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Barbara Stanwyck

She had a 60-year career in film and television and is best known for her strong female roles in films.

Filmography

1927
Broadway Nights (uncredited)

1929
The Locked Door
Mexicali Rose

1930
Ladies of Leisure

1931
Illicit
Ten Cents a Dance
The Stolen Jools
Night Nurse
The Miracle Woman

1932
Forbidden
Shopworn
So Big!
The Purchase Price

1933
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Ladies They Talk About
Baby Face
Ever in My Heart

1934
Gambling Lady
A Lost Lady
The Secret Bride

1935
The Woman in Red
Red Salute
Annie Oakley

1936
A Message to Garcia
The Bride Walks Out
His Brother’s Wife
Banjo on My Knee
The Plough and the Stars

1937
Internes Can’t Take Money
This Is My Affair
Stella Dallas
Breakfast for Two

1938
Always Goodbye
The Mad Miss Manton

1939
Union Pacific
Golden Boy

1940
Remember the Night

1941
The Lady Eve
Meet John Doe
You Belong to Me
Ball of Fire

1942
The Great Man’s Lady
The Gay Sisters

1943
Lady of Burlesque
Flesh and Fantasy

1944
Double Indemnity
Hollywood Canteen

1945
Christmas in Connecticut
Hollywood Victory Caravan

1946
My Reputation
The Bride Wore Boots
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

1947
California
The Two Mrs. Carrolls
The Other Love
Cry Wolf
Variety Girl

1948
B.F.’s Daughter
Sorry, Wrong Number

1949
The Lady Gambles
East Side, West Side

1950
The File on Thelma Jordon
No Man of Her Own
The Furies
To Please a Lady

1951
The Man with a Cloak

1952
Clash by Night

1953
Jeopardy
Titanic
All I Desire
Blowing Wild
The Moonlighter

1954
Witness to Murder
Executive Suite
Cattle Queen of Montana

1955
The Violent Men
Escape to Burma

1956
There’s Always Tomorrow
The Maverick Queen
These Wilder Years

1957
Crime of Passion

1958
Trooper Hook
Forty Guns

1962
Walk on the Wild Side

1964
Roustabout
The Night Walker

Awards

Stanwyck was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award four times (1937 – Stella Dallas, 1941 – Ball of Fire, 1944- Double Indemnity, 1948 – Sorry Wrong Number).

She never won, but received an honorary award in 1982.

My only problem is finding a way to play my fortieth fallen female in a different way from my thirty-ninth. ~ Barbara Stanwyck  

Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, of English and Scottish descent. She was the fifth and youngest child of Catherine Ann (née McPhee) and Byron E. Stevens, working-class parents. Her father was a native of Lanesville, Massachusetts and her mother was an immigrant from Sydney, Nova Scotia. When Ruby was four, her mother died of complications from a miscarriage after a drunken stranger accidentally knocked her off a moving streetcar. Two weeks after the funeral, her father, Byron Stevens joined a work crew digging the Panama Canal and was never seen again. Ruby and her older brother, Malcolm Byron (later nicknamed “By”) Stevens, were raised by their eldest sister Laura Mildred, (later Mildred Smith; born April 23, 1886 – died 1931), who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1931, aged 45. When Mildred got a job as a showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in a series of foster homes (as many as four in a year), from which young Ruby often ran away.

Ruby toured with Mildred during the summers of 1916 and 1917, and practiced her sister’s routines backstage. Watching the movies of Pearl White, whom Ruby idolized, also influenced her drive to be a performer. At the age of 14, she dropped out of school to take a job wrapping packages at a department store in Brooklyn.  

Soon afterward, she took a job filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone office for $14 a week, which allowed her to become financially independent. She disliked the job; her real goal was to enter show business, even as her sister Mildred discouraged the idea. She then took a job cutting dress patterns for Vogue magazine, but because customers complained about her work, she was fired. Her next job was as a typist for the Jerome H. Remick Music Company, a job she reportedly enjoyed. However, her continuing ambition was to work in show business, and her sister finally gave up trying to dissuade her.

