The Miracle Woman

by |
02/15/2012 4:00 AM |

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.

3 Comment

  • Wow! This book sounds great–Stanwyck is one of my favorites from that era, and I love movies from the 30s and 40s in general. Everything about them was better, but especially the way roles for women were written. Modern “rom coms” just seem so insipid compared to The Lady Eve or Woman of the Year.

    I haven’t heard of a lot of these movies, and I just hope I can find them somewhere–even Netflix has a very limited selection of old movies. (And I wish movie theaters showed them more often. I saw Bringing Up Baby–my favorite screwball comedy–on the big screen a couple years ago and it was such a treat! It was wonderful to watch it after all these years with an audience!)

  • I am reading this wonderful book right now and it is torture: how can I slow it down to last forever when I am simply dying to get to my favorites and see if Dan sees what I do? As to a film for which I would like to switch out the existing star to see what Miss Stanwyck could do, I offer “Five Graves to Cairo.” Anne Baxter does a very good job as Mouche, and I’m not at all sure that Stanwyck could master the accent, but when I think of what she could have brought to the character — oh, my! And I would have loved to see her reaction when Eric von Stroheim would have waved her back with that damn whisk!

  • One of the great casualties of the rise (and now fall) of the video store was the death of the revival house. When I first moved to NYC’s Upper West Side 40 years ago there were at least seven of these wonderful venues, and on any given day I could enter, pay my fee and see the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck, 20 feet high and glowing. Ever since then it has been my firm belief that movies were made to be seen in the dark with 400 strangers. And especially this is true of comedies. How can seeing a comedy in one’s living room, even with a group of friends, compare to the kind of shared, infectious laughter that audience in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” experienced?