I’m sorry to confess that until relatively recently I knew Barbara Stanwyck mostly from her brilliant Emmy-winning performance as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds and from her role as Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley, which I used to watch with my mom as a child. Oh, I’d seen Double Indemnity, but otherwise I was pretty ignorant of her movies from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Not sure why, I just never sought them out.
Then last Christmas TCM aired Remember the Night, a 1940 film co-starring Fred MacMurray, and ever since then I’ve been madly in love with Miss Barbara Stanwyck (as she was grandly billed on The Big Valley). She is amazing in everything I’ve seen so far, with such vulnerability beneath the tough exteriors of the women she portrays. She’s drop dead gorgeous, has the greatest husky voice, is absolutely hilarious, and can break your heart into a million pieces, too. Her acting has such subtlety and truthfulness, even in the silliest of movies, like The Lady Eve.
(Discovering her and Jean Arthur within the same year has been an amazing, joyous revelation. I keep slapping myself on the forehead and asking myself how I could’ve been blind to these ladies for so many years, while blithely calling myself a classic movie fan.)
Just look at her! Such movie star glamour. She was absolutely beautiful.
There are still many, many Stanwyck movies left for me to see, but here’s a bit about a few I’ve watched lately.
Remember the Night (1940)
This movie is a treasure, and I have no idea why it isn’t a better known Christmas classic. Remember the Night was written by Preston Sturges (someone I’m really starting to believe was the greatest screenwriter ever…well, aside from Ben Hecht) and directed by Mitchell Leisen, so it’s a classy, quality affair. Stanwyck plays cynical, brassy shoplifter, Lee Leander. MacMurray is John Sargent, the District Attorney prosecuting her. The trial, which is taking place just before Christmas, is postponed until after the holiday, which means Lee will spend it in jail. John begins to feel sorry for her and one thing leads to another until he’s finally bailing her out and taking her home to Indiana to spend the holiday with his family.
There are some funny, screwball moments, like when the two end up crashing their car, spending the night in a field, milking a cow, and being arrested for trespassing. Also funny are the courtroom scenes that open the film. (Lee’s attorney’s defense of her shoplifting, and John’s reaction to it, are a stitch.)
At heart, though, the movie is a sweet, sentimental one of love and redemption. Lee’s own family is truly awful (the scene in which she visits them is heartbreaking, and John’s graceful extrication of her from the situation is one of the sweetest moments imaginable), so to see her with John’s kindhearted family, who takes her in like one of their own, is lovely. The marvelous Beulah Bondi plays Mrs. Sargent, John’s mother, Elizabeth Patterson plays his darling Aunt Emma, and Sterling Holloway is their funny (and occasionally yodeling) farmhand.
This is one of the most truly romantic movies I’ve ever seen. Stanwyck and MacMurray have wonderful chemistry. I appreciate stories where the characters have time to get to know one another and you can believe that they really have fallen in love. So many movies have people meet and fall immediately and based on pretty much nothing.
In Remember the Night John begins to see that beneath her hard shell, Lee is a kind, decent girl who has had a difficult life. Lee sees where John came from, how he worked his way up from a poor but loving home to be a success, and how it’s possible to be part of a happy family. That makes it sound so schmaltzy, but it’s really not. It’s sentimental, but in a genuine, heartfelt way. Anyway, if you can’t have some honest sentiment at Christmastime, when can you?
This movie isn’t out on DVD, which is a terrible shame, but it appears on TCM now and then. It’s well worth checking out.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Another one written by Preston Sturges, who also directed it. This movie is hilarious! Fall-on-the-floor, laugh-out-loud crazy. Just look at the expression on Henry Fonda’s face! Stanwyck is so funny and sexy in that scene. She drives poor Henry Fonda right out of his mind with lust. It’s fantastic, and rightfully one of the most famous scenes in screwball comedy history.
Fonda plays Charles Pike, a brewery heir, ophiologist, and bumbling geek in spite of all his wealth and good looks. Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a cardsharp and con artist who works with her father, my dear old Charles Coburn. The relationship between Coburn and Stanwyck is one of the best things in the movie. They’re both cynical and crooked, but there’s love there, too. Charles Coburn was the best.
They meet on board a ship heading from South America to New York. Jean sets out to seduce Charles and trick him out of a fortune, but of course she winds up truly falling in love with him. He finds out who she really is just before their ship docks, and in spite of her attempts to explain he is terribly hurt and dumps her. That’s when the really crazy stuff begins.
The premise of this movie is so insane (Jean poses as an English aristocrat, “Lady Eve,” at a party at Charles Pike’s father’s mansion, and without changing her appearance at all manages to dupe Charles into thinking she’s really someone else), but somehow it works. I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t seen it, but the way it all works out is truly nuts. Funny, but nuts.
The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
This movie, also co-starring Stanwyck with Henry Fonda, is fairly entertaining, though a far cry from the perfection created with their pairing in The Lady Eve a few years later. Stanwyck plays a dizzy socialite, Melsa Manton, who discovers a dead body which inconveniently disappears right after she calls the police. Miss Manton has a reputation for pranks and getting into trouble, and the cops think this is just another of the silly stunts she and her rich, idle friends pull.
Also skeptical is Fonda as a newspaperman named Peter Ames. He eventually comes to believe Melsa, however. And of course he falls in love with her. He and Melsa, along with her society friends, eventually solve the crime.
Not the greatest movie, but it’s a lighthearted, fun screwball/murder mystery. This movie plays on TCM now and then, and was also recently released through the Warner Archives.
Golden Boy (1939)
Based on a Clifford Odets play, this is the story of a gifted violinist, Joe Bonaparte, who comes from a loving, immigrant family. To his father’s dismay and in spite of his own doubts about what the right thing is, Joe gives up the violin in order to gain wealth and fame as a prize fighter.
William Holden plays Joe Bonaparte, in his first movie role. He had basically no credits at all when he was cast in this film, and he turns in a really moving, passionate performance. He was only 21 years old! Remarkable. I love Bill Holden.
Stanwyck plays the girlfriend of Joe’s manager (Adolph Menjou), who at first uses her feminine wiles to get Joe to keep fighting when he wants to give it up and return to music, and who later truly falls in love with him and begins to hate what all the money and fighting are turning him into. Once again she’s a tough on the outside, tender on the inside gal, and she’s wonderful.
Partway through production Columbia Pictures got cold feet about having a newcomer in such a big role, and Stanwyck stood up for Holden and fought for him to stay. She believed in him and he was always grateful for that. For the rest of his life, Bill Holden sent Barbara Stanwyck flowers on the anniversary of their first day of shooting Golden Boy.
Stanwyck seemed to inspire that kind of love and loyalty. Just think of how discreet and gentlemanly Robert Wagner was about their love affair for decades, only revealing it in his memoir last year. In the caption of a photograph of the two of them in the book he says simply My love, Barbara Stanwyck. (Excuse me while I swoon a little.)
Miss Barbara Stanwyck. A great lady and a great talent, as I am happily discovering these days.