That Old Feeling: Ruby in the Rough
Mention Stanwyck — who died in 1990, 26 years after completing her last feature film — to those in their 20s and 30s, and they'll squeeze out a memory of the silver-haired matriarch of "The Big Valley," a TV western in the "Bonanza" mode that ran from 1965 to 1969. A few could cite "Double Indemnity," in which she set the mold for the freon-cool killer femmes of film noir. Indeed, if you had raised her name to the Childe Corliss back in the '50s, I'd have fingered her as the stern middle-aged queen of many westerns (my least favorite genre back then). She also bore a family resemblance to half of my female Irish relatives. Stanwyck didn't have the whiff of legend about her, just the smell of the lamp.
The lovely thing about a film actor's work is that it's always there to be rediscovered; the nice thing about ignorance is that it can eventually be twisted into enlightenment. Catching up with Stanwyck's work in the late '60s, and further in 1988 when TNT opened the Turner treasure chest of early Warners talkies, I realized she meant, and gave, so much more to movies. She did her first big Hollywood movie, Frank Capra's "Ladies of Leisure," when she was 22; yet she already acted like a grownup, and showed how to merge energy and maturity. She illuminated some of the best films of the sharpest writer-directors: Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve," Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire," Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity." She lent her heft and sparkle to films by lesser directors. In her youth (the '30s) and her prime (the '40s), she helped define the modern woman: assured, in-charge, alluring and all-business.
The Stanwyck woman — and though nine of her films have the word "lady" or "ladies" in the title, she was rarely a lady, always a woman — was a tough cookie, and a smart one. She often treated her men with beguiling degrees of indulgence, pity and contempt. In "Ten Cents a Dance" she snorts, "You're not a man. You're not even a good sample." In any skirmish with the opposite sex, she has the advantage of ruthlessness. Her opponents, corseted by propriety, think they're in for a set of badminton; she's ready for a street brawl.
Sex appeal was a weapon for the Stanwyck character; flirtation was a gambit; conquest was power. It's true that this small, skinny woman with the prominent beak was not conventionally pretty; there are times in her very best films when she looks not just haggard but haggish. But it doesn't matter, because she had the musk of a creature on the prowl and the skill to convince audiences of her beauty. The tension and the comedy of her films derived from the ways men reacted to her: either they thought they could beat her at her game, or they took the fastest way out of the competition and surrendered to the lure of her danger. She was the volcano that men had to parachute into, just to be there when she erupted.
Her early life, as related in Homer Dickens' "The Films of Barbara Stanwyck," could have been grist for a Warner Bros. programmer from the dirty '30s. Ruby Stevens was born, in 1907, in Brooklyn — because that's where her father Byron fled after deserting his young wife Catherine and three kids. Ruby was their first child after Catherine tracked him down. When Ruby was three, Catherine died from injuries after a drunk pushed her from a trolley car. Again Byron walked out on the family; he fled to the Panama Canal Zone and was gone for good. Ruby and her younger brother Malcolm were farmed out to neighbors who treated them with little affection and heavy mitts. Finally the eldest Stevens sister, Maude, took in Malcolm but not Ruby; "a boy is less trouble to look after," she said. With the terse grit of a Stanwyck heroine, the actress later wrote: "I don't feel sorry for the kid I used to be. I remember she didn't feel sorry for herself."
Another sister, Millie, was a showgirl of sorts; and from eight to 11, Ruby spent summers backstage on the road. She was a working girl from 13: wrapping packages at Abraham & Straus, talking herself into jobs at New York Telephone and Condé Nast. At 15 she was hired as a dancer in a show at the Strand Roof nightclub for a princessly $40 a week. Her first dance director, Earl Lindsay, noticed the girl in the back row was dogging it and gave her some stern advice: "As long as you're in my chorus you'll kick high or get off the stage." These words turned Ruby's life around. From then on, she was the hardest working gal in showbiz.
