Tag Archives: barbara stanwyck

2013 at Backlots–A Year in Review

A big thank you to my readers for making 2013 a true banner year for Backlots. Here are some of the things that happened on the blog this year:

My attendance at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival was far and away one of the highlights of the year. A true movie lover’s paradise, the TCM Festival attracts classic film aficionados from the world over, and TCM certainly delivers the goods. It was great fun interacting in person with my fellow bloggers, whose work I know so well online, and making new classic film friends. A wonderful experience!

For the second year in a row, Backlots covered the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past summer. As usual, it was a fantastic event with presentations unparalleled in their quality. Highlights for me included a screening of the hilarious Marion Davies movie The Patsy, an interactive talk with Winsor McKay expert John Canemaker,  and the breathtaking gamelan accompaniment set to the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins by the Sekar Jaya Gamelan Ensemble. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival never disappoints. Stay tuned next year’s festival which will be held over Memorial Day Weekend, and on January 11 for their special celebration of The Little Tramp at 100–celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Chaplin’s The Little Tramp. I will be at both events!

Last month, I was honored to be invited to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary Tour. We bloggers were treated to a day of exploration at the studio, led by a professional guide, and topped off with lunch at the commissary. We had special access to the costume department and several areas off limits for regular tour members, and it was indeed a special day. Again, I met so many fellow bloggers and had such a good time. Thank you, Warner Bros., for organizing this wonderful day for us!

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The classic film community was graced with several magnificent new books this year. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Victoria Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, and Kendra Bean, who is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and a personal friend of mine. Both of these works are great monuments in and of themselves. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a gargantuan book that features 860 full pages of text and another 200 for source notes, and has proven to be the quintessential, definitive book on the actress. My reading of this book, though it took me less than 2 days, is one of the highlights of my year. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is so chock full of previously unseen photos of this staggering beauty that the reader simply cannot put it down. It is displayed prominently, face forward, on my shelf so as not to obscure its beauty. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview these two gifted writers, and I thank them for their interviews with me. Read Victoria Wilson’s interview here, and Kendra Bean’s here.

In what was perhaps my most meaningful personal success of 2013, I had the great privilege to interview Joan Fontaine in honor of her birthday. This was her last birthday, and her last interview. Joan was frail and her health declining, so she kept her answers short. The length of her answers does not matter to me. My interview with Joan Fontaine remains the single greatest privilege Backlots has ever had. Click here to read it. Rest in peace, dear Joan.

This is the video I made in memory of Joan Fontaine. I hope you enjoy it.

Wow, readers. What a year. 2014 is already shaping up to be an equally marvelous year! Here’s to what’s to come, and to you, loyal readers, for helping to make this blog what it has become.

Merry Christmas from Backlots!

To all those who celebrate it, I wish my readers a very merry Christmas with lots of quality time with friends and family!

The holiday of Christmas has heralded some of the most beloved movies of all time. In celebration of the season, I am profiling a few of my favorites here. Have a wonderful holiday, and if you have a free moment, check out some of these movies!

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)

Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan, it tells the story of a “perfect housewife” columnist who doesn’t exactly have the life her column suggests…and when her boss requires her to host a war veteran at her home for Christmas (and insists upon coming along himself), she has some arranging to do! A sweet situation comedy that is defined by Barbara Stanwyck’s delightful performance and that of the adorable S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the character of Uncle Felix.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

This one is a true classic, and often I find myself disillusioned with the fact that with its great popularity has come a colorization that has now taken over AMC every year at Christmas as well as a 1994 remake, that has become more prevalent than the original on the other more commercial channels. But this, I believe, is the one and only one to see. Natalie Wood stars as a little girl skeptical of Santa Claus, until a Macy’s Santa Claus played by Edmund Gwenn makes her think twice. It is a fantastic children’s movie and also holds up extremely well for adults–if you haven’t seen it since your childhood, now is a wonderful time to revisit it!

HOLIDAY AFFAIR

This is a lesser-known gem with which I first became acquainted last year at Noir City X-Mas. It is a sweet, low-key comedy that stars Janet Leigh as an engaged war widow who falls in love with a department store clerk while undercover on her job as a comparative shopper. Though she already has a fiancé, her young son takes to the department store clerk (played by Robert Mitchum) and there begins to be some tension due to her son’s clear preference for Mitchum’s character. The movie is light fare, but good fun. One of the best performances in the movie comes from the little boy, played by Gordon Gebert. His acting career never took off but he found a second talent in adulthood–after studying architecture at UCLA, USC, and MIT, Gebert is now a very prominent professor at New York City’s College School of Architecture.

The Miracle Woman (1931)

In the lion’s den in MIRACLE WOMAN (1931)

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For the past few months I have been on a rather unshakable Barbara Stanwyck kick. I have always been aware of her gifts as an actress and have always enjoyed her work, but over the past few months I have not been able to get enough of her. All this was simply expanded when I had the honor to interview Victoria Wilson, the author of the new Barbara Stanwyck biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940–and when my book arrived, I devoured it almost as quickly as it reached my hands. I’ve gone mad for Missy (the nickname given to her by a maid in the 1930s that stuck), and there seems to be no turning back now.

