Film Feature: Barbara Stanwyck – On Page and On Screen, “The Most Modern of the Great Movie Stars”

It has the makings of a Barbara Stanwyck boomlet: Victoria Wilson visited Boston to talk about the first volume of her major biography of the star, and the actress can be seen on-screen at the Harvard Film Archive.

By Betsy Sherman


Having risen through the ranks at Alfred A. Knopf to become Vice President and Senior Editor, Victoria Wilson thought she was pretty familiar with the writing profession. It wasn’t until she embarked on what became a fifteen year project, an in-depth biography of actress Barbara Stanwyck, that she realized “I’ve been in a business that’s a torture.” Speaking at Boston University on April 8, Wilson went on to say, with a self-deprecating grimace, that “the editor in me and the writer in me … made our way together.”

The author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 (Simon & Schuster) was the featured speaker at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University during which winners in the HGARC Student Book Collecting Contest received their awards. Whereas this hefty book covers the early years and ascendant career of the woman whom Wilson calls “the embodiment of the natural actress” and “the most modern of the great movie stars,” a second volume will stretch from her triumph in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve to Stanwyck’s death in 1990.

Wilson used the word “obsession” more than once to describe her motive for writing the biography, but she didn’t have to sell me on her subject’s worthiness. Stanwyck is my favorite movie actress. Steel-True indeed — the woman had backbone on screen and off. From her earliest outings in front of a camera (she was so terrific in those Pre-Codes) to her final projects for television (omigod, The Thorn Birds) she gave her characters layers of authentic emotion.

Coincidentally, Boston-area moviegoers will be able to see Stanwyck on the big screen this month and next at Harvard Film Archive’s series The Capra Touch. The 24-film retrospective (all on 35mm) begins tonight with one of the five films she made with director Frank Capra, Meet John Doe, in which she stars with Gary Cooper and Edward Arnold.

Wilson revealed that in spite of her distinctive Brooklyn accent, Ruby Stevens (Stanwyck’s birth name) had New England roots — like, Daughters of the American Revolution type roots. Her older siblings — who would raise Ruby in Brooklyn after their mother died and their grief-stricken father deserted them — first lived in Gloucester and Chelsea. Ruby learned early on how to fend for herself, which was great training for Hollywood. The enviably independent Stanwyck was able to avoid signing one of those seven-year studio contracts that shackled so many other performers.

While continuing to hold down her job at Knopf, Wilson pursued leads that would help her illuminate facets of Stanwyck’s life that went unexamined in previous biographies. “During the day, I was in the present and future,” said Wilson. “At night I was in the past.” Her sources included a woman who was a chorus girl alongside Stanwyck during the 1920s, and the actress’ estranged son Tony. Stanwyck’s ill-treatment of her son, whom she adopted because she thought it would save her marriage to the alcoholic vaudeville comedian Frank Fay (their troubles partly inspired A Star Is Born), is one of the most disturbing aspects of her off-screen story. Wilson, in closing, gave aspiring authors in the audience a keyword to place beside obsession: instinct. After doing exhaustive research, and interviewing well chosen sources, you have to rely on your instinct that you’re doing right by your subject.

Barbara  in Ladies of Leisure

Barbara Stanwyck in 1930’s “Ladies of Leisure.” It’s no masterpiece, but the film has at least one sequence capable of launching an obsession for the leading lady.

As for what’s in store at Harvard Film Archive, after Meet John Doe, Capra’s brilliant cautionary tale about a media mogul’s attempt to create and control a demagogue, the series goes back in time for the quartet of Pre-Code films in which Stanwyck served as her director’s muse. On Sunday, April 13, Capra rips from the headlines The Miracle Woman (1931), in which Stanwyck plays a charismatic, conflicted evangelist based on Aimee Semple McPherson. On Sunday, April 27, she’s enmeshed with married man Adolph Menjou in the melodrama Forbidden (1932). The shimmering treat on Saturday, May 10, is Capra’s opulent, uncomfortable The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) in which Stanwyck’s missionary in China is held captive by the alluring/repulsive title warlord (played in “yellowface” by Swedish actor Nils Asther).

But I’d like to spotlight the initial collaboration, Ladies of Leisure (1930), playing on Sunday, April 20. While it’s no masterpiece, it has at least one sequence capable of launching a Stanwyck obsession. “Party girl” Kay, as embodied by Stanwyck, is more than just another tough cookie with a heart of gold. In the wee hours of the morning, she escapes from a bash aboard a Long Island yacht by swimming to shore. This catches the attention of Jerry (Ralph Graves), a blueblooded aspiring artist, who gives her a ride to the city. On yet another moonlit night, Kay poses for a portrait in Jerry’s Manhattan studio. She’s fallen hard for Jerry, but suffers in silence because one of “his kind” could never be in love with one of “her kind.”

The sequence in question — a reminder that Capra movies can be enjoyed for their form as well as for their content— comes after Jerry has offered the fatigued Kay use of a daybed in the studio and has retired to his bedroom. Kay’s bed is next to windows down which rain is streaming, so cascades of light and shadow flicker over her face. She hears the doorknob turn, and we see Jerry’s feet as he walks towards the bed. We can read in Kay’s expression that her desire for Jerry has been replaced by a sinking feeling that he thinks she’s cheap and can easily be had. She feigns sleep … and he drapes a blanket over her and leaves the room. Kay smiles, her eyes sparkle. She’s not used to getting this from men — respect. What Capra saw in his leading lady, the audience now knows. The moonlight may be artificial, but the light from within is real.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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