She danced in a few Broadway shows, shouldering her way from the back of the chorus to featured spots. When she was cast in her first acting gig, "The Noose," producer David Belasco told Ruby that her real name "sounds like a burlesque queen"; he delved into a Playbill and came up with a more elegant stage name. Arthur Hopwood saw in the young actress "a sort of rough poignancy" and gave her the lead in his play "Burlesk," which ran for more than a year. Now the press was noticing the kid from Brooklyn. Opined a brash new newsmagazine: "Last week loud applause came to a young actress who found herself bowing to bravos as featured player of the season's first hit, while her ears still rang with the jazz jingles she crooned only two years ago in the smoky staleness of a night club. Barbara Stanwyck came then suddenly to the apogee of Broadway nights." Stanwyck was 20; TIME was four.
She attracted more personal attention as well. Her pal Oscar Levant introduced Stanwyck to Frank Fay, a Broadway star 10 years her senior, and in 1928 they were married. It was the time of the first talkie fever, and Hollywood needed actors who could speak lines, not just mimes who looked gorgeous. So the newlyweds tried the movies.
In her 1932 film "The Purchase Price" Stanwyck gives a speech, written by Warners' ace scribe Robert Lord, that could serve as her adieu to New York and hello to Hollywood: "I've been up and down Broadway since I was 15 years old. I'm fed up with hoofing in shows. I'm sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers and smart guys. I've heard all the questions and I know all the answers... The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high- powered headache. I've got a chance to breathe something else. And, boy, I'm grabbin' it."
Actually, stardom grabbed her; she found it immediately, and held on. She was top-billed in her first 20 Hollywood films; of the 82 features in which she had a prominent role, hers was the first name in 60. She was the rare actor, in the feudal studio era of the early '30s, to have contracts with two companies, Warner Bros. and Columbia. She stayed near the top of the movie biz for three decades, while other star actresses retired or played horror-film harpies. Then she graced the small screen for 20 more years, winning an Emmy at 77 for her role in the miniseries "The Thorn Birds."
As for Fay, he never clicked in pictures. As she flourished, he perished, and her success made his failure all the raspier. Their adoption of a boy, Dion Anthony Fay, didn't salve their aching marriage, and in 1935 they were divorced. A few years later she married swoonworthy actor Robert Taylor; they divorced in 1953. In time, the abandoned child abandoned her son. In 1957 Tony was arrested for trying to sell lewd pictures while waiting to cash his unemployment check. When quizzed by the press about his famous mother, he replied, "We don't speak." She saw him only a few times after his childhood. He resembled her in just one respect: both were, effectively, orphans.
Professionally, though, she was a doll; she once said, "I'll keep on working till they shoot me." Maybe she was nowhere so comfortable, so at ease with herself, as on a movie set, playing a character or playing Barbara Stanwyck, everyone's best pal. She never forgot Earl Lindsay's lesson: do your job and do it well. She %0D was the first on the set and the last to leave; she knew her lines and everyone else's; in westerns she performed most of her own action scenes, including one that her stuntwoman couldn't do (getting dragged by a horse in "Forty Guns," made when she was 49). She also earned the easy admiration of fellow actors and the grizzled key grips. They all adored her — called her "a swell guy."
SEX AND CLASS
The anti-heroine Stanwyck often played was, as they used to say, "too much woman for one man" — and too much man, too. Not surprisingly, these roles fanned gossip that Stanwyck was a lesbian; the synoptic gossip site The A List describes her marriage to Taylor as a beard "merkin arrangement." Stanwyck denied the rumor, with increasing exasperation, in an interview, just before her death, with addictive out-er Boze Hadleigh; as published in Hadleigh's book "Hollywood Lesbians," the questioning very nearly amounts to senior abuse.
One thing we know: Stanwyck starred in a movie called "The Gay Sisters." Other than that, it's all lavender innuendo. What's undeniable is a screen personality so potent, assured, daring that its essence can be taken as erotic. That's a natural enough assumption: romance was the currency of most Hollywood movies in Stanwyck's day, and her approach — her attack — was calculated and feral, a wolf stalking and then devouring the victim with the best bloodlines. Not just Hollywood but America saw that aggressiveness as masculine. Now it is seen as lesbian. But that doesn't mean the actress was. (A famous book editor toiled for years on a biography whose mission was to prove %0AStanwyck gay; finally the editor decided Stanwyck wasn't, and has considered dropping the project.)
