Happy birthday Barbara Stanwyck!

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Today marks what would have been the 106th birthday of the legendarily versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, who left her indelible mark on nearly every genre known to film. With a career spanning nearly 60 years, Stanwyck’s versatility proved to stretch beyond the confines of film and in later years she became equally at home on the small screen, starring in such projects as The Big Valley and the TV movie The Thorn Birds, along with her own hit television series.

She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, to a lower class family with 4 older children. When Ruby was 2, her mother was killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a trolley car, and her father subsequently abandoned the family to dig the Panama Canal. With her older sister Millie as her guardian, Ruby lived a chaotic and poverty-stricken childhood in a series of foster homes, from which she often tried to escape. Her only comfort was in her brother, Malcolm Byron (called “Bert”). Bert later became a sometime actor, a troubled soul who was supported both financially and emotionally by his sister throughout his life, a devoted repayment for the comfort he provided her in their difficult childhood.

As a chorus girl, circa 1924.

Perhaps due to the chaotic nature of her childhood, Ruby was never a good student, and dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work as a package wrapper in a Brooklyn department store. After going through several different menial jobs, she finally landed a job as a chorus girl, taking after her sister Millie. She was spotted by the producer of a play called The Noose, and she was given a part in the play, under the new name of Barbara Stanwyck, and soon took another job in Burlesque. In later years, film actor Pat O’Brien, who had seen Stanwyck in Burlesque, recalled with sadness that “one of the greatest stage actresses of our time was embalmed in celluloid.” This is a testament to yet another dimension of Stanwyck’s versatility that would soon make itself apparent in motion pictures.

After marrying a volatile actor named Frank Fay, Stanwyck moved with her husband to Hollywood so that she could expand her horizons to film. She began in such small movies as Ladies of Leisure (1930),  Ten Cents a Dance (1931), and Shopworn (1932). From those early roles, one stands out–her magnificent performance in Baby Face (1932), which tells the story of a poor bartender’s daughter who escapes her life in a bar and moves to the big city, where she sleeps her way to the top. A monumental and risky film for its time, it stands out as one of Stanwyck’s best performances of her career, and was one of the main impetuses for the implementation of the Hays Code.

Baby Face.

Stanwyck’s career quickly took off, and by the middle part of the decade, she was a bona fide star. She consistently made wise career choices, and hence one is hard pressed to find a Barbara Stanwyck movie that is not top notch. Though most of her roles in the 1930’s were dramatic, solidifying her reputation as a skilled dramatic star, the 1940’s saw her taking marvelous comedic parts, and with such films as Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, she proved to audiences that she was equally adept at comedy. She further expanded her horizons in 1944 when she accepted the role of murderous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir Double Indemnity, securing her reputation as a noir actress. Her 4 Academy Award nominations are indicative of her myriad skills–her first nomination was in 1937 for Stella Dallas (a drama), followed by Ball of Fire (1941, comedy), Double Indemnity (1944, noir), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, suspense).

From Ball of Fire.

Stanwyck was known in Hollywood as one of the most likable actresses in the business. She developed a close friendship with William Holden when they acted together in Holden’s first film, Golden Boy, and he credited her with truly building his career to what it became. They remained lifelong friends.

She never distinguished herself or held herself above anyone else on her sets–crew members recall that she knew all of their names as well as their children’s names, and frequently asked about them. Marilyn Monroe said that Barbara Stanwyck was the only member of Hollywood’s Golden Age who helped her and was kind to her. She was known as “Missy” to her friends and coworkers, and often her chairs on the set said “Missy” instead of the standard “Miss Stanwyck.”

Her personal life was rocky at best. An early relationship to Al Jolson ended in lifelong physical and psychological damage to Stanwyck, and her marriage to Frank Fay dissolved due to intense abuse. She married actor Robert Taylor in 1939, and the marriage lasted until 1951, constituting arguably the longest relationship in her life. After her marriage to Robert Taylor, her film career began to decline and she turned to television with a series entitled The Barbara Stanwyck Show that lasted for 1 season. But television proved to be her forte in later years, with a starring role on The Big Valley and guest spots on numerous high ranking television shows in the 1960’s through 1980’s. Her role in The Thorn Birds earned her another Emmy, and proved to audience that after all these years, she still had it.

A smoker since the age of 9, Stanwyck’s health took a turn for the worse in the late 1980’s, and she died in 1990 from acute emphysema and congestive heart failure. She never won an Oscar, and has been called the greatest actress never to have done so. She was awarded an honorary statuette shortly before her death, and dedicated it to her lifelong friend William Holden.

Happy birthday, Missy!


11 responses to “Happy birthday Barbara Stanwyck!

