Friday, January 1, 2010

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #1

I recently read a description of Barbara Stanwyck in a reference book that stated she "was neither a great actress nor did she ever give a bad performance."

I'll agree with the latter portion of that statement, as Stanwyck -- even in a lesser film -- gives it her all. But as for her not being a great actress, that's just crazy talk. Think of her range, particularly during the 1940s -- intense drama, screwball comedy, film noir -- and how she excelled in all of them. The great writer/director Preston Sturges said that he barely had to direct her in "The Lady Eve" because her instincts were so good.

Stanwyck is endlessly fascinating. Respected as a professional, loved by fans, she is my favorite actress of the 1940s.

Oddly enough, I arrived late to the Stanwyck fan club. It wasn't until I began to watch more of her films and revisit some I had already seen that I could see how immense her talent was. During the 1930s, it seems like she was always playing the hard-working, defiant working class girl. She honed her craft, built a solid reputation and started earning better roles. Her first Oscar nod for "Stella Dallas" in 1937 validated this hard work, and she hit her peak during the 1940s.

This holiday season, Turner Classic Movies showed "Remember the Night" from 1940, featuring Stanwyck as a shoplifter and Fred MacMurray (shamefully underrated as an actor by many people) as a lawyer who slowly falls for her the Christmas holidays. Written by Sturges, the film is being positioned by TCM as a new holiday classic. While I think the film just misses being great, it's certainly a fine film that has held up well, with the two stars making it worthwhile.

The next year was a banner one for Stanwyck and showcased her versatility. In Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," she plays Ann Mitchell, a cynical reporter whose "creation" is a nobody (Gary Cooper). He threatens suicide to protest what's wrong with society. This wordy but well-crafted story features fine pairing of the stars and the Capra touch.

The two stars are even better in the comedy "Ball of Fire," in which Cooper plays a straight-laced professor working on an encyclopedia. For an entry on slang, he ends up meeting Stanwyck's nightclub performer Sugarpuss O'Shea (love that name!), and she begins to loosen the stodgy guy up. This amusing twist on Snow White is pure fun, even if the slang of 1941 is outdated today. Another Oscar nomination came her way for "Ball of Fire," although it should have been for her other 1941 release "The Lady Eve."

In this one, she plays a con artist who meets millionaire Henry Fonda (above) on a cruise ship and sets out to win him and his money, realizing that she really does love him. Written and directed by Sturges, "Eve" allows Stanwyck to showcase all of her skills. Witness an early sequence, in which she uses her compact mirror to watch the other women on the ship try to meet Fonda in the dining room. Her running commentary is a sheer delight, delivered perfectly, and the ends by showing how she manages to succeed where others could not. Then she's flirty and funny as she lures Fonda down to her stateroom. Later in the film, she has a fine dramatic moment when she realizes she's losing what she really wants. How she shifts her emotions in the matter of seconds is delicate and moving. Finally she has great fun when exacting revenge, and it's just as much fun for the audience to watch -- plus she has one moment when she enters a room and looks absolutely dazzling. It's a great, great film worth watching over and over again.

Her material over the next few years wasn't the best, but she again demonstrated range in the saga "The Great Man's Lady," in which she ages to 100, and has some fun in "Lady of Burlesque."

Then came an iconic role for Stanwyck -- Phyllis Dietrichson in "Double Indemnity." Writer/director Billy Wilder wanted her for the role, and when she hesitated, he reportedly asked her, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" Stanwyck took the part, donned a blond wig and nailed the role of a lonely wife who lures Fred MacMurray (above and at his best) into knocking off her husband for the insurance money.

Stanwyck gets to be vulnerable, conniving, seductive -- a lethal combination in a brilliant performance. Key sequences include the one where she and MacMurray first meet, and their verbal volleys are like foreplay, while she feigns disinterest while clearly trying to get under his skin. Another is her teary confession to MacMurray of how her husband treats her. She turns cold and determined when it's time to carry out their plan. Again, it's great stuff.

I applaud Stanwyck for doing a 180 and making her next appearance in the comedic "Christmas in Connecticut." This film sets itself up nicely and has a great supporting cast, although the plot turns ridiculous toward the end. Regardless, Stanwyck is a joy to watch as Elizabeth Lane, a home and garden columnist who can't cook or keep house. She's clearly having fun and helping the audience to the same.

Her work again is uneven during the next few years. "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" is a well-made melodrama in which she plays a ruthless woman in a worthless marriage to an alcoholic who carries her secret. She plays opposite Humphrey Bogart in "The Two Mrs. Carrolls," a sometimes gripping story of a man who murders his wives.

But then came my favorite performance of hers -- as Leona Stevenson in "Sorry, Wrong Number." Without doubt it's a tour-de-force, in which Stanwyck plays a pampered invalid who overhears on her phone two men plotting a murder. She tries to report it but slowly realizes she herself may be in danger. First off, Stanwyck is the star, and she's onscreen most of the time. Second, she's in bed nearly the entire time, so her performance comes from the waist up. Third, Leona is not a likable character, and yet Stanwyck must create someone the audience can care about -- which she amazingly does. It's brilliant work, and why she didn't win an Oscar for this is beyond me.

It's a credit to Stanwyck that while her movie career faltered in the 1950s, she kept working, turning to TV during the 1960s and winning several Emmy awards.

But it's during the 1940s that she hit her stride, turning in so many memorable performances and willing to take chances. She's wonderful to watch, and I'll always be a fan.


  1. Thanks for all the wonderful entries on such wonderful leading ladies. I've learned a lot about my favorites and much about others I'm only acquainted with. Like you, I have many film titles to add to my "must watch list." Any plans to do a similar listing with leading men of the 40's? It'd be interesting, and I'd love to read every entry! Q.

  2. Thank you, Q, for reading this series and enjoying it. I certainly had fun putting it together, and I wish I had a month to sit down and watch all of the films I talked about with these great actresses. Next December, I'll be back with another countdown, and it could be leading men of the '40s ... or something similar.

  3. Nice lists you have here. I feel really bad for not seeing enough Stanwyck films. But that being said, her performance in Sorry, Wrong Number is my favourite of hers. Quite beautiful.

  4. Thank you, Andrew, for the compliment. Please see more Stanwyck films. I know you'll enjoy them. I have a friend who says "Sorry, Wrong Number" is his favorite film from the 1940s.