Thus, I have decided to make a post on what is one of my favorite Stanwyck films that does not seem to get enough credit. It is The Miracle Woman, co-starring David Manners and released by Columbia in 1931 under the direction of Frank Capra. This was Stanwyck’s second film with Capra after 1930’s Ladies of Leisure, and would be followed by three more collaborations over the course of 11 years.

The Miracle Woman draws much of its material from the life of popular preacher Aimee Semple McPherson and from the hit 1927 novel Elmer Gantry. A scathing critique of popular Christianity and revival meetings featuring charismatic preachers, Elmer Gantry was banned in several cities across the United States for denouncing popular preachers as frauds and false prophets. Several key components in the book are reflected in The Miracle Woman, not the least of which seems to be the similarity of the names of the main female characters, “Sharon Falconer”in Elmer Gantry and “Florence Fallon” in The Miracle Woman.

Florence Fallon hushes the crowd.

Florence Fallon is a preacher’s daughter who calls out the sins of her father’s congregation after they cast him out shortly before his death. Her impassioned speech scares the congregation out of the church, but one person remains–an out-of-towner named Hornsby who sees the fire in her soul and teaches her how to make money preaching.

I must digress from the plot a bit to tell you to watch how Barbara Stanwyck, age 23 and still a novice in Hollywood, plays this scene. A true testament to her gifts, and to Frank Capra’s understanding of her as an actress. In his autobiography, Capra states that in his films with Stanwyck, he rehearsed with the entire cast before he brought her in. Stanwyck gave her best performances, he said,  on the first take. If he tried to do multiple takes with her, the subsequent performances would merely be carbon copies of the first. That fact makes this scene even more astounding.

Florence teams up with Hornsby to create a veritable preaching empire, beginning with broadcasts over the radio and branching out into revival meetings for her loyal followers. One man named John Carson, a veteran who was blinded in battle, hears Florence’s voice over the radio just as he was about to commit suicide over the misery of his condition. Her voice and words make him find new light in his life, and he decides to attend one of her revivals. There, he volunteers to sit in the cage of lions to prove that one cannot be hurt with “love and understanding in your heart.” We soon learn that, much to Florence’s disillusionment, he is the only volunteer that has not been pre-selected by Hornsby and paid to feign healing.

John hears Florence Fallon’s voice for the first time.

On her way out of the theatre, she runs into the man again. She offers him a ride home in the rain, and he offers to bring her into his home. They start to talking, and cultivate a close friendship. Soon, it turns into romantic love. Florence begins sending him notes, assembled tirelessly in raised letters so that he can “read” them.

At a party, one of the staff members of Florence Fallon’s revival show demands a share of the profits, and threatens to expose her as a fraud if he doesn’t get it. In the paper a few days later, we see that the worker has been found dead. The staff suggests that they move to a different town to get away from the scandal. When Florence refuses telling him that he doesn’t own her, Hornsby claims that he holds a sort of “first mortgage.” Then he assaults her, grabbing her body and kissing her on the lips.

This scene shows more evidence of Stanwyck’s magnificent acting abilities. When Hornsby grabs her and she eventually pushes him away, the horror on her face is real, palatable. She holds a hand to her mouth, and her eyes show legitimate fear. As she begins to warn him of what will happen if he ever does that again, her voice quivers with shock. This is an incredibly nuanced, emotional moment, one that requires intense emotional depth from its 23-year-old actress. And Stanwyck delivers.

It is also this scene that establishes Hornsby as a malicious character. Shortly thereafter, and following a birthday celebration with John in which they declare their love for each other, Florence sees a newspaper article that says she is going to the Holy Land. When she asks Hornsby to retract it, he refuses–saying that his idea of the Holy Land is Monte Carlo, and they will go together. Florence resists him, until Hornsby says that it’s either Monte Carlo or jail. He plans to frame her for embezzlement of funds, or pin on her the death of the staff worker.

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In tears before her final sermon.

This leaves Florence no choice but to go with him–and when she sees John to tell him that she is going away, she exposes herself as a fraud. John does not care, and hatches a scheme to make her think that she really can perform miracles. Before Florence’s farewell tour, he pretends to be able to see to make her think that she has performed a miracle on his eyesight. She is not fooled, but credits him with a miracle nonetheless–that he “made [her] see.” It is at this moment that she officially separates herself from Hornsby, just before she goes onstage. Hornsby sees that John is the catalyst for this, and knocks him out after Florence leaves the room.

As Florence goes onstage, Hornsby gets his revenge. He allows an electric fire to start, and the tabernacle burns. John is awakened by the smoke, makes his way down to the stage and rescues Florence from the fire. He spends a few days in the hospital, where they begin to repair his eyesight. Florence gives up preaching and instead joins the Salvation Army. A telegram at the end of the movie shows that she and John are to be married, delivered as Florence marches with the rest of the Salvation Army, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the movie ends.