A website essay touting Stanwyck as a "warrior woman," and predecessor to the Princess Xena, quotes a comment I made about Stanwyck in 1981: that "by the end of the '30s the studios had pretty much stopped trying to pair her with macho men, and instead played her aggressive, experienced 'maleness' against some of the era's most engaging wimps" (e.g., Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve," Gary Cooper in "Meet John Doe").
Twenty years later, I think her screen force was only incidentally sexual. I think it derived more from impulses of class than from gender. Like James Cagney, her male equivalent at Warners, she was the standard bearer for the underclass, with all its hard-won wisdom, its skepticism, its knowing which rules to play by and which to disregard. Like Cagney (and very few other mainstream stars), Stanwyck prefigured the '50s triumph of the pop underclass — when Brando, rock 'n roll, teen horror movies and Mad comics announced, in a cacophonous chorus, that arrogant, high- octane, raunchy art had become the dominant strain of American culture. It remains so today. Stanwyck was among the best movie exemplars of underclass energy. Indeed, many of her films dramatized how the underclass would fight the middle class, and win.
You could hear that war of the classes in Stanwyck's voice, a handsome instrument hewn from a scrawny, slum-neighborhood tree. That voice had Brooklyn in it, and Broadway; her a's were flat, her r's soft. And when she was cast against type — in the role of the ethereal self-sacrificer — her voice lent worldly substance to the narrative implausibilities. It helped her shame an audience of ornery parishioners in "The Miracle Woman" and persuade a canny onlooker to say admiringly, "You've got hot steel in your blood." It let her speak for all New York in "Golden Boy" (in which Stanwyck godmothered the young William Holden to stardom and earned his lifelong devotion). It served the twin poles of passion and irony in "Stella Dallas" — when the war of the classes was the film's subject, not just its subtext.
By 1937, when she starred in that Olive Higgins Prouty weepie, Stanwyck had already cemented her image as the screen's toughest, tastiest cookie. How could she convince moviegoers that their Lady of Leisure would renounce a lifetime of hot nights for the role of back-street mother to Anne Shirley? Stanwyck would do it playing Stella hard and broad, by daring the audience to dismiss her. The former dancer walks across the room, cranking her arms as if in a fast-walk marathon. The elegant clotheshorse wears the world's ugliest dress — it looks like a giant banana split, with oversized marshmallows for triceps. She talks way too loud, as if trying to drown out the voices in her head telling her she's not good enough.
Her work in "Stella Dallas" is a triumph of defiant technique. For once, the actress seems outside her character, cuing the audience to pity Stella here, despise her there. No matter: at the end, radiant in repose and without evident makeup, Stanwyck wins tears and applause from every skeptic in the house. She could take the cruel twist of fate as well as dish it out; she could make the noble platitude of Triumph Through Renunciation seem a little less cloying.
Maybe Stanwyck's craft was an extension of her personality, forged in deprivation, polished with sandpaper, worn with unique style. Which would mean it can't be taught to today's young generation of actors. But it can be savored by any of us spry enough to slip a cassette into a VCR. Watch her work today, with the thrill of admiration at what a performer was able to achieve in sound films when the form was in its infancy, then early maturity. You'll see, over and over, a movie miracle: a natural actor whose body is a medium to distill a character's motives and emotions. Stanwyck thinks; Stanwyck feels. Ruby lives.
The Four Phases of Eve
Forty-three words! Forty-three hundred words couldn’t do justice to Stanwyck. But this week and last, I’m trying, I’m trying — if only in gratitude for the pleasure her work still offers. The actress’s film career boasted not only a lot of intelligent vigor, rendered in perfect pitch, but a dramatic arc of what we may call the Barbara Stanwyck character: A complex amalgam of sex and class, charm and power. The four phases of Eve.
In her early Warner Bros. films, like "Baby Face," we see her coming to understand the nature and uses of this power. (And then, the scripts ordain, she falls in love.) By the time of "The Lady Eve," she is amused by the speed with which well-bred naifs swoon under her spell. (And then she falls in love.) In the melodramas from "Double Indemnity" through the end of the 1940s, Hollywood turns her strength into sickness. Now we could see how the strong Stanwyck woman appeared to the men she dominated: bitter, belittling, demeaning, deaf to his reason or his pleas. (And then she kills him.) Finally she recognizes that a superior woman is a solitary one. She retreats to the elemental surroundings of the Old West, where she finds emotional release in running things — a ranch, a town — and seems as eager to ride a horse as have any man harness her. (And then she falls in love.)