Barbara Stanwyck, year unknown

Barbara Stanwyck, year unknown

In 1923, a few months before her 16th birthday, Ruby auditioned for a place in the chorus at the Strand Roof, a nightclub over the Strand Theatre in Times Square. A few months later, she obtained a job as a dancer in the 1922 and 1923 seasons of the Ziegfeld Follies, dancing at the New Amsterdam Theater. For the next several years, she worked as a chorus girl, performing from midnight to seven a.m. at nightclubs owned by Texas Guinan. She also occasionally served as a dance instructor at a speakeasy for gays and lesbians owned by Guinan. One of her good friends during those years was pianist Oscar Levant, who described her as being “wary of sophisticates and phonies.”

Billy LaHiff, who owned a popular pub frequented by showpeople, introduced Ruby in 1926 to impresario Willard Mack. Mack was casting his play The Noose, and LaHiff suggested that the part of the chorus girl be played by a real one. Mack agreed, and after a successful audition gave the part to Ruby. She co-starred with Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. As initially staged, the play was not a success. In an effort to improve it, Mack decided to expand Ruby’s part to include more pathos. The Noose re-opened on October 20, 1926 and became one of the most successful plays of the season, running on Broadway for nine months and 197 performances. At the suggestion of either Mack or David Belasco, Ruby changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck by combining the first name of her character, Barbara Frietchie, with the last name of another actress in the play, Jane Stanwyck.

Stanwyck became a Broadway star soon afterward, when she was cast in her first leading role in Burlesque (1927). She received rave reviews, and it was a huge hit.

Around this time, Stanwyck was given a screen test by producer Bob Kane for his upcoming 1927 silent film Broadway Nights. She lost the lead role because she could not cry in the screen test but was given a minor part as a fan dancer. This was Stanwyck’s first film appearance.

While playing in Burlesque, Stanwyck was introduced to her future husband, actor Frank Fay, by Oscar Levant. Stanwyck and Fay were married on August 26, 1928, and soon moved to Hollywood.

Barbara Stanwyck and Rod La Rocque in The Locked Door (1929)

Barbara Stanwyck and Rod La Rocque in The Locked Door (1929)

Stanwyck’s first sound film was The Locked Door (1929), followed by Mexicali Rose, released in the same year. Neither film was successful; nonetheless, Frank Capra chose Stanwyck for his Ladies of Leisure (1930). Numerous prominent roles followed, among them the children’s nurse who saves two little girls from being gradually starved to death by Clark Gable’s vicious character in Night Nurse (1931); So Big!, as a valiant Midwest farm woman (1932); Shopworn 1932; the ambitious woman from “the wrong side of the tracks” in Baby Face (1933); the self-sacrificing title character in Stella Dallas (1937); Molly Monahan in Union Pacific (1939) with Joel McCrea; Meet John Doe, as an ambitious newspaperwoman with Gary Cooper (1941); the con artist who falls for her intended victim (played by Henry Fonda) in The Lady Eve (1941); the extremely successful, independent doctor Helen Hunt in You Belong to Me (1941), also with Fonda; a nightclub performer who gives a professor (played by Gary Cooper) a better understanding of “modern English” in the comedy Ball of Fire (1941); the woman who talks an infatuated insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband in Double Indemnity (1944); the columnist caught up in white lies and a holiday romance in Christmas in Connecticut (1945); and the doomed wife in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). She also played a doomed concert pianist in The Other Love (1947); the piano music was played by Ania Dorfmann, who drilled Stanwyck for three hours a day until she was able to move her arms and hands to match the music. Stanwyck was reportedly one of the many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), although she did not receive a screen test. In 1944, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States.

Many of her roles involved strong characters. In Double Indemnity, Stanwyck brought out the cruel nature of the “grim, unflinching murderess”, marking her as the “most notorious femme” in the film noir genre. Yet, Stanwyck was known for her accessibility and kindness to the backstage crew on any film set. She knew the names of their wives and children. A consummate professional, when aged 50 she performed a stunt in Forty Guns. Her character had to fall off her horse and, her foot caught in the stirrup, be dragged by the galloping animal. This was so dangerous the movie’s professional stunt person refused to do it. Her professionalism on film sets led her to be named an Honorary Member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.

William Holden and Stanwyck were friends of long standing. When Stanwyck and Holden were presenting the Best Sound Oscar for 1977, Holden paused to pay a special tribute to her for saving his career when Holden was cast in the lead for Golden Boy (1939). After a series of unsteady daily performances, he was about to be fired, but Stanwyck staunchly defended him, successfully standing up to the film producers. Shortly after Holden’s death, Stanwyck recalled the moment when receiving her honorary Oscar: “A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish.”

