You’d think a beautiful young woman with a name like Ruby Stevens would have had it made in 1930s Hollywood. And she very well might have; the name conjures images of a bright-eyed ingenue, lovely, ambitious and 100 percent red-blooded American.
But that’s exactly what Barbara Stanwyck wanted to avoid, and thus, on the advice of a Broadway director, she changed her name, adopting a moniker that better suited her unique blend of beauty, strength, class and seductive allure.
The name suited the woman as well as the actress, for Stanwyck was already the woman she would soon portray: a tough, hard-luck dame, clawing her way to the top. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised in a series of foster homes, working as a fashion model and Broadway chorus girl before landing a theatrical role that caused the movie industry to take notice.
“I’m a tough old broad from Brooklyn,” Stanwyck once said. “I intend to go on acting until I’m 90 and they won’t need to paste my face with make-up.” She didn’t quite make it to 90, but she did work well into her 70s in a career that spanned nearly 60 years and earned her four Academy Award nominations, an honorary Oscar in 1982, and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
Pacific Film Archive is presenting a retrospective of some of the actress’ best work in honor of the centennial of her birth. The series runs through July 31 and begins Friday (today) with Night Nurse (1931), a Pre-Code classic that pairs Stanwyck with the brassy Joan Blondell, and Stella Dallas (1937), considered by many to be Stanwyck’s best.
Stanwyck’s early career is full of commanding, riveting performances as working-class femme fatales struggling to survive and conquer in a man’s world. Baby Face (1933) and Ladies They Talk About (1933) are essentially companion pieces, telling similar tales accompanied by the same musical theme—the drawling, bawdy, jazz-era strains of “St. Louis Blues.” In both films Stanwyck’s character uses her body, her grace and her wit to manipulate men in pursuit of her material desires; she knows full well what they want and how to entice them with it, cynically selling notions of romance and passion in which she has long since ceased to believe. Stanwyck was judicious with her contempt though; she not only looked on her victims with disdain, but always managed to imbue her gutsy golddiggers with an undercurrent of self-loathing, an awareness that the dirty business of life soils everyone it touches, and that the path to the top runs through more than a few fetid swamps of vice.
There was much more to Stanwyck than sex, however. Few actors could convey as much with just their eyes. “Eyes are the greatest tool in film,” Director Frank Capra told her, and she put the advice to good use. Her gaze was piercing and challenging, while simultaneously conveying the bemusement and weariness of a woman long tired of playing the fantasy object for legions of sweaty old businessmen in rumpled suits. She was also a gifted comedienne, comfortable in the delivery of droll putdowns and flirtatious witticisms. Yet she was fully capable of more overtly comedic roles, as in The Lady Eve (1941), in which she played a con-artist trying to play it straight but needing all her vice and cunning to get there. “My only problem,” Stanwyck said in response to a question about her signature roles, “is finding a way to play my fortieth fallen female in a different way from my thirty-ninth.”
As good as she was, the movie industry was not altogether kind to its young stars, and many actresses saw their careers vanish as the studios ditched them at the first signs of middle age. But Stanwyck’s startling talent, screen presence and behind-the-scenes negotiating prowess gave her an edge. By avoiding long contracts, she was never bound to any one studio, keeping her career and her paychecks healthy as a prolific freelancer.
Thus few actresses progressed as smoothly from eye-candy vixens to middle-aged dramatic roles. Double Indemnity (1944), for instance, saw her updating Baby Face’s Lily Powers by moving her to the upper class enclaves of the Hollywood Hills, now as a kept woman looking for adventure to stave off her domestic boredom—a door-to-door salesman’s wet dream, who lures insurance man Fred MacMurray into a lurid web of murder and intrigue. And still again she updated the portrait in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952). Here Stanwyck presents a stirring portrait of the opportunistic dame, but older now and tired of living a rootless life. Whereas the younger Stanwyck played women in dire or mundane circumstances looking for a way out, here she plays a woman on her way back home, returning to her humble origins on Monterey’s Cannery Row with the hope that she can finally set aside her nagging restlessness by embracing a simple domestic life. Yet her eyes belie the painful truth, revealing the jaded intelligence that knows her dissatisfaction is innate, that whatever she has is never enough, no matter how good the man and how safe the home he provides.
It’s a compelling picture of a complex woman, requiring the sort of feminine insight that director Lang was entirely incapable of throughout his long career, resulting in a fascinating case of professional role reversal, with a talented actor bringing out heretofore untapped talents in her director. And all in marked contrast to her co-star, a young Marilyn Monroe, who might have led a much different life had she adopted just a bit of Stanwyck’s steely resolve.
BALL OF FIRE:
A BARBARA STANWYCK CENTENNIAL
Friday, July 6 through Tuesday, July 31 at Pacific Film Archive.
2575 Bancroft Way. 642-5249. www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.