1. THE GOOD-MAD GIRL
"You’re fat! You’re enormous!" teases the doting beau in "Illicit," Stanwyck’s first starring role at Warners. "I’m not," she teases right back. "I’m willowy and fragile." Willowy, for sure. Fragile, never! Not on screen, not off. And in Hollywood, not ever. At 23 the young actress was already her own woman; when virtually every other star was indentured to a single studio, Stanwyck was a bigamist, splitting time between Columbia and Warners. And she had started to define the modern woman, as surely as Hepburn did when she came to movies a year later. They were low and high, pugnacious or imperious, versions of the same dame: on her way to hell or heaven at breakneck speed, and daring any man to come along for the ride. (They never made a film together — what man would've been worthy for them to fight over? — but Stanwyck was offered the role in "Holiday" that Hepburn eventually claimed, and played Kate’s "Morning Glory" in a radio drama.)
In "Illicit," Ann enjoys a cozy, loving, intimate relationship with Dick (the appealing James Rennie), a wealthy fellow who wants to marry her. She has other ideas: she thinks love can survive only as a perpetual courtship. "Love can’t stand the strain" of a marriage; she dreads "the intimacy that makes you small and helpless and dependent on one another." When they do get married, and things go flat and sour, she insists, "I’m not going to have a child just to keep my husband." Even for the anything-goes movie standards of the 1930s pre-Code era, these are fairly radical sentiments. "I’m not awfully concerned about the good opinion of society," she says. Yet Stanwyck delivers her dicta in a tone of impassioned reason. And she has already mastered two clever acting tricks: The knack of gazing down thoughtfully, as if she could see the future, because she has a bit of a past; and the gift of looking up to reveal eyes moist with worthy emotion.
In "Illicit" the two lover-combatants are equally matched. Soon, Stanwyck films would become star vehicles, and the men would recede in importance and potency. In Capra’s "The Miracle Woman," she's a bitter evangelist out to make the world pay for her father’s death; and her foil is a blind musician. In William Wellman’s "Night Nurse," she serves as ministering angel to a wounded bootlegger and two rich children being starved to death. "Ladies They Talk About," directed by William Keighley and Howard Bretherton, has her strutting as a gun moll sent to prison, where she plots her revenge against a well-meaning crusader who loves her so much that, after she shoots him in the climactic scene, proposes marriage! She’s the toughie; he’s the softie, leading with his heart, trying to tamp down his prim lust.
"Ladies They Talk About" is a typical Warners programmer from 1933: Cynical and bustling, with a dozen briskly sketched supporting roles, and tough-gal dialogue that makes little sense ("Yeah," Stanwyck barks at a prison rival, "and when they add you up, whadda you spell?") but still sounds swell. Even the film’s genesis would have made a pretty good movie. Consider this: In the late ‘20s, actor Paul Kelly beat actor Ray Raymond to death. Kelly did two years in prison for manslaughter. Raymond’s widow, the stage actress Dorothy MacKaye, also spent time in the women’s unit of San Quentin. Based on her experiences there, MacKaye would co-author the play "Women in Prison," which Warners bought and made into "Ladies They Talk About." In a kooky coda, Kelly and MacKaye — the murderer and the wife of the man he killed — were later married.
Stanwyck’s next film, "Baby Face," has been called "the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of pre-Code." Our gal is tops as a Scarlett woman from the urban north who turns the battle of the sexes into an uncivil war. The writers (including Warners production chief Darryl Zanuck) and director Alfred E. Green punch out a story of a slum girl on the irresistible rise. Over the remorseless 70-min. running time, Stanwyck’s Lily Powers accumulates a half-dozen lovers, triggers a murder and two suicide attempts, nearly brings down a venerable New York bank — and never for a second relinquishes the audience’s fascination.
