, Stanwyck studied every move and hung around backstage picking up trade lore. On the strength of no more than a few lessons in acrobatics, she found work in a chorus line “hoofing her feet off” on the roof of the Strand Theatre on Broadway.
The life she was living in the mid-1920s was not far removed from the kind of movies that Hollywood would be churning out in the early sound period: rooming with Mae Clarke (later on the receiving end of James Cagney’s grapefruit in The Public Enemy), rubbing shoulders with gangsters in speakeasies, fending off advances from the likes of Al Jolson (who cornered her in the wings and burned her with his cigar when she rebuffed him), and thinking nothing of appearing in two different shows a night, rushing from theater to nightclub and back again, “wearing nothing but a coat and a pair of shoes.” When not flashing her gams in Gay Paree or as one of the Keep Kool Cuties, she was reading poems on the radio—Poe, Kipling, Robert W. Service—and attracting attention already for the “richness and dimensionality” (in Wilson’s phrase) of her voice. She seems to have found willing mentors at every turn. It was the legendary impresario David Belasco who came up with her stage name and gave her what she considered important acting advice: to study movement by going to the zoo and watching the animals. She chose, she said, to model herself on the panther.
After The Noose things moved faster. Within a year she was headlining another hit play, Burlesque; Alexander Woollcott praised her mastery of “those little aching silences”; Walter Winchell found her performance so moving that she “made you fear that you were effeminate.” Two years later she was in Hollywood, just when the coming of sound would allow her to make the most of her exceptional vocal skills. She had not come alone, would not have been there at all if not for the cinematic ambitions of her husband, Frank Fay. Fay, who had come into her life just as her dramatic career was blossoming, was a supremely popular vaudeville comedian, regarded with awe by younger colleagues like George Burns and Milton Berle for the oddball originality of his act.
He was also, it would seem, the worst thing that could have happened to Stanwyck. Increasingly possessive and paranoid, an abusive drunk who in the course of their seven-year marriage began to exhibit psychotic symptoms like praying to a cigarette before he smoked it, he nevertheless elicited from her a loyalty that was endlessly reaffirmed in public statements (“They can jabber as much as they please. . . . I’ll never divorce Frank Fay”), even as the breakdown of his career and his personality became more apparent. Many times over she paid tribute to how much he had taught her. When he walked out on her—as he did repeatedly—she would plead for his return: “I cannot imagine life without you and I am not being melodramatic.” The turning point may have come when Fay threw their three-year-old adopted son Dion into the swimming pool. A Star Is Born, directed by Stanwyck’s friend William Wellman not long after the marriage broke up, was taken at the time to be a thinly veiled version of the Fay-Stanwyck story.
All of which may go some way toward explaining why Stanwyck, even in her liveliest comic performances, never quite erased a palpable aftertaste of bitterness, and even in her most hard-boiled roles never lost the trace of painful vulnerability. The years of her marriage to Frank Fay coincided with her rise to stardom in Hollywood, which began with her triumph in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930), her third feature. Capra was entranced by Stanwyck, detecting in her “the emotional fires of a young Duse or a Bernhardt,” and the films he made with her in the early ’30s (the others are The Miracle Woman, Forbidden, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen) are suffused with a quality of surprise, as if he’s discovering moment by moment what she can do. Ladies of Leisure was the perfect vehicle for such discovery, since it concerns a painter who gradually becomes aware of hidden depths in the gum-chewing party girl he picks up in the first reel.
Stanwyck’s acting would continue to evolve, but it’s astonishing how much is already there in Ladies of Leisure. As in so many of her early movies, the other actors seem to stay the same from line to line and scene to scene, locked into narrow routines, while Stanwyck is continually changing. The camera just manages to catch her fleeting transitions. There is something of a joke in this, since the painter studying her face, who is supposed to be the one inspiring her to new realms of feeling, is played by the quite limited Ralph Graves. In her early films the subtlety of Stanwyck’s playing becomes even more flagrantly apparent when set against such blocklike males as James Rennie, Monroe Owsley, David Manners, and Regis Toomey. By contrast, Stanwyck is able to register shades of sarcastic defiance, yearning vulnerability, goofy humor, reflexive mistrust, game camaraderie, raging indignation, secret amusement. Her moods change without warning. She has an acute sense of personal boundaries and reacts the instant they are violated. (When the lecherous Lowell Sherman ogles her, she remarks without rancor, just to let him know she knows: “Take a good look. It’s free.”) Alert, observant, she quickly assesses where she stands in any new situation, always prepared to adopt the stance of a street fighter.
