Great Oscar Injustices: Barbara Stanwyck (Part II)
Barbara Stanwyck Oscar Injustice Series Posts…
February 2019: Month of Oscars
Welcome back to week four of my Oscar’s Greatest Injustices series!
We are on my second week of tribute to the Oscar-overlooked Barbara Stanwyck. Let’s jump right in!
So we pick up with Barbara in 1936, the year she met the beautifully handsome Robert Taylor. After her abusive marriage to the domineering and alcoholic Frank Fay, Taylor indeed was a breath of fresh air for our girl.
Born Spangler Arlington Brugh (no wonder he changed his name!) on August 5, 1911, Taylor was a farm boy from Filley, Nebraska, six years Barbara’s junior. He came to California to study the cello at Pomona College, was spotted by an MGM talent scout in 1932, and by 1935 Taylor was starring opposite the likes of such screen greats as Greta Garbo.
I think young Robert Taylor had a natural sweetness and kindness to him that was still very much a part of him on and off the screen at the time he and Barbara met, just what she needed after her marriage to Fay. Taylor was kind to her, something Barbara really had not experienced in her romantic life. And who doesn’t want (or deserve!) a kind partner in life?
They dated for three years—Barbara, who had only planned on marrying once, was wary of marriage after her failed one to Fay. But Taylor and Barbara officially tied the knot on May 14, 1939. The icing on the cake was that Taylor not only treated Barbara right, he also had a genuine affection for her adopted son, Dion. The feeling was mutual.
So Barbara’s personal life was looking up, and guess what? Her career, as ever, was on the uptick too! In 1937 she made Stella Dallas, a tear-jerker of a film that garnered Barbara her first Academy Award nomination.
If you haven’t seen Stella Dallas, don’t miss it when it plays on TCM next month! A classic story about self-sacrificing motherly love, Barbara plays the title character to perfection. Stella is a lower-class woman who wants a better life for her daughter, and will do just about anything to give her (luckily sweet) daughter the upper-class life Stella never had. Ironically, Ann Shirley, the actress who plays her daughter in the film, was only nine years younger than Barbara! (They were good friends off screen, by the way. Most everyone she worked with, from co-stars to film crews, loved Barbara off screen.)
Barbara was only thirty when the Stella Dallas was released, but in the film she ages from young, flirty girl to a woman with a daughter old enough to get married. Can you think of very many stars from the era who would have gone for that? Who else would have been ok playing, at thirty years old, an unglamorous character, let alone a mother with a grown child? Barbara didn’t care—it was a good role and she knew it. Vanity was never something Barbara struggled with. (And I think that is one of the reasons we love her!)
1937 also saw the completion of Barbara’s dream house in Northridge, CA. Built by Paul Williams, the architect to the stars, “Marwyck”—because people named their homes back in the day—truly embodies Barbara’s personality. Look at this gorgeous place! This 120 acre estate incorporated all the things that little Ruby Stevens never had growing up on the streets of Brooklyn. It even had a beautiful marble bathtub, which Barbra joked would be a sign that she had finally made it:
“When I can have a marble bathtub, I will know I’ve made it.”
Barbara once said.
You can visit and tour Marwyck! Now known as Oakridge—named after Jack Oakie, whom Barbara sold the ranch to. (Schedule a tour of Marwyck here.) I will be taking this tour as soon as I get a chance!
1937, a good year for Barbara!
1938-1939: The Mad Miss Manton and Golden Boy
In 1938, Barbara made one of my favorites of her films! It is just a little picture that was obviously on a budget, but it pairs her with Henry Fonda for the first time, so how could that not make for a fun film?
The Mad Miss Manton (1938) stars Barbara as a society girl trying to catch a murderer with her dizzy, rich girlfriends. Henry Fonda plays the reporter she is continuously at odds with along the way. It is a light film that foreshadows the fun Barbara and Fonda will have a few years later in The Lady Eve (1941). Watch Manton and Barbara’s comedy performance as a glamorous member of the upper crust, compare it to Stella Dallas and the tears Barbara brings to your eyes as a frumpy, lower-class mother, and tell me you aren’t impressed at her range!
Barbara made two films in 1939, Union Pacific and Golden Boy, a classic with William Holden. I think this behind the scenes anecdote really shows you what type of person Barbara was:
Golden Boy was William Holden’s big chance to make it in films, Barbara was the Hollywood veteran. And Holden was flubbing it, big time. The producers of the film were terribly unhappy with his work, to the point that they were ready to fire him and hire someone else for the coveted role of the violinist-turned-boxer. But Barbara stood up for Holden and basically said over my dead body. She promised she would work with the inexperienced Holden, and improve his performance to where it needed to be. True to her word, she did! Holden kept the part, was wonderful in the film, and Barbara saved his career. He was eternally thankful to her, and the two remained great friends until his death. That is how Barbara was, loyal to the end to friends and those she loved. As her husband Robert Taylor once wrote about her, Barbara was
Barbara in the 1940s
Now we get to the 1940s!!! My overall, very favorite time of Barbara’s career. She was just flawless in her performances. Incidentally, I also think she was in the prime of her beauty. If this post is disproportionately heavy on her life and films from the 40s, it is because Barbara was literally ON A ROLL at this time.
Between 1940 and 1948, Barbara made ALL OF THESE CLASSIC FILMS:
Remember the Night (1940)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Meet John Doe (1941)
Ball of Fire (1941)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Cry Wolf (1947)
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Ok, some of them may not be classics, but in my book they ALL should be! And classic status or not, her performances in all of them are standouts. I will probably go overboard with the films that are my favorites of these favorites…sorry! I will try to make up for it by cutting others short.