  1. Wonderful tribute to my favorite actress! Thank you! I always say “she did it all, never a false move!”

  2. When I was doing some of my own research, I found it fascinating that Barbara’s relationship with Frank Fay was eventually morphed into a movie of its own– A Star is Born. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to see that up on screen (and Stanwyck lived long enough to see the Streisand version– yeesh!).

    Reading your excellent post and much else about her, she always struck me as a person who was great at art, not so much at her own life. She threw herself into her work, though, and is undoubtedly one of the pillars of screen acting.

  3. WOW! That is quite the scene with Richard Chamberlain!

    And what a gracious acceptance speech for her Oscar. Thanks for posting it. 🙂

  4. Thank you for your lovely comment. There are some real similarities between A Star is Born and Stanwyck’s relationship with Frank Fay, for sure. Though I think the main point of ASIB is that Norman Maine really loved Esther/Vicki and basically was willing to sacrifice himself for her, whereas Frank Fay was an abusive tyrant above all else and I really don’t think he cared much about Barbara. And yes, I completely agree that she was great at her art, and struggled with her own life. She tried really hard not to let her past define her, she never spoke about her childhood for example, refusing to exploit it for publicity. But I think she was deeply affected by what happened to her as a young person, and that contributed to her unmatched abilities as an actress but also contributed to her largely difficult personal life. But she was incredibly strong, and never resorted to the destructive coping mechanisms that killed so many others. Her philosophy was to simply shrug it off, and move forward. What a role model she was.

  5. I have a question.In September a new bio on Miss Stanwyck will be published. Written by Victoria Wilson. “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940.” Only through 194o and it is 1088 pages! I find that many/too many star bios are simply re-hash of newspapers, magazines and things already published in previous books. I have a Kindle which allows me to ‘sample’ many books and thank goodness as I mostly pass. I would devour anything on Miss Stanwyck if it was good. Considering she was a very private person and rarely exploited herself as you say, what is the author thinking at 1088 pages. Thinking it would have to evaluate every single one of days of her past and every move in every movie she made in this period. Do you happen to know anything about it? Obviously I will be waiting until it is published and decide then. Cinema bios are somewhat costly.

  6. Agree with you that she was a terrific actress. But there was compromise: her marriages to men. She played the studio system game, unlike William Haines, in order to have a career. This was the expected trade-off. This provides some biography about her career, but continues to suppress who she really was. This is the 21st Century. She was not interested in ‘relationships’ with men. Period. She permitted the studio system to hide her real self behind marriage to Robert Taylor, and he hid there as well. It’s time for the truth to be told, not for lurid reasons, but to set us all free. Future generations should not have to endure playing a role off screen to which goes against their true nature.

  7. Thank you for your insightful comment. If you are referring to her alleged homosexuality/bisexuality, that has definitely been speculated for many years but I can’t really speak to it, because at this point the truth behind the rumors is not confirmed. But hopefully this fall with the release of Steel True, the new Stanwyck biography that has been 15 years in the making, we will get some answers in regard to her true feelings about many things, romance included. Since she kept so many things hidden from the world, we haven’t been able to confirm much about her life, but hopefully this bio will change that.

  8. Yes indeed. I am VERY excited for the release of this biography. Victoria Wilson has been working on it tirelessly for 15 years, and it is really the only definitive, authorized biography of Barbara Stanwyck. I’ve already pre-ordered it, and it promises to be phenomenal. It doesn’t cost too much, I think I pre-ordered it for $25. The price might go up when it’s released, I’m not entirely sure how that works–but it’s being touted as one of the best and most thorough biographies ever written about a classic movie star. I’m curious to see how she goes about writing 1,008 pages about Stanwyck’s life up to 1940–presidential biographies often run that long so it’s definitely possible, especially since she’s been working for 15 years. Anyway, if you love Stanwyck, I would absolutely pre-order this book.

  9. Isn’t it? She NEVER lost it, and I dare say that her acting abilities only got better and better as she got older. Which is so typical of Stanwyck’s modus operandi–always trying to learn and improve, never being complacent with where she was, no matter how big of a star she was.

  10. I agree with you there. I’m hard-pressed to think of any Stanwyck movie that was not of the highest quality. Even her early B-movies are marvelous. Either she just had a real knack for choosing the best roles, or SHE simply made the movies good. At any rate, all her movies are great ones to watch.

  11. The most important thing is her work. She was a stunning actress & you could not help but feel the independent nature of her being, despite the times in which she lived. Wisecracker: The Live & Times of William Haines written by William J. Mann, while obviously focused on William Haines, did provide ample evidence about Barbara Stanwyck’s need for an arranged marriage in order to retain her career. Had she been ‘open’ as Haines was, the author speculates that the same fate would have happened to her–she would have been dropped by all studios, and her career would have been over with no chance of leaving the body of work that she did. I, too, look forward to the book you mention.

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