The ending of The Miracle Woman is taken almost entirely from Elmer Gantry, but differs slightly in an important way. In the latter story Sister Sharon Falconer perishes in the fire, prompting the main character, Elmer Gantry, to give up his religious ways. In The Miracle Woman, religion is treated with more reverence. Florence is rescued from the fire and simply finds a new and better outlet for her religious convictions.

A publicity still with Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners.

There was an official production code in place in 1930, but its enforcement did not begin until 1934 (incidentally, following a string of risque Barbara Stanwyck films. I wrote a post on the subject nearly a year ago, click here to read it). One of the restrictions outlined by the Production Code of 1934 was that religion was to be treated with nothing but reverence–thus this film likely would not have passed the censor board had it been made under the Code due to its questioning of the legitimacy of religious revivals, regardless of Florence Fallon maintaining her religious devotions at the film’s conclusion.

Though The Miracle Woman was made several years before the strict enforcement of the Production Code, filmmakers were still limited by common standards of what the public would accept. In order to appease the influential masses of Christian viewers, Capra and Columbia played it safe with this story, avoiding the issue of religious denouncement that was the hallmark of Elmer Gantry. In doing so, they created a unique film–one that both celebrates religion and questions it. The Miracle Woman really makes us think, which is a sure sign of a well-made film.

See you next time!

The Warner Bros. VIP Tour

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Well, readers, today was an exciting and exhausting day to say the least. It began around 9:45 in the morning when, running on adrenaline and caffeine only (I didn’t get very much sleep), I arrived at the Warner lot for the VIP tour. After getting formally acquainted with several classic film bloggers whose names I knew well, we were led into a special screening room where we watched a short video of the history of Warner Bros. and then headed out on the tour itself with our friendly guide, John.

We bloggers got some very special treatment–our first stop was the costume department, which is not normally part of the tour. There, a woman by the name of Elaine showed us stock costumes while explaining to us how the costume system works at Warner Bros. It turns out that costumes are owned by Warner Bros. but can be rented by other studios–there is a bit of a kinship there that allows costumes to be shared. Upon questioning her about a sign on one of the door that said “Trades not allowed,” Elaine also informed me that there is a trade system in place for some of the costumes. If a costume from the collection is lost or damaged, often the person who lost or damaged it can replace it with another costume of the same value. However, in that particular department, trades are not allowed if the costume is lost or damaged. The person must pay, out of pocket, the value of the costume. Very interesting stuff, and really gives you an insight into some of the politics of the inner departments of the studio.

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Some hats from 1920-1960.

As many of my readers know, I am a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck and was keen to know where Stanwyck’s pre-Code Warner Bros. films were shot. I posed my question to John, who was wonderful in getting the answer to me. He handed the question off to several people until I finally got an answer, and the answer was that most of the Barbara Stanwyck pre-Codes were filmed in Studio 14. When we passed Studio 14 later, John incorporated this new information into the tour. The Warner Bros. tour guides clearly respect and value new information, and I appreciated his diligence in answering my question and imparting it onto the whole group.

A scene from BABY FACE, shot on Warner Bros. Stage 14.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was the prominent inclusion of A Star is Born. Having seen the movie at least two dozen times, I recognized the set where the opening shot was filmed, and we also passed Stage 7 where many prominent films were shot including A Star is Born, 42nd Street, and Casablanca. Though there were ladders blocking the bottom part of the plaque, I was able to get a bit of it in a picture. I hope you can read the text!

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From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

Halfway through the tour, we got a taste of the more modern Warner Bros. with a visit to the set of Friends. As this was a tour specifically geared toward bloggers, several of us classic film bloggers, John was kind enough to also include a lamp from The Maltese Falcon that appears alongside the Friends set. It was fascinating for me to experience the gamut of Warner Bros. through my lens of a classic film fan. It truly gives the visitor a holistic view of the company, and how its history (with which I am mostly familiar) has shaped its present.

The tour ended with a bang, as we were given special access to take pictures in the museum, something not generally allowed on tours. I have a real soft spot for costumes, so I was thrilled to be able to take photos of such costumes as the three dresses shown below.

Three Elizabeth Taylor costumes from GIANT, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Costumes worn by Joan Crawford (left) and Elizabeth Taylor.

Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner, happened to be on the lot that day and visited with our group, which was a wonderful moment. She is part of Warner Bros. 90th anniversary speaker series, “Meet the Family,” telling the story of the Warner family through the eyes of its members. Cass has her own production company, the Warner Sisters, that is doing very prominent work in the industry right now. She also shared stories of the family, how she wanted the Warner record set straight. People often think of the movie moguls of classic Hollywood as being tyrannical and controlling–and Cass Warner wanted to reiterate that her grandfather was a loving man with whom she was close. She has also devoted much of her life to learning more about her family history. “I’m sort of the family detective!” she joked. She was very interested in the work we classic film bloggers were doing, and I was lucky enough to get a picture with her.

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The tour ended at the commissary, where we were given a very delicious lunch. My blogging friends Kimberly Truhler, Kristen Lopez, Elise Crane Derby and I had exciting and lively discussions about our favorite classic film stars, little-known old Hollywood gossip, and our modest but vibrant online classic film community. We are indeed a rather small, devoted, and tight-knit bunch.