In a dirty mining town, where coal dust blights the flowers in a window box, Lily Powers is the daughter of a speakeasy owner who pimps her out to his customers; in the heat of one argument he calls her a "little tramp." This provokes a prime Stanwyck rant — a feature of most of her early films, where the star drops her usual cynical poise and spits out an aria of blistering hatred. "Yeah, I'm a tramp," she shouts, "and who’s ta blame? My father! A swell start you gave me. Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you’re lower than any of ‘em. I’ll hate you as long as I live!" Dad conveniently dies in a fire, and Lily is off to New York with her only friend, a black girl named Chico (Theresa Harris), to see whether she can turn the hard lessons she learned back home to profit in the big city.
Lily’s first stop is the Personnel office of the Gotham Trust Company, where she is appraised by a heavy-set man named Pratt. She says to him sweetly, "I know some prats where I come from." (In fact, Stanwyck had known some: Her first Brooklyn home, at 268 Classon Avenue, was on the edge of the Pratt Institute campus.) When Pratt asks her, "Have you had any experience?" she replies, "Plenty," in a flat tone that speaks worlds of sexual weariness. Lily studies hard for her new roles, reading an etiquette book and changing her hair style from brown to a platinum bride-of-Frankenstein marcelled look. To attract a man, she sends signals of availability and vulnerability: crossing her legs and burying her head in her hands in an attitude of agony.
A fast learner at work and play, Lily screws her way up through the Gotham Trust building: from Personnel (Pratt’s domain) to Filing (where a young John Wayne is her conquest) to Mortgage (where that perennial corporate slimeball Douglass Dumbrille mistakenly thinks he can handle her) to Accounting (where she catches the attention of Donald Cook, a comer in the company and fiancé of the boss’s daughter). As the movie’s original adline proclaimed: "She climbed the ladder of success — wrong by wrong!" Her early life has schooled her to despise men even as she uses them. Her every caress is sandpapered by hatred for what is, to her, the weaker sex. Besides, it’s the Depression. "What could I do?" she rhetorically asks about one office liaison. "He’s my boss, and I had to earn my living."
Faithful to her code, Lily is serially monogamous: she dumps each man after a newer, bigger fish swims into view. "I’m sorry," she tells the recently disposable Wayne when he persists in asking her out on a date, "I have to go to bed early every night." Eventually she has both Cook and the company boss (Henry Kolker) dangling from her little black heartstrings. When Cook discovers Lily’s love nest with the boss, then kills Kolker and himself, Lily’s response is to peddle her diary to a tabloid for $10,000. Called into a meeting of the company’s board, she is quizzed by the new man in charge, patrician polo player George Brent. "When this thing happened, were you working very hard?" he asks. "Yeah," she says tersely, "but not at the bank."
All this is prelude to a Stanwyck-Brent romance: Lily is sent to the Paris bureau, where her skeptical new boss falls in love with her; they marry, and Lily must decide whether to hock her hard-won jewelry to save the bank. Some admirers of "Baby Face" have criticized its final third for capitulating to conventional sentiment. But the straightfaced romance in Act III seems cloying only because of the whirlwind cynicism of what preceded it. Besides, how many films allow viewers the climactic tingle of wondering whether the heroine is going to lead her nice-guy husband to ruin and early death?
2. THE GOOD-BAD WOMAN
It was to comedy that Stanwyck could bring all her gifts: The exquisite timing, the economy of gesture, the come-hither-at-your-own-risk glance. By now she knows exactly the aphrodisiac effect she has on men. One Stanwyck moue or mot tossed at Fred MacMurray in "Remember the Night," or Fonda in "The Lady Eve," or Cooper in "Ball of Fire" or "Meet John Doe," and the winsome hero was vanquished, totaled, hers. What Charles Coburn says to Stanwyck, of Fonda’s strangulated attentions, could apply to any of these lucky, doomed swains stumbling into her sights: "Of course he’s in love with you. Who is he not to be in love with you who beautify the North Atlantic?"
