Barbara Stanwyck in "Ball of Fire" (all film stills made by the author for Hyperallergic)

Barbara Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire” (all film stills made by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s a sure sight for sore eyes to see the name “Stanwyck” emblazoned on a cinematheque marquee. Then again, not everyone today may be familiar with this name — but the uninitiated have every reason to stop in for one of the afternoon or evening double bills playing all through December at Film Forum. Why? The organization’s retrospective of Barbara Stanwyck’s acting career illuminates a refreshingly brusque leading lady whose dynamism always exceeded her daintiness and whose roles so often overcame staid or objectifying templates of female leads in classical Hollywood films.

In some ways, it’s a peculiar move to organize a retrospective around an actor rather than a director. Virtually all renowned actors have found employment under various talents, and thus their work can’t lay claim to the type of binding thread that usually determines the shape of directorial retrospectives — formal (dis)continuities, mise en scène, genre, or style. The retrospective of an actor beholds but a single face, voice, and silhouette, all subject to the slow drag of time, complimentary in some cases, destructive in others.

Stanwyck in “Bitter Tea” (click to enlarge)

These attributes are all magnified and hypostatized, played for popular consumption and accredited with a kind of idiosyncratic mystique when the actor is not merely an actor, but a star. And Barbara Stanwyck is a star.

Stanwyck’s mystique, however, is not immediately accessible. The currency of stars in the era of classical Hollywood could be reduced to and recognized by an easily citable and often eroticized quality, usually a unique trace of some sort adorning the face. Claudette Colbert had her chestnut eyes, Lauren Bacall her felinity, Cary Grant his dark, deep-set eyes and butt-chin dimple, and Greta Garbo her masklike countenance (plaster-like and Platonic, as Barthes remarked).

Stanwyck, who started in show business first as a Ziegfeld girl (a performer in a risqué vaudeville act) and then as a Broadway star (most famously in the 1927 hit Burlesque), could be summarily ‘known’ for her coquettish smile, her figure, and her seductiveness — after all, her first major film role was the part of a kind of escort girl in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930), and her legs were given ample attention in plenty of other films.

Despite this relatively crude and objectified picture of Stanwyck, what made her a veritable star was her poignant tenacity, her toughness, and her knack for playing the roles of women who cut against the grain of most precedents for female roles in film.

Stanwyck’s women of the ’30s and ’40s introduced a counterpoint to the ‘vamp’ characters of the ’10s and ’20s, most famously epitomized by Theda Bara in several roles, Margaret Livingston in Sunrise (1927), Louise Brooks in Die Büchse der Pandora (1929), and Brigette Helm in certain scenes of Metropolis (1927). The vamp type was a paranoiac filmic portrayal of the emancipated, cosmopolitan ‘new woman’ emergent in the early decades of the 20th century. She tended to behave like a demon or a machine — an automatism programmed to seduce and destroy men who was often, at the film’s end, either destroyed herself or exorcised of her supposedly pathological impulses. Films featuring the vamp character excluded or marginalized female subjectivity, emphasizing instead the plight of the fallen male characters and encouraging sympathetic response to their misfortune.

Stanwyck in “Baby Face” (click to enlarge)

Stanwyck’s notorious Baby Face (1933) provides one such counterpoint to this reduction of femininity as mechanized perniciousness. In Baby Face, Lilly Powers (Stanwyck), a self-styled disciple of Nietzsche (direct references to Nietzsche were cut upon release — Film Forum is showing the uncut restoration), runs away from her abusive home along with Chico, her bootlegger father’s black housemaid. Lilly and Chico hop a freight train to New York, where Lilly finds her way into the Gotham Trust, a generic business environment set to the anxious beat of Depression-era desperation.

At the Trust, Lilly is shown serially, teasingly leading higher and higher positioned employees (and finally employers) into back offices or rest rooms for what could only be suggestively conveyed by a clever little visual device accompanied by a carnal rendition of the jazz standard “Summertime.” Following each of these closeted encounters, we see Lilly rise to a more accomplished office, from the lower-level personnel department to the top-floor executive suite. “She used her power over men to get what life denied her,” reads some text from an old trailer for the film.

Although Baby Face’s identity-political implications are no doubt ambivalent and subject to more than one reading (not simply an affirmative feminist one), Stanwyck’s Lilly is in much greater possession of her sexuality than her seductress predecessors in film history. Lilly marks something of an inversion of the old paradigm: she resembles something closer to the hero and empathetic subject of the film, her ‘victims’ almost indifferently accepted as collateral for her history of use and abuse at the hands of various men, intimations of which are presented in the first ten minutes of the film.

In the rollicking and playful Ball of Fire (1941), Stanwyck plays Sugarpuss O’Shea, a mobster’s moll who slyly enters ranks with a phalanx of timorous academics in order to evade police detection. Gary Cooper deftly leads the pack as prim Professor Bertram Potts, an inelastic scholar of English who is busy conducting a study on modern slang, for which Sugarpuss amusingly provides and explains a good deal of 1930s street jargon (in return for room and board, and unwitting shelter from the police).

As the critic Molly Haskell observed, Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss effectively upends the pasty professors’ sclerotic male camaraderie and regenerates them, most dashingly in a scene in which Sugarpuss teaches the profs the conga. Such ‘errant’ behavior leads the old chambermaid that cooks and cleans for the professors to brand Sugarpuss as “the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple.” Indeed, watching Sugarpuss’s insurgent influence on the studious cloister, one is reminded of Emma Goldman’s phrase, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in “Lady Eve”

Besides offering a colorful — although literally monochromatic, for the most part — selection of some of Stanwyck’s most engrossing performances, and presenting a view of the vintage horizon of proto-feminism in mainstream Hollywood films (seemingly since abandoned), the Stanwyck retrospective at Film Forum also plainly has some great films on show. One such gem is Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), a politically sobering and formally sumptuous romance set against a backdrop of civil war, and a much more complex film than it initially lets on. Another highlight is Preston Sturges’s hilarious The Lady Eve (1941), in which Stanwyck plays a confidence girl who swindles a dorky Henry Fonda but falls for him in the process.

The confidence girl seems to be a role well worn by Stanwyck. She’s got that kind of nimble recalcitrance, a smartness that seeps through into each of her performances and successively conjures a different kind of woman, each one approximating a counter-tune. At every turn, it seems, Stanwyck’s women get their way.

STANWYCK continues at Film Forum through December 31.

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Michael Blum

Michael Blum is a freelance writer and designer. He is interested in books, video games, interaction design, virtual and augmented reality, movies from Taiwan, and sweet potato fries. His writing has appeared...

2 replies on “Barbara Stanwyck, Proto-Feminist Hollywood Star”

  1. Stanwyck has been my hero since I was eight. BTW, the song that keeps playing as Lily seduces her way to the top in “Baby Face” is “Saint Louis Woman” not “Summertime”. The great, and sadly underused, Theresa Harris who played Chico, also sang bits of the song throughout the film.

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