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I got an added bonus after the tour–my friend Marya, who works at the Warner Archives, brought me up to see the closet where they keep all the Warner Archive DVD releases. Needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Marya and I talked about all the movies, I got to see where she works, and of course I got a picture with Robbie the Robot.

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I can’t imagine a more fun-filled day for a classic movie fan. I departed Warner Bros. an exhausted, but very happy blogger.

Now for the good stuff!

If you would like to go on a Warner Bros. tour, I would highly recommend it. It was a lot of fun, and if you’re a film fan in L.A. it’s a great thing to check out. The VIP tour package looks like this:

Departs: Mon-Sat 8:15am-4pm  and Sundays (limited availability)
Duration: 2hrs 15 min
Cost: $52.00/person
Children 8yrs + are welcome

We technically went on a VIP tour, but with the added special access it was actually more like a Deluxe tour in many ways. This is what the Deluxe tour looks like:

Departs Mon-Fri 10:15 am
Duration: 5 hrs.
Cost: $250.00/person

As I mentioned before, Cass Warner is speaking on tours through the end of the year, so if you would like to see her then this is the time to go. Also, apparently there is a tour in French, if you (like your author here!) speak French. However, act fast for that one because it’s only going on through November.

If you’re in Los Angeles and have a school or club who would like to see Warner Bros., give them a call because hey have special discounts for groups larger than 24. More information can be found on their website.

Thank you, Warner Bros., for this wonderful opportunity!

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Alfred Hitchcock Thanks YOU for a Wonderful Hitchcock Halloween!

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Hello there readers, Lara here to thank you for all your fantastic submissions yesterday for Hitchcock Halloween. It was a really fun event and I think Hitch would have been proud! I hope you will join us next Halloween for another installment of what proved to be a very popular tribute to Alfred Hitchcock!

This post also closes out the month of October, which was a very fruitful one for Backlots. As a refresher, here are the things that happened this past month on the blog:

Backlots interviewed Joan Fontaine in honor of her 96th birthday.

Backlots interviewed Victoria Wilson, author of A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940.

Backlots interviewed Kendra Bean, author of VIVIEN LEIGH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT.

The Hitchcock Halloween Blogathon.

Thank you to all my readers for making this such a memorable month at Backlots, and here’s to many more equally memorable months to come!

In about 2 weeks, Backlots will go down to Burbank to blog for the Warner Brothers’ 90th Anniversary VIP Tour, so stay tuned on November 13 for some very special coverage. More details to come!

See you next time!

An Interview with Victoria Wilson, Author of A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE (1907-1940)

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

The life of Barbara Stanwyck has fascinated film lovers for decades. Her particular combination of sex appeal, toughness, and grit makes for an intriguing character and was doubtless informed by a private life about which she was extremely reticent. This, along with innate intelligence and a seemingly natural instinct for acting, has made her one of the most enigmatic personalities of classic Hollywood.

Though it seems impossible to fathom, there has never been a major biography of Barbara Stanwyck.

Until now.

On November 12, Simon & Schuster will publish A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True (1907-1940), volume 1 of the long-awaited first complete biography of Barbara Stanwyck. 15 years in the making and running a whopping 1,056 pages in length, author Victoria Wilson has created a colossal piece of literature covering the first 33 years of Barbara Stanwyck’s life. Comprised of tireless research and interviews with the star’s family, friends, and acquaintances, the work promises to become one of the most complete and enduring biographies ever written about a motion picture star.

I conducted an interview with Victoria Wilson a few weeks ago, and her answers appear here.Thank you to Vicky Wilson for this interview, and please be sure to pre-order your copy of the book by clicking here.

AN INTERVIEW WITH VICTORIA WILSON

Q This is a biography that has been in the works for 15 years, and has been very highly anticipated in the classic film community for a long time. What was your research process like in writing a book of this caliber and magnitude?

A The answer to the question of research is a huge one . . .to begin with it was definitely a process of starting on the outside and working one’s way deeper and deeper into a subject, a world, and then worlds within worlds.  I began with making lists – of films, directors she worked with,  living people to interview, archives. .  .gathering information and creating a detailed chronology and constantly filling it in (it is now almost 400 pages long); collecting fan magazines. The earlier the fan magazine, the more authentic the interview, the information in the articles; there were no funnels, no press agents, no studio filters; fewer inventions of facts; less distortions.  There was the process of interviewing people, once, twice, three times, sometimes over months, sometimes over years (as with Barbara’s friends, family, her son, etc). There was the process of collecting materials – press books, articles, objects, photographs, letters, scrapbooks, reading them, taking the information I needed, thinking about it, having it lead me to other people, ideas, and so on.  I went through every file of every picture she made, or almost made.  I read the novels of pictures she made, or almost made.  I wrote about the novelists whose novels she read; the playwrights whose plays she acted in, or almost acted in; the directors with whom she worked. I hired researchers to go through and copy scrapbooks of her friends; to go through court records; to go through Variety from 1927 onwards and copy every article on Stanwyck, Frank Fay, Robert Taylor, etc. Each was put in chronological order in large 3-ring notebooks I amassed. I could go on and write a book about the research for the book; of the stories of finding people; of being lead to others, of leads that appeared one day and didn’t make sense or were answered until months or years later . . .And this only begins to give you an idea of what was involved.