If you don’t know "The Lady Eve," what a treat you have in store; for this is Hollywood romantic comedy at its blithe, brittle best. In "Talking Pictures:Screenwriters in the American Cinema," I wrote at length about the film and its author, and I wouldn’t stop interested readers from buying a second-hand copy. (On the websites it’s going for what you'd pay for a frappucino and a danish.) So we’ll shorthand the movie here. Fonda is Charles "Hoppsy" Pike, an ale heir and amateur ophiologist; he’s come from a year up the Amazon and hailed a cruise ship sailing for New York. On it are a gentleman card shark — the Col. Harrington (Charles Coburn), who is no gentleman — and his savvy daughter Jean. They plan to fleece this fine "specimen of the sucker sapiens"; but as Jean works her expert moves to dazzle Hoppsy, she starts to feel the heedless stirrings of ardor herself. Disappointment; betrayal; an elaborate plan of revenge, in which Jean will pretend to be Lady Eve Sidwich and seduce her mark one last fatal time.
If you do know the film, you don’t need me to say that it has the funniest, most brilliantly modulated seduction scene in movies — the verbal equivalent of expert heavy petting. Jean's stateroom is a moodily lighted Garden of Eden, and she is at once Eve, the apple and the serpent. (When they return to the Colonel, he tells Jean, "Well, you certainly took long enough to come back in the same outfit," and she replies, "I’m lucky to have THIS on.") Sturges had a five-year stretch in which he wrote and directed a couple of films a year, investing each with enough easy epigrams to make Oscar wild with envy. He may say of his facility with dialogue what the Colonel says after displaying some masterly legerdemain with a deck of cards: "You don’t really need it. It’s just virtuosity."
Sturges had penned the Stanwyck-MacMurray "Remember the Night," a semi-sweet Christmas romance with just the right mixture of, as he put it, schmaltz, schmerz and schmutz. (It was also the first of 23 films in which the star was clothed by Edith Head, who had found the secret of camouflaging Stanwyck1s low-slung derriere.) At the time Sturges promised to write a comedy for the actress, who oddly had done only a few.
"The Lady Eve" plays to all her strengths: the intelligence and assurance, the drive and vulnerability, the Lefty Grove-like spin on a line of dialogue. The voice has deepened, become more artfully modulated; what was once a brass instrument is now a woodwind. It helps Stanwyck melt in sympathy when she spots a mopey Fonda ("You look like the last grave over by the willow"). And it puts a delicious chill on her plan for vengeance ("I need him like the ax needs the turkey"). It helps make Jean humorous, human and, despite her worst instincts, classy. She might have taken the Colonel1s advice at the start of the film: "Let us be crooked but never common."
If "The Lady Eve" is a shipboard version of Eden story, then "Ball of Fire" is "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in jazz lingo. But the two films are really the same tale: a criminally innocent man wins over a divinely cynical woman by appealing to a better nature she didn't know existed. Another Stanwyck gun moll, Sugarpuss O’Shea, moves in with some unworldly professors assembling an encyclopedia. The scholars, led by Professor Potts ("Pottsy," she calls Cooper, in a clear echo of Fonda’s Hoppsy) are thrilled to blushing that she’ll help them understand American slang; "This is the first time anyone moved in on my brain," she accurately notes. In fact, Sugarpuss is on the lam from the cops. She’s Eve again, too, alluding to the law of gravity; she tells Potts she wants him to look at her as "just another apple." And she has the same troubling cocktail of two perplexing new feelings: love and guilt. She also sings a game "Drum Boogie," with Gene Krupa on skins.
Stanwyck copped the second of her four Academy Award nominations for her eloquent body English in "Ball of Fire"; the others were for "Stella Dallas," "Double Indemnity" and "Sorry, Wrong Number." As it happens, she never did win a Best Actress Oscar. In 1944, though, she received what may have been a more impressive honor from the Internal Revenue Service: it announced that Barbara Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the United States. Ruby Stevens had made good — and earned every penny.
3. THE MAD-BAD WOMAN
"Some of my most interesting roles have been completely unsympathetic," Stanwyck told the Saturday Evening Post in the late ‘40s. "Actresses welcome such parts, knowing that vitriol makes a stronger impression than syrup." Her early roles had their caustic sides, but Stanwyck movies usually concluded with a redemptive spoonful of sugar. Hollywood didn’t mind presenting the strong, rebellious woman, so long as she got some form of romantic religion, however perfunctory. No renunciation scene required.
