A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

Victoria Wilson

Language: English

Pages: 1056

ISBN: 0684831686

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Fifteen years in the making, the first volume of the full-scale astonishing life of one of our greatest screen actresses whose career in pictures spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound—the first to delve deeply into Stanwyck’s rich, complex life and to explore her extraordinary range of eighty-eight motion pictures, many of them iconic; her work, her world, her Hollywood through an American century.

Frank Capra called her “The greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known.” She was one of its most natural, timeless, and underrated stars. Now, Victoria Wilson gives us the first full-scale life of Barbara Stanwyck, whose astonishing career in movies (eighty-eight in all) spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound, and lasted in television from its infancy in the 1950s through the 1980s—a book that delves deeply into her rich, complex life and explores her extraordinary range of motion pictures, many of them iconic. Here is her work, her world, her Hollywood.

We see the quintessential Brooklyn girl whose family was in fact of old New England stock . . . her years in New York as a dancer and Broadway star . . . her fraught mar­riage to Frank Fay, Broadway genius, who influenced a generation of actors and comedians (among them, Jack Benny and Stanwyck herself ) . . . the adoption of a son, embattled from the outset; her partnership with the “unfunny” Marx brother, Zeppo, crucial in shaping the direction of her work, and who, together with his wife, formed a trio that created one of the finest horse-breeding farms in the west; her fairy-tale romance and marriage to the younger Robert Taylor, America’s most sought-after— and beautiful—male star.

Here is the shaping of her career with many of Hol­lywood’s most important directors: among them, Frank Capra, “Wild Bill” William Wellman (“When you get beauty and brains together,” he said, “there’s no stopping the lucky girl who possesses them. The best example I can think of is Barbara”), King Vidor, Cecil B. De Mille, and Preston Sturges, all set against the times—the Depression, the New Deal, the rise of the unions, the advent of World War II—and a fast-changing, coming-of-age motion picture industry.

And here is Stanwyck’s evolution as an actress in the pictures she made from 1929 through the summer of 1940, where Volume One ends—from her first starring movie, The Locked Door (“An all-time low,” she said. “By then I was certain that Hollywood and I had nothing in common”); and Ladies of Leisure, the first of her six-picture collaboration with Frank Capra (“He sensed things that you were trying to keep hidden from people. He knew. He just knew”), to the scorching Baby Face, and the height of her screen perfection, beginning with Stella Dallas (“I was scared to death all the time we were making the pic­ture”), from Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and the epic Union Pacific to the first of her collaborations with Preston Sturges, who wrote Remember the Night, in which she starred.

And at the heart of the book, Stanwyck herself—her strengths, her fears, her frailties, her losses and desires; how she made use of the darkness in her soul in her work and kept it at bay in her private life, and finally, her transformation from shunned outsider to one of Holly­wood’s—and America’s—most revered screen actresses.

Writing with the full cooperation of Stanwyck’s family and friends, and drawing on more than two hundred interviews with actors, directors, cameramen, screen­writers, costume designers, et al., as well as making use of letters, journals, and private papers, Victoria Wilson has brought this complex artist brilliantly alive. Her book is a revelation of the actor’s life and work.

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reappeared as The Life of the Party and still later as Havana Widows). Zanuck adapted a melodrama about the Spanish-American War (Across the Pacific). He wrote about the San Francisco earthquake (Old San Francisco) and the first horseless carriage (The First Auto). In one year Zanuck had written nineteen Warner Bros. features. His name appeared on the screen so frequently that a stockholder stood up at a meeting and asked Jack Warner about the expenses for the story department: “Why the hell do

$400,000 a year from radio and pictures, a far cry from his first act in vaudeville as “Ben Benny—Fiddleology and Fun,” in which he told jokes and sang “After the Country Goes Dry, Good-Bye, Wild Women, Good-Bye” and “I Used to Call Her Baby but Now She’s Mother to Me.” The Jack Benny Hour was the first to spoof best-selling novels, hit plays, and motion pictures, starting with Grind Hotel. The Benny show did a takeoff of The Crowd Roars with Jack in the role played on-screen by his good friend

August 1976. “almost no direction”: Bonita Granville oral history, Columbia University, June 1959. “We’ll do no such”: Jerry Lane, Motion Picture, November 1936, 70. “He had the true”: Andrew Sinclair, John Ford, 67. “I can take a thoroughly”: Ibid., 147. “He didn’t want big”: Eyman, Print the Legend, 158. He went for the truth: Darryl Hickman to author, March 16, 2007. “I wouldn’t say we stole”: Andrew Sinclair, John Ford, 22. Ford often worked with: Eyman, Print the Legend, 162. “I am

Mrs. Fay. By 5:00 p.m., Barbara was on the train back to New York and to Burlesque, which was to begin its road tour the following night. Barbara couldn’t have cared less that Arthur Hopkins said his star’s wedding to Fay was “a bad marriage.” She believed she was “nothing” until Fay had come into her life. Everything she knew “of etiquette and the niceties of life, the correct way to talk and walk and meet people and entertain: everything [she knew] of books and art and people and the world

guys will go crazy.” Mae had struggled to get this far as an actress—working at Warner and with Wellman. If she refused Cagney, she feared all her work would “be out the window.” She thought of calling her agent, but she couldn’t get to a phone. “Jimmy was sitting right there and being persuasive.” “I’ll do it. Once,” she said. “I’ll trust you not to hurt me and that’s all. Just for the guys. Okay.” Wellman was ready to reshoot the scene. Mae and Jimmy sat down at the breakfast table again,

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