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A 1932 fan magazine with Stanwyck on the cover.

How did your interest in Barbara Stanwyck as a subject come to be?

I had always been aware of Barbara Stanwyck as an interesting actress. Someone slightly odd, compelling, not beautiful but sexy, intelligent, sometimes off-putting in her off-centeredness – but always interesting on screen.

It was really John Kobal, who I published and who became a great friend, who would tell me stories about the actors he had interviewed over the years (eventually we put together the interviews in a book called PEOPLE WILL TALK and I had John write up the stories he’d told me about them as introductory pieces to each interview) who talked to me several times about Stanwyck that made me see her in a new way, a way that stayed with me.

Years passed. I published as an editor at Knopf many biographies. I enjoyed the process of working with biographers as they did their research; helping them to think about their subject and what they were discovering about him or her and I decided one day to think of writing one myself.

I made a list of various subjects and Barbara’s name was on the list. I didn’t know much about her and did some preliminary research and realized that there hadn’t been a serious book on her; that her career spanned the history of Hollywood in its second stage and onward through television; that she’d worked with almost every major director; that she as an actress who could do almost anything onscreen; and there was the question of what she projected on the screen and where did that come from and what did it come out of . . .

On the set of LADIES OF LEISURE (1930), her breakout role and her first film with director Frank Capra.

Barbara Stanwyck had a reputation for being an intensely private person, refusing to talk about her difficult childhood or go into detail about her romantic relationships. How did you go about uncovering some of the aspects of Barbara Stanwyck’s life about which she was so reticent?

Hardcore research, pulling together bits and pieces . . .I went to Lanesville, Mass where her family came from and figured out just how – and why – her father became a mason . . .I went to Chelsea, Mass and found in the records where her family moved and moved again and again, up in stature and closer to the center of town away from the rough edges of the city on the river. I pieced together her upbringing in Brooklyn, bit by bit. But it is what one brings to the bits and pieces that makes the narrative and makes it make sense. That’s instinct, and grasp and understanding of character and human beings and coming to know one’s subject through the choices she made; the things she said; her desires and dreams and ambitions etc. Stanwyck was private but she did talk about her childhood. If anything, she played up what was difficult about it and glossed over what was normal about it. Why? Because the experience of it to her was so lonely and tough and relentless and wouldn’t it be for all of us if by the time we were four we were without a mommy and daddy and had a brother who was two years older and just as lost as we were and had three much older sisters who did the best they could to take care of us but were essentially making their way in their own lives and new families.

Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, and was orphaned at the age of 4 when her mother was killed and her father abandoned the family.

One of the most fascinating things about Barbara Stanwyck, to me, is how much her rocky childhood influenced who she became as an actress and a person, yet she still refused to let that childhood define her. What was the most important aspect of Barbara Stanwyck’s childhood that you uncovered for this book, in terms of how it helped shape her character?

Her childhood totally made who she was, just as our childhoods make or have made who we are. Her childhood was about taking care of herself and getting through and being on her own – and apart. Her childhood of being taken to New York from Brooklyn by her sister who was a dancer and actress and being able to watch the performances in the wings and feeling close to her sister, all of which became a family to her, home to her. It gave her the sense of belonging which is what work did for her and did for her throughout her life. . .but that particular childhood also prepared her to make her way in Hollywood. She never was part of any studio family; was under contract to more than one studio when that was unheard of beginning in the early 1930’s whereas Robert Taylor, who grew up in a real family of loving parents who adored him, stayed within his Metro family for decades, longer than any other contract actor at MGM. Finally, all of the hurt and abandonment and anger and terror that she experienced as a child, and the will to survive and make something of herself, and also the love of her own sisters and brother and nephews informed the complex range of feeling and intelligence and humor and spirit and sense of fun that comes through on the screen. It was all of a piece and came right out of her childhood.

Circa 1924. Stanwyck’s sister Mildred was a chorus girl, and she soon followed suit.

Stanwyck’s two marriages, first to vaudevillian Frank Fay and next to MGM superstar Robert Taylor, both ended in divorce. Rumors circulated for years and persist today about her marriage to Robert Taylor, and that it may have been manufactured as something as a “lavender marriage” by the studio system to quell talk about the sexualities of both Stanwyck and Taylor. Clearly, it would be very difficult to say for certain whether or not this was the case, especially as so many years have passed. In addition, Stanwyck seemed to be very much in love with Taylor, never remarried, and took his 1969 death extremely hard. In your research, was there anything you found that would lead you to believe that these persistent rumors about their marriage had any truth to them?

I had one ambition for my biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and that was to write a book that reflected the truth about my subject and her world, regardless of what it was. I have written quite detailed portraits of Stanwyck’s two marriages; the first to Frank Fay; the second to Robert Taylor. Each marriage was complex and came about because of complex reasons – and stayed in tact because of equally complicated reasons; neither marriage came about because of homosexuality. I asked many people who would have a somewhat informed inkling about Robert Taylor’s sexuality, people who knew him at the time, or would have heard about the (then, of necessity) underground truth of his sexuality and nowhere did I come across any hint of his being gay, including interviewing Harry Hay, founder in 1950 of the Mattachine Society. If anyone would have known, or heard about the truth of Taylor’s sexuality over the years, it would have been Harry Hay. . .

