Early in this impassioned biography, film scholar Dan Callahan makes a bold claim for his subject: Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) was “perhaps the finest or at least most consistently fine actress of her time in American movies.” Given that “her time” was Hollywood’s Golden Age, this may sound hyperbolic — a writer eager to justify his painstaking analysis of the artist’s every extant performance. Few would argue with the statement that Stanwyck was the best Hollywood actress who never won an Oscar (she was nominated four times), but “the finest” of all?
Yet in his magisterial “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” David Thomson rounds out the Stanwyck entry with a one-word sentence: “Terrific.” In the mid-1990s, when Time Out magazine polled directors, critics and other experts to mark the centenary of film, Stanwyck took second place (to Katharine Hepburn) in the best actress category. Another tribute to Stanwyck is the propensity of directors to work with her again and again: Frank Capra directed her five times, ditto William Wellman. Preston Sturges paid her the ultimate compliment: After seeing what she made of the shoplifting heroine of his script for “Remember the Night” (1940), he told her he would write a “great comedy” specially for her. It’s the kind of rash promise to which Stanwyck, an ex-chorus girl from Brooklyn, might have replied, “Aw, tell it to the Marines.” But a year later, Sturges came through with “The Lady Eve,” in which Stanwyck plays two roles, one an American cardsharp, the other an English milady, with such brio that her leading man, Henry Fonda, hasn’t got a chance.
“Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman” is not a traditional biography. It’s only loosely chronological, with the author preferring to group his discussions of films by genre (“Wild West Stanwyck”) or director (“Two for Sirk”). This approach allows him to focus on what really interests him about his subject: not Tinseltown gossip, but what Stanwyck accomplished on screen. In Callahan’s readings, then, her two failed marriages and the rift between her and her adopted son matter not for their scandal quotient but because of how she used them professionally. Of her performance as the self-sacrificing mother in “Stella Dallas” (1937), he writes that the hard-working Stanwyck “didn’t like reality and neither does Stella, but Stanwyck had an outlet and Stella does not.”
Stanwyck never signed a long-term contract with a studio. This non-exclusivity goes far to explain why she kept coming home from Oscar night empty-handed (until, that is, the Academy awarded her an honorary Oscar in 1982). Whichever studio she happened to be working for had little incentive to mount a vote-for-Stanwyck campaign. But freelancing gave her a measure of control over the roles she played. She made some excellent choices, and her natural style of acting has aged well. The result is that, unlike the movies of her rival Bette Davis, which ooze campiness, many Stanwyck vehicles — especially “The Lady Eve,” “Double Indemnity,” “Stella Dallas,” “Remember the Night” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” — are as watchable today as they were on first release.
I wish Callahan had made use of Elizabeth Kendall’s book on romantic comedy of the 1930s, “The Runaway Bride,” which is full of shrewd insights on Stanwyck, Capra and Sturges. And for all his thoroughness, Callahan occasionally skimps on crucial moments in the movies he examines: the mirror scene in “The Lady Eve,” for example, in which Stanwyck raises slangy screwball patter to its apogee; and a tricky scene in “Stella Dallas” when Stella pretends to be a bad mother so that her daughter will agree to go live with her rich father and stepmother-to-be, who will give the girl everything that money and social position can bestow.
Still, Callahan’s enthusiasm informs every page, and he makes a good case for what Billy Wilder, who directed Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” said about Stanwyck when she received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement award in 1987. “In this business, you aren’t supposed to say anyone was the best.” Pause. “She was the best.”
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.