From the mid-‘40s on, though, the Stanwyck woman went a little mad, and her face reflected the change. Starting with "Double Indemnity," Stanwyck’s eyes, the focal point of her appeal in the early films, seem smaller; they don’t dominate her face any more. Now one concentrates on the mouth. When she was young, it had those pert little parentheses at each end, which lent her a kewpie-doll insouciance when she wanted it; now her lips were painted with garish lipstick to give her a mean and spoiled look. Her hair, which used to be shorter, now is as full and long as a judge’s wig in a burlesque skit — it’s a helmet for Attila the hon to wear into sexual battle. A final touch: the script put a gun in her hand. Now she’s a killer.
When Walter Neff (MacMurray), a bright insurance peddler, meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), does he think she is simply a restless, selfish woman with an anklet at the base of a lovely leg? Can’t this movie male sniff out the sulfur under her perfume? Isn’t he hep to her plan to use his sexual avidity to kill her cranky, unloving husband and then take the rap for the crime? Of course not, because the type hardly existed in Hollywood films before. He couldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the difference between a romantic sand dune and a moral sump hole. In the approaching night of a new era of treachery, anybody would squint.
TIME’s own Richard Schickel, in his engrossing monograph on "Double Indemnity," notes that Stanwyck was originally reluctant to play such a malefic siren, until Wilder goaded her into it. Like Sturges, Wilder worked with Stanwyck first as screenwriter only (on "Ball of Fire"), then as writer-director. He’d been able to observe her from a distance, gaining an informed appreciation of her talents, before moving in on her mind with "Double Indemnity." And she gave him the goods, neither softening Phyllis’ black motives nor diminishing her stark seductiveness. Stanwyck was like a blues thrush who puts all of her skill and soul into a rendition, whether she singing "Drum Boogie" or a Black Mass for the Dead.
"I think you’re rotten," Phyllis tells Neff in an early encounter, to which he replies, "I think you’re swell — so long as I’m not your husband." At the end, just before dissolving her contract with an uppity insurance salesman by plugging him in the chest, she’s confessing, "I never loved you, Walter, you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart." After "Double Indemnity," she got to be, or had to be, rotten in film after film. In "Clash by Night" Paul Douglas, as her cuckolded husband, tells her, "You’re no good. You’re rotten." In "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," honest Van Heflin says, "You’re sick — so sick that you don’t even know the difference between right and wrong any more." Martha did know, of course; she just didn’t care.
In "Sorry, Wrong Number," she’s a bed-ridden wife driven frantic by a series of phone calls. For once, it initially appears, she’s a pure victim. But she is neither; she’s bossy and vindictive, in a characterization so acutely unpleasant that Stanwyck dares to spit the audience’s reflexive sympathy back in its face. Who wants this harridan to survive her spooky evening alone? She has become the disposable spouse from "Double Indemnity," and the viewer starts feeling sorry for her duplicitous husband, especially since he’s played by young Burt Lancaster - another smart, tough New Yorker, up from the streets. (Lancaster was the male Stanwyck, if that’s not redundant.) No wonder that, in the '50s, she left the pavement for the prairie, where a woman could be a warrior, and a gun was as handy an accessory as corrosive wit was to Stanwyck in her blooming, blistering movie youth.
In any relationship, Stanwyck always wore the pants. But in the ‘50s, she had to, if she was to ride a horse (never side-saddle). That was when everybody made westerns — Marilyn and Marlon, Grace Kelly and Jerry Lewis — but Stanwyck loved the wide open West, had been a fan of the genre since childhood and jumped at any excuse to mount a steed. She’d also enjoyed playing Annie Oakley back in ‘36.
So she rode the postwar prairie with a king (Elvis, in "Roustabout") and a future president (Reagan in "Cattle Queen of Montana"), as well as Joel McCrea ("Trooper Hook"), Glenn Ford ("The Violent Men"), Barry Sullivan (Sam Fuller’s "Forty Guns") and MacMurray ("The Moonlighter," in 3-D). Then she ran a TV ranch in "The Big Valley." When she was hospitalized just before her death, she told designer Nolan Miller: "I never expected to become an invalid. I always thought I’d be trampled by a wild stallion or run down by a stagecoach."
