Ruby Stevens was born on July 16, 1907, at 246 Classon Avenue. 246 Classon isn’t there any more—the even-numbered side of the block between DeKalb and Willoughby is where Pratt is now—and Ruby Stevens was soon subsumed as well, by her stage name. In his new book, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan assesses her life and especially her performances, in the kind of prose—swift, and matter-of-fact about emotional complications—familiar to admirers of his writing for this publication and others.
Dan concludes that Stanwyck was the most open, raw, unshowy and affectless of the Golden Age movie queens, in both her performances and offscreen attitudes; he builds a compelling personal narrative out of her contradictions: her bootstrapping tough-broad self-sufficiency (this slum kid was a rabid Ayn Rand fan and loved her Westerns best of all), her self-effacing, almost masochistic love life, and her radical spontaneity on-screen. On Sunday the 19th, Dan will be at the Museum of the Moving Image to sign copies, and introduce screenings of Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve and Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns.
How did your understanding of Stanwyck’s work and understanding of Stanwyck’s biography end up deepening and informing each other over the course of writing?
As I watched all of her films for the book, in rough chronological order, and researched her life, which at a certain point really did narrow to making those movies and giving her all to them, I was struck by how hard it must have been to sustain her all-out sensitivity on screen over the 60 or so years of her career. Her private life was in many ways disappointing, or unsatisfying, but she never closed up for the camera. She had the discipline to keep herself open without ever being destroyed by the hard knocks that kept coming at her in life. That’s why, to me, what she achieved really is a kind of miracle.
Both of the movies Stanwyck did for Preston Sturges—Remember the Night, which he wrote, and The Lady Eve, which he wrote and directed—feature some of her most charismatic, not to say sexually available, work, which then eventually shades into some of her most masochistic emoting, during story twists that involve a sort of cleansing self-abnegation for the sake of romantic love (as opposed to mother-love, as in Stella Dallas). Of course female self-sacrifice was both a moral and aesthetic norm in the American movies of the time, but what would you say is distinctive about the way Stanwyck played these storylines?
Stanwyck personalized the standard motions of self-sacrifice by suggesting that she wasn’t trying to please society or please men but to appease her own personal standards or demons. She never plays just one emotion or one line of thought in her best work but always has a few thoughts and emotions running on different tracks, and when they collide with each other, they feel like epiphanies, like an orchestra playing. Most actresses, even the very best ones, would wind up with a total confused mess if they tried to keep as many plates in the air as Stanwyck does. It took skill and practice on her part, but by 1940 and 1941, she was capable of all that and more.
In looking so comprehensively at Stanwyck's acting you're also spending a lot of time with her scene partners, Golden Age contract players filling out the movies, and so on. In some cases—like when she acts opposite Robert Ryan in Clash By Night—I know it must have been one of the anticipated pleasures of taking on a project like this. But who surprised you, for better or for worse? Stars that rose or fell in your estimation, and lesser-known figures who piqued your interest?
Over the course of 80 or so movies, you do get to know and love and sometimes loathe a lot of people. It's always fun to see performers like ZaSu Pitts reappear from film to film. Helen Broderick is just a scream in a minor comedy called The Bride Walks Out (1936). I loved seeing the vibrant Theresa Harris as Stanwyck's best friend in Baby Face (1933) and then was saddened Post-Code when Harris was segregated away from her in Banjo on My Knee (1936). And Walter Connelly is quite impressive as a kind of court cynic in one of her greatest films, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). But many of her leading men are interchangeable. In her best early films for Frank Capra, Stanwyck often had very weak scene partners, like Ralph Graves in Ladies of Leisure and David Manners in The Miracle Woman, so that she has to create everything herself, or let's say that Capra is really her scene partner in those films. In later worthy movies like The File on Thelma Jordan (1949) and No Man of Her Own (1950), she's stuck with Wendell Corey and John Lund, and so she has to create all by herself again, and she's more than capable of it. She played opposite George Brent several times, and she might as well have been playing with a coat rack. I never liked Stanwyck's second husband Robert Taylor on screen, and researching their marriage and watching her three films with him again did nothing to change that. He's just a source of irritation to me, like a pebble in your shoe. So the mano-a-mano scenes with Ryan in Clash by Night are so impressive after all of these ineffectual men because here at last we have giant meeting giant.
A word should be said for the grabby Irish magnificence of Alan Hale as the drunk Ed Munn in Stella Dallas. Stanwyck does some of her very best work with Hale in that endlessly intriguing film. She certainly had a special chemistry with Henry Fonda, but I was struck by the fact that Stanwyck made three of her best films opposite Fred MacMurray, who never gets written up as a major actor like Fonda does, but with Stanwyck, he's as major as you can get, especially in their last film, which is really his vehicle, Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow (1956). The self-contempt he projects in that movie and Double Indemnity is indelible, as is the more humane work he does in Remember the Night. And watching her match wits with both Walter Huston and Judith Anderson in The Furies is such a joy because she knows that they're in some ways overshadowing her in their scenes together, and she just seems to be enjoying that fact. She was usually generous when it came to other actors. Frankly, though, in so many of her films, Stanwyck is the main event, and even very skilled players like Van Heflin almost disappear next to her.
For each major decade of Stanwyck’s Hollywood career—the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s—what’s the one movie role you wish she had played instead of whoever did?
I would love to see what Stanwyck might have done with Jean Arthur’s part in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939). That’s a masterpiece as it stands, and I love Arthur, but she’s clearly uncomfortable in the role some of the time (which sometimes works in the film’s favor and sometimes doesn’t) and with Stanwyck it would be much more coherent, and much, much tougher. Let’s take ever-competent Loretta Young out of The Stranger (1946) and see how Stanwyck would function acting with and being directed by Orson Welles. She covered practically all of the auteur bases, but she never worked for Hitchcock, so let’s remove breathy Anne Baxter and install Stanwyck into I Confess (1953), where she can confess to a love affair and recreate it with Montgomery Clift. Wearing blonde hair always brings out Stanwyck’s most ruthless side on screen, so I’d love to see how that would work up against Hitchcock’s blond obsession.
You take care to discuss every single feature film in which Stanwyck appeared (as well as her TV credits). What avenues did you have to use to track everything down? What were the hardest things to find?
I had many of these films on tape from when I was a kid and I transferred them to DVD. For the really tough ones, like her disastrous second movie, Mexicali Rose (1929), John Ford’s beautiful and neglected The Plough and the Stars (1936) and André De Toth’s elusive The Other Love (1947), I bought them on eBay. On YouTube, I saw Stanwyck’s first two 70s TV movies, The House That Would Not Die (1970) and A Taste of Evil (1971) and the Stanwyck episodes of The Colbys (the credit sequence for that show is hilarious), and that’s also how I saw the impossible-to-find Always Goodbye (1938), which vanished right after I watched it. I got the ultra-rare and very offensive Red Salute (1935) as an ancient videotape from the New York Public Library. I think Barbara Stanwyck should just have her own channel that plays her films from The Locked Door (1929) to The Night Walker (1964) on a continuous loop. She made at least 20 films that are masterpieces or close to it, and at least another dozen or more that are of real interest. It’s just an unprecedented body of work because the films around her are often so strong, so unusual, so special. As far as great directors go, she really covered the waterfront. The fact that she was also one of the greatest of all performers makes watching all her films just the ultimate aesthetic cinephile treat.