Stanwyck and Taylor came together at opposite points in their careers, which most people don’t know. She may have been successful and by that time been around Hollywood for six or so years, but her career was in trouble when she met Taylor. He was the big big star, just exploding into real fame and overwhelmed by it all. If anything, she needed him, for lots of reasons, which I write about in the book. And he needed her – just not as his beard.

The last thing Metro wanted was for Robert Taylor to be married, until they did, and it was not as a cover up for his sexuality. When people read the book they will see in detail how Stanwyck and Taylor came together, and what it did for both people; how it helped both and changed both. Volume Two portrays the shape of the marriage and how and why it ultimately fell apart, which, as in real life, happened over time and grew out of a set of subtle and complicated circumstances – and out of two people changing and changing out of different needs at different stages of their life, and their work.

Stanwyck and Robert Taylor married in 1939 and divorced in 1951.

I was very saddened to learn of the 2006 death of Barbara Stanwyck’s only son, Dion Anthony Fay. Were you able to speak with him about this book, and what insights was he able to provide about his childhood and his intensely complex relationship with his mother?

I was able to find Tony Fay, long before the internet, through a man who was in charge of security for the Pope on his New York visits. That is a funny story – but he did find Tony and I interviewed him during the course of many years. He was extremely helpful during the writing of the book and we became quite close. Tony talked to me in great detail of his years growing up, of his nurses, his years with Fay in the house, and then after, being sent away, first to schools, then to camps, of his loneliness, of his fears of his mother, and bewilderment towards her,and his defiance; of his mother’s marriage to Bob Taylor; of the years Tony lived at home during the war when Bob was in the Navy as a training officer; of his relationship with Uncle Buck*; his years after, going to various schools; of living in Beverly Hills and much much more. I was extremely fond of Tony. Despite being put up for adoption once and then cast out by his adopted mother, Tony Fay was a loving man who managed to triumph over difficult, dark years.

Barbara Stanwyck with her son Dion Anthony Fay (called “Tony”), whom she adopted with husband Frank Fay in 1932.

Barbara Stanwyck is often described as “the best actress who never won an Oscar,” and indeed, her versatility is staggering. Her ability to play drama, film noir, and comedy with equal flair is almost unmatched. To what do you attribute her extraordinary talent?

Deep intelligence; a dark childhood; iron determination; will; large emotions – fear; anger; loss; a driving discipline; uncanny talent.

Barbara Stanwyck in “The Thorn Birds,” a TV miniseries she made in 1983 and which also won her the 1983 Emmy and Golden Globe.

How would you like Barbara Stanwyck to be remembered today?

You’d have to ask that of Stanwyck herself. And chances are her answer would be not at all, that she was here for a time, did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and when it was over, it was over.

REFERENCE:

*Uncle Buck was the boyfriend of Stanwyck’s sister Millie, who was one of Stanwyck’s closest friends and biggest supporters. He ran her house for years and for a time, he looked after her son, Tony.

October Events on the Blog

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Hello dear readers, Lara here to update you on what is coming in the month of October on the blog. There are a few very exciting things on the horizon, and here is what you may expect to see this month.

In my last blog update, I spoke of a special surprise to appear on the blog this month. On October 22, in celebration of Joan Fontaine’s 96th birthday, I will present a Q&A that I conducted with the legendary actress a few months ago. This is a huge honor–Miss Fontaine very rarely does interviews, and she was incredibly kind and generous to grant one to me. You will see her answers in response to questions about her childhood, her career, her life now, and her perceptions of herself as an actress and a human being.

I waited until now to let my readers know, because I want to keep the hype to a minimum and emphasize that this Q&A was conducted in honor of a very great actress’s birthday. My motive is very simply to present the reader with this wonderful gesture on the part of Miss Fontaine, and to share with you what she so graciously shared with me. So be sure to tune in on October 22 to honor, with me, the birthday of a great lady.

I am a very proud friend, because a personal friend of mine, Kendra Bean, is a first-time author and her book about Vivien Leigh, entitled Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait,  has already received accolades as one of the top film biographies of Fall 2013.

Kendra has agreed to a formal interview with Backlots, and I am very much looking forward to talking with Kendra about the book, the process of which I have watched, as a friend of Kendra’s, since its inception. Stay tuned for what promises to be a very insightful interview with Kendra about Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

Victoria Wilson, the author of the new Barbara Stanwyck biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True 1907-1940 (known in classic film circles lately as simply Steel-True), has also graciously agreed to an interview. Classic film aficionados have been anxiously awaiting this book for over a decade–15 years in the making, Steel-True covers the first 33 years of Barbara Stanwyck’s life, and consists of a whopping 1056 pages. We are in for the biography of the century.

The interview will be conducted toward the end of the month, and will appear on the blog a few weeks before the book’s release on November 12.