With a strong director like Capra or Wellman she lends herself to the overall mood of the film. Her guarded vulnerability in Ladies of Leisure has nothing in common with the scrappy fighting spirit she brings a year later to Wellman’s outrageously melodramatic Night Nurse. And when such direction is lacking, she seems at times to be directing the movie herself by the sheer force of her intelligence, her grasp not just of her part but of the overall scene. (She made a practice of memorizing the whole script, not just her lines.) The flimsy Archie Mayo comedy Illicit gets what resonance it has from the intimacy and variety of tone she brings to crucial scenes with her husband, with her would-be lover, and most of all with her sympathetic father-in-law. (Stanwyck, abandoned by her father so early, always brought something special to father-daughter scenes, whether the emotional key was adoration or rage.)
THERE IS A PARADOX ABOUT STANWYCK that takes a toll on this biography. Once she finds herself as an actress, the rest of her life seems to go underground. As Capra noted, “When she wasn’t in front of the camera, she was almost mousy. . . . But when the camera rolled, she turned into a huge person.” A biography, particularly one of such length, must spend much of its time off camera, and by Stanwyck’s clear choice there isn’t that much to see. Her marriage to Fay seems to have been a nightmare, but we can catch only glimpses of it. Her subsequent involvement with Robert Taylor, which takes up much space here, never rises above the level of convenience: “Barbara came to love Bob. He did the things she wanted to do. If she wanted to go to the racetrack, Bob went to the track. If she wanted to go to the newsreel theater, they went to the newsreels.” Taylor himself, bedeviled by a mother of Hitchcockian monstrousness, never emerges as a character of any fire. (We learn that when making a movie with Myrna Loy in 1939, he was offended by the “dirty” Cuban dance music she liked to play between takes.) For the story of their marriage—long rumored to be a studio-arranged “white marriage” in the great Hollywood tradition—we will have to wait for the next volume, but it should be noted that Wilson refrains throughout this book from drawing on that murky sea of innuendo and speculation so dear to most Hollywood biographers.
Once Stanwyck is rid of the sinister Frank Fay and well into her movie career, the book settles into a sort of pastoral of well-heeled Hollywood life, with Barbara and friends (Zeppo and Barbara Marx, the Fred MacMurrays, the Jack Bennys) playing bingo on the patio at Saturday dinner parties, raising dachshunds, spending Christmas Day with other Hollywood stars at the Santa Anita racetrack, and buying up property in the San Fernando Valley. Barbara’s horse farm was intended “to duplicate the finest horse-breeding facilities of Kentucky with a three-quarter-mile training track.” There are glimpses of the Republican politics she shared with most of her associates (“Barbara didn’t approve of organized labor”), the dedication with which she coached Taylor in his line readings for Camille and the young William Holden on his starring role in Golden Boy, the insomnia she coped with by reading through the night, the twelve cups of coffee she sometimes drank in a day.
There are vast quantities of sheer data about Stanwyck and others; Wilson’s book is indeed a monument of research. But it is not always clear what to make of information derived from such doubtfully reliable sources as movie magazines and press books. In the face of assertions that authenticity was crucial to Woody Van Dyke or that Cecil B. DeMille was “obsessed with historical accuracy,” one can only agree that they certainly must have said so. Likewise, the statement that “Barbara was excited about being part of the Lux Radio Theatre program” has the ring of the promotional copy from which it evidently derives. Through a continual flurry of peripheral facts—Sophie Tucker sent a telegram saying she “loved every minute” of Stella Dallas; Robert Stack’s grandfather won a 1910 skeet-shooting contest in Los Angeles—we catch sight of the starker outlines: for instance, Stanwyck sending her six-year-old son off to military school and, it would seem, largely out of her life.
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck will unquestionably remain the biography of record; beyond Wilson’s excavation of so much that would otherwise have been lost, her book has a deep sensitivity to the seriousness and subtlety of Stanwyck’s craft. This is the biography not of a Hollywood phenomenon but of a serious artist. In her performances Stanwyck is intimately present, always mesmerizing, occasionally terrifying, more often lovable. (We lose all sympathy for Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve because of his priggish failure to appreciate just how lovable she is.) It may be that her downtime amounted to little more than keeping occupied until the next movie. For about sixty-five years, onstage, in films, and on television, she never stopped working. To go looking for the meaning of her life offstage and offscreen is a difficult proposition.
The information surrounding that life, surprising and suggestive as it often is, can begin to seem like a protective scrim. Perhaps the second volume—covering the period of her most famous performances—will approach more closely that innermost space in which she seems, very consciously, to be hiding. Or perhaps we should accept that the ultimate depth is the surface we see, the performance that appears to conceal nothing. Mitchell Leisen, director of the wonderful, Preston Sturges–scripted Remember the Night, was astonished that Stanwyck, unlike other actresses, never looked in the mirror before shooting a scene. Her reply comes as near as anything to catching the spirit in which she worked: “Suppose I don’t look good in it. Nothing can be done about it. Just looking won’t help. Come on, let’s shoot.”
Geoffrey O'Brien is the author, most recently, of Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writings on Film, 2002-2012 (Counterpoint, 2013).