On screen, in chaps or crinoline, Stanwyck was a man’s woman. And the man in this woman’s life was often the father. Past or present, fathers are among the most looming figures in the Stanwyck canon. They came in all varieties: Good (the minister in "The Miracle Woman," killed by the grief his parishioners laid on him), bad (the pimp saloonkeeper in "Baby Face") and benignly amoral (Coburn in "The Lady Eve"). Not to mention any number of grouchy patriarchal husbands and avid sugar daddies. But she needed, for once, to make a film in which the father-daughter bond was explicitly competitive and implicitly incestuous. Anthony Mann’s "The Furies" was the one: Freud on the range.
Stanwyck is the tough, proud daughter of T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a wild rancher who monopolizes her fear and love; when he aches from an old wound, she scratches it. She’s called Vance; her soft, malleable brother is Clay (symbolism was swift in the Old West). Vance has tender feelings for a Mexican (Gilbert Roland), but apparently reserves her lust for father — until she meets up with a gambler named Rip (Wendell Corey). At first she wants to run things; on a buggy ride, she asks, "Mind if I take the reins? I like to know where I’m going." But as soon as she declares her romantic interest in Rip, he gives her a few hard slaps. (Hold on! The genteel Corey as Stanwyck’s sado-dominator? That’s like the parson pushing around the teamster.) Seems like Vance is looking for a man to challenge, even mistreat her, the way her daddy has.
T.C. does two things that rile Vance. He marries a gold-digging Easterner (Judith Anderson); and he hangs Vance’s soulful Mexican. Now she revs up for another fabulous rant: "You’re old and you’re getting foolish and you’ve made a mistake. It’s me you should have hung. Because now I hate you in a way I didn’t know a human could hate. Take a good long look at me, T.C. You won’t see me again till the day I take your world away from you." Darrow diagnoses her fever acutely: "You’ve found a new love in your life, haven’t you, Vance? You’re in love with hate." Eventually, she does bring her father to financial disaster, and he admires her for the sheer vindictive balls of the gesture. "I never thought a girl could really ride a bull," he crows. "But you did it, Vance. You rode me proper and you throwed me proper." It is T.C.’s last speech. He promptly dies, leaving Vance free to marry Rip. Jeez! Luke Skywalker had a less complicated relationship with his dad.
The femme-fatale scheming, the twisted father worship, the need to be whupped by the proper ranger — all this was enough to wear even a strong woman down. It was time to play an emotionally exhausted woman, and in Fritz Lang’s "Clash by Night," from a Clifford Odets play, the Stanwyck character wears her fatigue like... well, like fatigues. "I’m tired of looking after men," growls Mae Doyle, just returned to a California fishing village after untidy adventures back East. "I want to be looked after. ... I want a man to give me confidence. Somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods. Somebody to beat off the world when it swallows you up." Her voice sounds sad, hollow and remote, as if she were calling up to ground level from the dank well of her past. The place where she’s landed could be the canvas of a boxing ring, that’s how happy she is to be home. "Home," she says, "is where you come when you’ve run out of places."
And out of choices. The fall line of men is on the tatty side: a gruff, naive, salt-of-the-sea fisherman (Douglas) and his sexy, sociopathic pal (Robert Ryan). So she marries one, glumly, and shares some hot, desperate pash with the other. "Always take the man who’ll kick the door down," she tells her brother’s dishy fiancee (Monroe). "Advice from mother." Ryan will kick the door down — and her teeth in, if she got on his thin nerves. Now she’s traded boredom for guilt. Hollywood morality of 1953 allowed adultery but demanded reconciliation. At the end, for the sake of their child, Mae has to go back to the lug she doesn’t love. It’s a depressing resolution for a Stanwyck heroine: to do the dutiful thing. The viewer wants to grab her, put her on a horse, slap its haunches and set her gallop off to her destiny — alone, far from the movie men that, for a quarter-century, she had battled, coddled, tested and found wanting.
Yet Stanwyck was no Garbo, majestically aloof. Sure, sometimes Stanwyck drove men to their doom, but she wanted to go along for the ride. The best part of the women she embodied is that almost all of them are still around, still kicking and biting — having a hell of a time, and giving one. You can join her in the edifying fun by watching some of her films. They offer thrilling proof of her ferocious artistry. Huston’s enthusiastic testimony about his daughter in "The Furies" is just as true of Stanwyck: "She’s one in a nation!"