Watch your showers and stay away from those birds, everyone, because Hitchcock Halloween is fast approaching! If you haven’t yet signed up, please do so and I will add you to the list. You can write about anything you like related to Hitchcock–his life, movies, technique–and I am quick to welcome submissions about the Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well. It will take place on October 31, for one day only, so let me know what you would like to write about and get those submissions in by the 31st!

That’s the news for October! See you soon!

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!

LIVE FROM THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL, DAY 3: Jane Fonda’s Handprint Ceremony, “On Golden Pond,” “The Lady Eve,” “Mildred Pierce”

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Day 3 started with a bang, as the first event of the day was a very special one. Jane Fonda was scheduled to have her hand and footprints put in the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, right alongside those of her father, Henry Fonda. The event was very crowded, and the security tight and closely monitored. For obvious reasons, this is to be expected at an event for a major celebrity, especially one who is as politically controversial as Jane Fonda. Once all attendees successfully passed the security screenings, the event began. We saw a number of major celebrities in attendance, including Jim Carrey, friend and 9 to 5 costar Lily Tomlin, brother Peter Fonda, and longtime friend Maria Shriver. Jane Fonda’s son gave a keynote address, followed by warm words from Lily Tomlin and Maria Shriver. My friends and I happened to be in a spot where we could see Jane behind the scenes as the speeches were read, and she was clearly very emotionally moved. Because of the massive crowd, pictures were hard to get. Here are a few pictures from the official TCM collection of the event.

Jane and Peter Fonda sit next to their father's hand and foot prints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Jane and Peter Fonda sit next to their father’s hand and foot prints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

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Putting her hands into the cement.

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Finishing the prints.

The ceremony slowly began to break up after Jane’s prints were sufficiently down in the cement, and we began to prepare for the next event–a screening of On Golden Pond (1981) introduced by Jane, clearly the woman of the day. She told some beautiful stories about the filming,  particularly relating to her relationship with Katharine Hepburn on set. Jane Fonda was the perfect person to introduce the film, as she had a position as actor and producer on the film as well as being Henry Fonda’s daughter. It was wonderful to hear her talk.

This widescreen print magnified the lush beauty of the photography, shot on location in New Hampshire with breathtaking shots of the fall leaves and loons. It is a simple story, taken from the stage play about Norman and Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda), an elderly couple dealing with the effects of age. Norman’s failing health and grumpy personality alienate everyone around him, but Ethel is devoted to him and loves him unconditionally and with all of her soul. Norman and their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) have a severely damaged relationship due to Norman’s inability to be a demonstrative father, and much of the movie deals with their healing process as Norman nears death. It is a beautiful movie on so many levels. The relationship between Norman and Ethel is one that I think everyone hopes they will have with their spouse as they age together, and watching Hepburn and Fonda together is so touching that the mere thought of it provokes tears.

Next up was the brilliant comedy The Lady Eve, another in the Fonda family pantheon. Henry Fonda plays Charles, the heir to a beer fortune who, unbeknownst to him, gets mixed up with a father and daughter pair of card sharps on a cruise ship. He ends up falling in love with the daughter Jean (played by Barbara Stanwyck), and when Charles finds out who she is, he breaks off the relationship. To get him back, Jean collaborates on an elaborate plan to pose as the Lady Eve Sidwich, fictional niece of wealthy Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith. “Lady Eve” and Charles fall in love all over again, and Charles is none the wiser that this is the same woman with whom he had broken up on the cruise ship.

This is a classic screwball comedy by the brilliant Preston Sturges, who has a unique and specific style that leaves its mark on any movie he makes. As film historian Carrie Beauchamp said at the beginning of the screening, Sturges’ films center on dialogue and a hand-picked, stellar cast. The supporting cast in The Lady Eve is especially good, with Sturges mainstay William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, and Charles Coburn playing small but significant roles.

Below is a scene which Roger Ebert called the sexiest scene ever on film. The Hays Code forced filmmakers to be cleverer with their depiction of sexual or steamy content, and this scene is a prime example of how a scene can be extremely charged without the two leads ever even hugging or kissing.

Next on the agenda was Mildred Pierce (1945) with special guest Ann Blyth, Veda in the film. By all accounts that I have heard, Ann Blyth is one of the nicest celebrities in Hollywood, and she certainly showed that tonight. Gentle and sweet, she is the complete polar opposite of her character in Mildred Pierce. Robert Osborne interviewed her about her time in the movies, and she spoke of nothing but good memories of Joan Crawford, a celebrity who often gets a bad rep in Hollywood gossip circles.

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Robert Osborne interviews Ann Blyth.

Mildred Pierce is another wonderful ensemble movie, though the plot centers around the relationship between Mildred (Joan Crawford) and her devotion to her daughter Veda, who proves to be a spoiled, ungrateful child with an evil streak. The supporting cast includes such character actors as Jack Carson and the witty and hilarious Eve Arden, who pops up and provides some oft-needed comic relief every now and then.

This was the third time that I had seen Mildred Pierce on the big screen, and it never fails to impress me. It is wonderful on the small screen, wonderful on any medium, but there is nothing like the big screen for this movie. Everything is accentuated and magnified, and Veda’s evil is all that more powerful.