Here’s the list of 10:
1. Remember the Night (1940)
Co-starring Fred MacMurray (how I just love him!), this charming Christmas film directed by Preston Sturges has deservedly gained more acclaim in recent years, thanks to TCM screening it regularly at Christmas time. Barbara plays a woman caught steeling a diamond bracelet, MacMurray plays the prosecutor trying to put her away for it, just before Christmas. MacMurray gets her trial postponed to avoid a jury potentially voting her innocent in the spirit of Christmas. But of course, MacMurray, ever the good guy, feels bad about his actions, posts Barbara’s bail, and takes her home to Indiana to meet his mother and aunt for the holidays. And you may have guessed it, they fall in love along the way. If you don’t have a chance to watch this one before it (most likely) plays on TCM this December, don’t miss it at the end of the year! Barbara and Fred are an amazing team, and the script by the witty Sturges is endlessly clever.
2. The Lady Eve (1941)
And speaking of endlessly clever! Sturges again directs and writes the script for The Lady Eve, a screwball comedy pairing Barbara with Henry Fonda for the second time. Barbara plays Jean, a card sharp con woman who seduces the naïve millionaire Charles (Fonda), who has been away on the Amazon studying snakes for a few years. Yep, you read that right, snakes on the Amazon. They end up falling for each other, but then Charles discovers that Jean is not the sweet, innocent girl he thought she was. Jean can’t let him go without a fight—or at least not without making a fool of him one last time—and she concocts a scheme to insert herself into his life under the guise of being the rich and regal Lady Eve. Are Eve and Jean one and the same? Barbara as Jean/Eve has a good time keeping Fonda’s Charles guessing! Enjoy the amazing teamwork and chemistry between Barbara and Fonda. Fonda said a few times through the years that he had a big crush on Barbara during filming, and if she were not happily married to Robert Taylor at the time, he would have made a move!
3. Meet John Doe (1941)
Classic Classic Classic! Frank Capra directs in this, the last of the five Capra/Stanwyck films. Though it has become the fashion for critics to poo-poo Capra and his moral message films in recent years, we the John Does of the world don’t seem to care, and Meet John Doe has retained its popularity among us, the common man! Barbara plays Ann, a newspaper reporter about to lose her job thanks to Depression-Era cuts. She quickly concocts a letter, supposedly written to her by a John Doe so disenchanted with the “evils of the world and man’s inhumanity to man,” he plans to jump off the top of the city hall building on Christmas Eve in protest. The powers that be at Ann’s paper realize they have publicity gold here, and Ann gets to keep her job. They hire a “forgotten man” to act like the John Doe who “wrote” the letter, played to perfection by the loveable Gary Cooper, and a John Doe movement sweeps the nation, as people are inspired to love, help, and even speak to their neighbors.
4. Ball of Fire (1941)
Another Stanwyck/Gary Cooper pairing! Directed by the great Howard Hawks, this is yet another to-die-for screwball comedy Barbara make in 1941. Barbara undoubtedly got to draw on her 1920s flapper/showgirl roots for this film, in which she plays nightclub dancer Sugarpuss O’Shea. Gary Cooper plays the bashful professor studying slang who falls in love with her and her vocabulary. This film is, quite literally, a ball of fire, and its 111 minute running time will fly by as you watch Barbara sing, dance, talk a million miles a minute, and charm her way into Cooper’s heart. Truly a must see, and Barbara’s second Academy Award nomination.
5. Double Indemnity (1944)
Hands down classic! Directed by Billy Wilder, Barbara was given the script for Indemnity and didn’t know if she wanted to play this, in her own words,
“out and out killer”
with no redeeming qualities. Barbara had played questionable characters before, but never a killer. Wilder asked her,
“Are you an actress or a mouse?”
To which Barbara replied,
“An actress, I hope.”
And so she took the role of the murderess, Phyllis Dietrichson. Once again, we get the magic Barbara and Fred MacMurray team, with the always electric Edward G. Robinson thrown into the mix. Barbara’s Phyllis is the original femme fatale, convincing insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray) to help her murder her husband for the insurance payout. Barbara’s blonde wig in this one has become quite infamous, but not even sausage curl bangs can tame Barbara’s undeniable appeal in this classic film noir! It is also the only film she starred in that was nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar. Brought Barbara her third Oscar nomination for “Best Actress,” too.
6. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Oh my gosh so cute! Another Christmas film, as the title suggests, that in recent years has started to gain classic status. And it is about time too! Barbara plays food columnist Elizabeth Lane, “America’s Best Home Chef,” with one catch: in real life, she can’t cook at all, and her publisher doesn’t know it. Things get complicated and hilarity ensues when her publisher commits her to cook a Christmas feast at her home for himself and WWII veteran Jefferson Jones, played by nice guy Dennis Morgan. Now Elizabeth must find a farm in Connecticut, a husband, a baby, and someone to cook the meal, all things and capabilities her publisher, her public, and Jefferson believe she has because of her pen persona.
Barbara is gorgeous in every scene, and you root for her the whole time to get away with this act! Also fun to think about, Barbara’s definitive biographer, Victoria Wilson, has opined that through her thorough research of Barbara, the character of Elizabeth Lane seems to be the character closest to what the real-life Barbara was like. Pretty neat!
7. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Talk about plot twists and turns! Also showcasing the consistently amazing Van Heflin, a very young Kirk Douglas, and a very beautiful Lizabeth Scott, this film will keep you guessing.
8. The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Wow! Barbara and Humphrey Bogart together? You know you are in for a treat, and the Hitchcockian Two Mrs. Carrolls does not disappoint! A personal favorite, I don’t know why this one isn’t more of a classic. Don’t miss it next time it is on TCM.
Well, this post got incredibly LONG, so I will finish my homage to Barbara, one of Oscar’s Greatest Injustices, tomorrow. You don’t want to miss it!