“She commands and men obey.” The line, from a ballad sung in Samuel Fuller’s feverish western Forty Guns (1957), is addressed to the formidable, black-clad dragoon leader played by Barbara Stanwyck, 50 when the film was released. Yet the lyric also pinpoints the most defining quality of one of cinema’s most versatile performers, as adept in oaters as in pre-Code pulp, screwball comedy, film noir, and melodrama. Few actresses from Hollywood’s golden age had as much range; fewer still worked as long and as consistently as Stanwyck, who died in 1990 at age 82.
Fuller’s movie is just one of 40 (roughly half of Stanwyck’s output; she made her last film in 1964 and then kept busy on TV) on view in Film Forum’s tribute, occasioned by the publication of Victoria Wilson’s behemoth A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907–1940, the first volume of a planned two-part biography. The early years of that life were grim: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, Stanwyck, the youngest of five children, was essentially orphaned at age four, when her mother died (the results of a gruesome accident that Ruby witnessed) and her father left for Panama, never to return. She was shuttled from one foster home to the next, sometimes looked after by an older sibling. As a teenager, she studied the moves of her showgirl big sister, Mildred, a crash course that eventually led to work as a Broadway hoofer, one of the Keep Kool Cuties.
It’s tempting, however foolish, to conflate the actress’s grit with that of several of the characters she played at the outset of her movie career. From 1929 through 1933 — the glory years of loose-morals Hollywood — Stanwyck was often cast as an indomitable cynic who frequently used sex as a weapon, whether to advance to the 1 percent in Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933) or to be sprung from San Quentin in Howard Bretherton’s Ladies They Talk About (1933). In the latter, Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor, behind bars for fronting a bank robbery, tells an inmate, “I knew it was going to be a tough fight. But nothing’s ever licked me yet.” This declaration, delivered without a trace of self-pity or arrogance, might sum up the actress’s own drive to leave behind the privations of Kings County — achieved by being a cutie who kept cool.
In many films from the 1930s, Stanwyck played proles, though she never limited herself to one tax bracket. In Leigh Jason’s dizzying The Mad Miss Manton (1938), she’s the Park Avenue heiress of the title, suing newspaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) for libel and leading a septet of cosseted Junior Leaguers on a chase to find a killer. In the first of their three onscreen pairings, Stanwyck and Fonda already display electric chemistry, ignited when she introduces herself to him — by slapping him across the face. The assault, as hilarious as it is startling, evinces the actress’s impeccable timing in comedies.
Stanwyck and Fonda’s initial meeting is almost as violent in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941), the apotheosis not only of their films together but of American romantic comedy: From the deck of the SS Southern Queen, she drops an apple on his noggin. As cardsharp Jean Harrington, Stanwyck first seduces with her volubility. Glimpsing the action from a compact mirror, Jean gives a rapid-fire play-by-play of the desperate attempts of the ship’s female passengers to attract the attention of Fonda’s Charles Pike, bachelor scion of an ale empire. It’s during this sardonic narration (“She’s up, she’s down”) that perhaps the most beguiling of Stanwyck’s traits is highlighted: her voice, tobacco-deepened, husky, and confident, and still bearing traces of outer-borough vowels.
Something of an annus mirabilis for Stanwyck’s comedies, 1941 also saw her in Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire, another vehicle that shows off her way with words. She plays sparkly nightclub canary Sugarpuss O’Shea, who hips square grammarian Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) to the drum boogie and the joys of slang. “You’re a regular yum-yum type,” the chanteuse tells the completely besotted linguist before demonstrating just what that adjectival hyphenate connotes. (In another etymology lesson, Sugarpuss explains to the professor what “corn” means — a term befitting the other Stanwyck–Cooper movie from 1941, the common-man-as-Jesus paean Meet John Doe by Frank Capra, with whom the actress made five films.)
By 1944, Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the U.S. — and, as platinum blonde Phyllis Dietrichson, the most fatale of femmes in Billy Wilder’s noir paradigm Double Indemnity. “I’m rotten to the heart,” she tells Pacific All-Risk Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, another frequent co-star) in the movie’s closing minutes. But Walter had been aware of — and turned on by — her lack of scruples since their very first encounter, when she, a married woman in Glendale, greeted him in little more than a towel and an anklet.
It doesn’t take long for Phyllis to enlist Walter in her plot to kill her husband; indeed, in many of Stanwyck’s best-known works, men are instantly in thrall to her. Yet the actress was equally adroit at playing more self-abnegating roles, as in King Vidor’s weepie Stella Dallas (1937), in which she relinquishes her teenage daughter so that she’ll advance socially, never again to be tainted by Mother’s uncouth ways. In her portrayal of the aggrieved wife of James Mason, who’s two-timing her with Ava Gardner in Mervyn LeRoy’s East Side, West Side (1949), Stanwyck pierces with simmering humiliation, made a fool of once again by her spouse’s broken promises.
But the actress’s talents for plumbing loneliness and regret are most devastatingly on display in Douglas Sirk’s There Always Tomorrow (1956), the last of her four collaborations with MacMurray. (Their first, Mitchell Leisen’s tender, Sturges-scripted 1940 comedy, Remember the Night, has a weeklong run December 25–31.) He plays toy manufacturer Clifford Groves, a kind but increasingly frustrated paterfamilias whose wife devotes all of her energy to their three obnoxious children; she is Norma Vale, a divorced fashion designer who was deeply in love with him (feelings to which Clifford was oblivious) 20 years ago, when they were co-workers. Their ecstatic reunion only highlights how isolated he’s grown to feel in his own marriage and sparks an intense passion for his former colleague. Norma, however, disabuses the man she’s still in love with of his plans to divorce and start anew with her, thus forswearing happiness for good. Crushed, MacMurray has no choice: Stanwyck has commanded; he must obey.