For a previous post I have written about the costumes of Mildred Pierce, click here.

Stay tuned tomorrow as Backlots puts the blame on Mame, with a review of Gilda!

Scandal On Film: “Illicit” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and “Baby Face” (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck has an affair with married politician Adolphe Menjou, and subsequently has his baby, in “Forbidden” (1932).

From her first forays into sound film, Barbara Stanwyck was known for her portrayals of strong, gutsy, and independent women. In Illicit, she sleeps with her boyfriend without intent of marriage. In Forbidden, she carries out an affair with a married politician–then gives birth to his child. In Baby Face, she plays a fiery and motivated woman who works her way to the top of a company, entirely through sexual favors. Unapologetic about defending themselves and using guile and sensuality to their advantage, Stanwyck’s characters embodied the spirit of the pre-code era and threw the Catholic establishment into a rage.

Though studios were generally at liberty to film the content they wished (before 1934, censorship decisions were left to state boards), they were ultimately concerned about profit. The Great Depression was taking its toll on the movie business, and with budgets and salaries cut, no one could afford to take the chance of a movie bombing. Catholic groups, including the Catholic Legion of Decency, were handing out lists of films to boycott, and the films of Barbara Stanwyck often appeared at the top of the list. With everyone struggling to stay afloat, it was the moral crusaders threatening boycott who won out the vast majority of the time. When Illicit was released, some local censor boards barred any mention even of its title.

Two young lovers, happy simply living together without marriage, face the societal pressure to marry. Anne (Barbara Stanwyck) is reluctant to, as she thinks it will ruin their spark. Dick (James Rennie) is more inclined, but he respects Anne’s wishes. As the societal pressure begins to come from their own families, they finally do marry–but just as Anne had predicted, their marriage  renders them dull toward each other and their marriage begins to fail.

Local censor boards in New York required a good deal of cutting to appease the powerful Catholic moral forces in the state before the release of Illicit, and some cuts were so drastic that parts of the storyline were altered. Many censor boards cut overt references to the couple’s intimacy, and required less suggestive angles to hide any implied immorality on the part of Dick and Anne. The drinking in the movie was also of concern to the censors, who wanted it taken out as it did not “progress the story.” New York was also one of the censor boards objecting to the title of the film, but ultimately the title stayed.

On the heels of Illicit, which understandably sparked a major outcry among religious conservatives and moralists, came Forbidden, potentially an even more scandalous film than its predecessor.

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A young librarian, Lulu, meets and falls in love with Bob, a married politician. When she becomes pregnant with his child, she cuts contact with him so as not to burden him or ruin his rising career. But when he shows up at her house one day, her life unravels. For the sake of appearances, she and Bob devise a plan to pose the child as an orphan to be adopted by the Bob and his wife. His wife, none the wiser, gleefully adopts the baby and she is raised as her daughter. Lulu, initially posing as the governess of the child, is let go by the wife for lack of experience. The daughter grows up without ever knowing who her mother was. However, Lulu and the Bob never stopped loving each other, and due to circumstance, she ends up at his deathbed and he dies holding her hand.

Upon its release in 1932, Forbidden was hailed as a “screen masterpiece” by an Italian jury of film professionals and government officials at an international film screening in Milan. It features many of the hallmarks of Frank Capra’s later works, and is a superbly crafted melodrama. However, when Columbia asked for a re-issue in 1935, the request was denied. In “glorifying adultery,” the film was very much in violation of the code. The code further stipulated that any wayward woman was to be punished for her ways, and Forbidden did just the opposite–depicting Lulu as self-sacrificial and noble in her actions toward the politician and their daughter.

One of the last films to be made pre-code was also one of the most risqué. In fact, it is often said that Baby Face might have been the Catholic establishment’s last straw before the implementation of the Production Code, as the suggestions are so explicit that it leaves very little to the imagination.

Lily Powers is a working class girl who runs off to New York and progresses up the corporate ladder by sleeping with all the necessary men. She is involved with none of them, using them only as tools for her own success. She eventually marries a man for his money, but doesn’t realize the way she really feels about him until the end. She is portrayed as a smart, cunning, and resourceful woman, and her use of men to get what she wants is shown as a positive and almost necessary trait.

The original cut of Baby Face was deemed too inappropriate for state censorship boards in 1933, and failed to pass the New York board due to its unabashed sexual content. Changes were made to comply with the up-and-coming production code, including a modified ending with Lily losing everything and atoning for her sins, living a modest life in her hometown. But the censors could remove little without damaging the entire movie, as the sexual content is the very thing that drives the story forward.

Another unique factor in this movie is the relationship between Lily and her best friend Chico, an African American woman from her hometown. The two join forces and run away to New York, and are fiercely loyal to each other throughout the movie. Interracial relationships of any kind were extremely rare in any film prior to the lifting of the production code in 1968, and this relationship between Lily and Chico is a lovely note in the film that serves to soften the hardened character of Lily into an emotional, feeling human being with a treasured best friend.

See you next time!