When Stanwyck’s film career declined in 1957, she moved to television. Her 1961 series The Barbara Stanwyck Show was not a ratings success but earned her an Emmy Award. The Western series The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to 1969 on ABC, made her one of the most popular actresses on television, winning her another Emmy.  She also appeared in the television series The Untouchables with Robert Stack (1962–1963), and in four episodes of Wagon Train as three different characters (1961–1964).

Richard Chamberlain and Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds (1983)

Richard Chamberlain and Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds (1983)

Years later, Stanwyck earned her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds. In 1985 she made three guest appearances in the primetime soap opera Dynasty prior to the launch of its short-lived spin-off series, The Colbys, in which she starred alongside Charlton Heston, Stephanie Beacham and Katharine Ross. Unhappy with the experience, Stanwyck remained with the series for only one season (it lasted for two), and her role as Constance Colby Patterson would prove to be her last. Earl Hamner Jr. (producer of The Waltons) had initially wanted Stanwyck for the lead role of Angela Channing in the 1980s soap opera Falcon Crest, but she turned it down and the role went to her best friend, Jane Wyman.

While playing in The Noose, Stanwyck reportedly fell in love with her married co-star, Rex Cherryman. Cherryman had become ill early in 1928 and his doctor advised him to take a sea voyage to Paris where he and Stanwyck had arranged to meet. While still at sea, he died of septic poisoning at the age of 31.

On August 26, 1928, Stanwyck married her Burlesque co-star, Frank Fay. She and Fay later claimed they disliked each other at first, but became close after Cherryman’s death. A botched abortion at the age of 15 had resulted in complications which left Stanwyck unable to have children, according to her biographer. After moving to Hollywood, the couple adopted a ten-month-old son on December 5, 1932. They named him Dion, later amending the name to Anthony Dion, nicknamed “Tony”. The marriage was a troubled one. Fay’s successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom. Fay was reportedly physically abusive to his young wife, especially when he was inebriated. Some claim that this union was the basis for A Star Is Born. The couple divorced on December 30, 1935. Stanwyck won custody of their son, whom she had raised with a strict authoritarian hand and demanding expectations. Stanwyck and her son were estranged after his childhood, meeting only a few times after he became an adult.

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in His Brother's Wife (1936)

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in His Brother’s Wife (1936)

In 1936, while making the film His Brother’s Wife (1936), Stanwyck became involved with her co-star, Robert Taylor. Rather than a torrid romance, their relationship was more one of mentor and pupil. Stanwyck served as support and adviser to the younger Taylor, who had come from a small Nebraska town; she guided his career, and acclimatized him to the sophisticated Hollywood culture. The couple began living together, sparking newspaper reports about the two. Stanwyck was hesitant to remarry after the failure of her first marriage. However, their 1939 marriage was arranged with the help of Taylor’s studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a common practice in Hollywood’s golden age. Louis B. Mayer had insisted on the two stars marrying and went as far as presiding over arrangements at the wedding. She and Taylor enjoyed time together outdoors during the early years of their marriage, and owned acres of prime West Los Angeles property.  

Stanwyck and Taylor mutually decided in 1950 to divorce, and after his insistence, she proceeded with the official filing of the papers. There have been many rumors regarding the cause of their divorce, but after World War II, Taylor had attempted to create a life away from Hollywood, and Stanwyck did not share that goal. Taylor had romantic affairs, and there were unsubstantiated rumors about Stanwyck having had affairs as well. After the divorce, they acted together in Stanwyck’s last feature film, The Night Walker (1964). She never remarried and cited Taylor as the love of her life, according to her friend and Big Valley co-star Linda Evans. She took his death in 1969 very hard and took a long break from film and television work.

Stanwyck’s retirement years were active, with charity work outside the limelight. She was awakened in the middle of the night inside her home in the exclusive Trousdale section of Beverly Hills in 1981 by an intruder, who hit her on the head with his flashlight, then forced her into a closet while he robbed her of $40,000 in jewels.

The following year, in 1982, while filming The Thorn Birds, the inhalation of special-effects smoke on the set may have caused her to contract bronchitis, which was compounded by her cigarette habit; she was a smoker from the age of nine until four years before her death.

Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990, aged 82, of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She had indicated that she wanted no funeral service. In accordance with her wishes, her remains were cremated and the ashes scattered from a helicopter over Lone Pine, California, where she had made some of her western films.

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