by Matthew Kennedy
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan; University Press of Mississippi
I recently gave myself the assignment of TiVoing Barbara Stanwyck films as they pass through Turner Classic Movies. I wanted to get a better feeling for her gifts as an actress, and see if she was as steadfastly good or great as I suspected. The results are in, and time and again she comes through, making something interesting out of material beneath her. Breakfast for Two, B.F.'s Daughter, These Wilder Years, Lady of Burlesque, and No Man of Her Own are hardly immortals, but their common star is. She offered more depth of character with one arched eyebrow and a slightly off-kilter line reading than anyone else in Hollywood. She willed herself into excellence when mediocrity surrounded her. As a result, her legacy is spectacular.
In Dan Callahan's most welcome new book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, he takes major risks. Billed as a biography, it more approximates a career memorial. Chronology is loose here, as Callahan bundles Stanwyck's films by genre or director, with particular attention paid to her work with Frank Capra, William Wellman, Billy Wilder, and Preston Sturges, and genre highlights in screwball comedy, westerns, and film noir.
While The Miracle Woman largely dedicates itself to Stanwyck in front of the camera, Callahan gives us tantalizing asides. Her marriages to alcoholic Frank Fay and distant Robert Taylor are opaque. Her right-wing politics are skirted, as is an association with artist Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood's much younger lover. There is an intriguing May-September relationship with pretty boy Robert Wagner at the onset of his career, while her friendships, social life, and bouts of celibacy are noted in passing. Callahan even pulled smiles out of this reader for insights not specific to his leading lady. His respect for Douglas Sirk, a director who has enjoyed a dramatic rise in reputation over the last quarter-century, is perfectly stated. And I empathize with Callahan's need to announce Agnes Moorehead's Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons as "one of the greatest performances in film history." Also appreciated are his admonishments of the modern film rep and DVD sales force that packages pre-Code titles as deliciously dirty old movies. Really, that line of marketing is awfully tired, though Stanwyck's own Baby Face is probably the best exemplar of what he labels a "quasi-genre."
Callahan soars when he takes aim at Stanwyck's acting and films, so much so that The Miracle Woman's primary value may be as a friendly reference book to pull off the shelf every time you see a Stanwyck picture and wish to hear an erudite, witty voice offer much more than two cents. It's cliche to call her the consummate pro, but there you have it. She not only showed up on time, submitted genially to make-up and wardrobe, knew her lines and hit her marks, she was also at her best on the first take. But she was far more than merely reliable and hard-working. Callahan writes of her with the ever-present respect one shows a great artist, and The Miracle Woman is brimming with penetrating observations. She was "too honest and exploratory to fit into the house style" at MGM. In The Plough and the Stars, he notes that she "puts her full orchestral force behind the word 'burned,' so that it seems to explode outward like a shower of sparks." In Ball of Fire, "We see a lacquered fingernail pounding out the beat to Gene Krupa's 'Drum Boogie' on a curtain, and the nail seems sexy, a little contemptuous, impatient. Even when she's only acting with the fingers of one hand, Stanwyck manages to give a nuanced performance." In All I Desire, "Stanwyck is so sensitive that she almost vibrates with barely controlled feelings." She turned 30 in 1937, "and if something was lost in the passing of time – a certain vulnerability, a certain type of raw exposure – this loss was more than compensated for by gains in confidence and control."
Callahan's writing is often humorously piquant, hitting the reader like a lime spritz in a margarita. He notes a bed cuddle between Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in Night Nurse that is "as sweetly and suggestively dyke-alicious a bit as any in Stanwyck's career." He is obviously a fan, but not a blind one. I have rather more fond remembrances of Clash By Night, East Side, West Side, and Sorry, Wrong Number than he does, but his critical judgment is so well-informed and persuasive that I might have to take another look.
Stanwyck once said, "I've always had a burning desire to be the best of all, and though I know most things you dream of pass by you, I'll go on working that same desire til the last role I play." Indeed she did, though a decline is in clear sight during her television years, from The Big Valley in the 1960s to The Colbys in the 1980s. Callahan can summon very few kind words for her small-screen career, Emmys notwithstanding. Once again, we benefit from Callahan's good taste. We lovers of Stanwyck would much prefer to remember her as Baby Face's sexy opportunist, Double Indemnity's black widow, or The Lady Eve's irresistible temptress. In short, we want Stanwyck in vehicles worthy of her. We want her hissing and purring, sincere and ironic, her exact intentions forever clouded by a complex nature.