WEIRDLAND: Barbara Stanwyck: a woman who cheated failure

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck: a woman who cheated failure

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in "Babyface" (1933) is “the sweetheart of the nightshift”; “the baby faced siren as fickle as the famed Helen of Troy.” Lily’s teacher, an elderly German cobbler, advises her: “A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men... You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, ‘All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.’ Exploit yourself. Go to some big city... Use men! Be strong! Defiant!”

Barbara Stanwyck believed she was “nothing” until Frank 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 around [her]” she learned from Fay. After staying in the hospital for five days, she, along with her German maid, took the train back to New York and to Fay, who met her at the station and was “wild” with worry about how his wife might look. Barbara said that when she got off the train, Fay thought she “looked more like a corpse than a bride” and took her back to his hotel on Fifty-Seventh Street. A doctor and a nurse were in attendance for the next few weeks as Barbara regained her strength and the weight she had lost. Burlesque was due to close, and Barbara’s understudy finished the run of the play. Frank wanted Barbara to stay at home; he would support her. Barbara was in love, and Fay’s thinking sounded reasonable. Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures saw Barbara dancing at a Celebrity Night at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and offered her a part in a movie.

Frank told Barbara not to take it; she turned down the role. Fay wanted Barbara to be happy, and he knew she would be happiest doing something. He agreed that she should take the role. Cohn gave Barbara a contract for The Gamblers with an option for Columbia Pictures to use her again. Barbara felt a deep gratitude for Fay’s love and guidance and for the way in which she believed he’d educated her. “Everything I know of etiquette, of books and art and people and the world around me,” she said. “I was nothing until Fay came along and I would have been nothing a great deal longer if he had never come along.”

Barbara felt how much Frank Capra liked actors. She’d worked with two directors who didn’t. “You can almost smell it,” she said. She sensed that Capra liked women as well, “not in a lecherous way... and he didn’t demean them. If you were a hooker [in the picture], you were a hooker, but you better be a good one. That’s how you made your living.”

When she wasn’t in front of the camera, she was almost mousy... But when the camera rolled, she turned into a huge person. —Frank Capra

Capra wanted to make it easy for Barbara. What Willard Mack did for her on the stage, Frank Capra was doing for her in pictures. “He wanted me to be great and made me know it.” She felt “babied and pampered” by him. And in his understanding of her, she knew, “he wanted me to be free,” and made it possible for her to reach deep into herself. Capra was falling in love with her. Barbara admired Capra, she “revered him as a director. But I’m not sure that she welcomed his love,” said Bernds. “He seemed more smitten with her than she was with him.” Despite Fay’s possessiveness, his worsening alcoholism, and his explosive rages, he’d known from the beginning that Barbara couldn’t have children of her own. He accepted that —in fact, he didn’t want children— and adored Barbara anyway. Barbara has been left sterile by the brutal abortion she'd had at fifteen.

When production started on The Miracle Woman, stories began to appear in the newspapers that Barbara and Fay’s marriage was over. During one of Barbara’s heated arguments with Cohn, he let it be known that without Fay’s belief in her and his persistence she wouldn’t even be on the screen. “What do you mean?” Barbara asked. Cohn told her what Fay had kept from her for years, that after Mexicali Rose, Fay had offered to pay Barbara’s salary if Cohn would give her another chance. When the news of the Fay-Stanwyck separation finally leaked out, Barbara said to the press, “I feel that we are better apart.”

The romantic aspect of Barbara’s relationship with Capra had ended a year before he made 'It Happened One Night.' Claudette Colbert was offered the picture after Capra was turned down by Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, Constance Bennett, Bette Davis, and Carole Lombard. Colbert agreed to make the picture “mostly to work with Clark” (Gable’s part was originally written for Robert Montgomery, who had turned it down).

The Runaway Daughter (Red Salute, 1935) tried for all of the elements of It Happened One Night. Robert Young was the soldier, under contract to Metro and on loan-out (Mayer’s advice to Young to improve his career: “Put on a little weight and get more sex”). What Runaway Daughter didn’t have was the spirit and buoyancy, the wit and sexy kick, of Capra’s It Happened One Night. The journey of general’s daughter and buck private isn’t one toward freedom; her notions don’t transform him or set him free from his regimented small thinking. Instead, his beliefs—conventional to the core—ideas she’s been raised on and attempted (almost successfully) to flee, reel her back.

Annie Oakley was the first role to come Barbara’s way since Red Salute. Barbara “wanted so much to play Annie Oakley,” she said, “because she had courage.” Barbara would be using Annie Oakley’s own saddle, with its silver mountings and hand-carved leather, lent to her for the picture by the daughter of one of Oakley’s closest friends. “I’m scared stiff of snakes, spiders, flies, of anything that crawls, I’m only brave when I’m being paid for it,” she said.

"I know I have reached the stage where I wouldn’t place my whole trust in any man. Not unreservedly,” said Barbara. “I do trust women. I really believe that women are capable of disinterested friendship, of undivided loyalty, of keeping faith.”

During the dinner party at the Trocadero, Robert Taylor thought Barbara was “cute with her reddish hair; her tan, her figure”; that she was “quiet and hard to get.” Taylor knew Barbara hadn’t been out for some time, that it was the first time in seven years she’d been to a party and been paired off with a man. Robert Taylor was self-possessed but self-effacing. His modesty impressed Barbara; he seemed so regular in the midst of the irregularity of Hollywood and the fuss being made about him.

Barbara was impressed with Bob “mainly because he was not impressed with himself,” she said. She liked his unself-conscious modesty. Bob had been voted the most popular movie star ahead of Nelson Eddy, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, and Loretta Young. Clark Gable was eighth on the list; Greta Garbo, tenth; Fred MacMurray, eleventh.

Taylor was in love with Irene Hervey, a Metro contract player. During the drive, Bob told Barbara all about Irene. She was twenty-six, a California girl who, like Bob, had been picked by Ben Piazza, Metro’s scout and casting director, and placed in Oliver Hinsdell’s studio dramatic school. Bob and Irene had been seeing each other for quite a while, and Irene wanted to get married. Louis B. Mayer had made it clear that it was better for Bob’s career to remain unmarried. It was more important for his fans to think of him as an “eligible bachelor” than it was for him to be married—and unavailable to women. Irene was impatient with the situation and had started to see Allan Jones. It was Irene and Jones that Bob had been watching for at the Trocadero the night of the Marxes’ party.

Allan Jones greets wife Irene Hervey on her arrival at North Western station in Chicago, March, 1941

Barbara and Bob played tennis together, went horseback riding, and danced at the Cocoanut Grove. They had dinner and a movie with Joan Crawford and Franchot, still newlyweds after six months of marriage. Sometimes Bob played the piano, and Joan and Franchot sang; Barbara was the audience.

Barbara and Bob were from opposite ends of the universe, though their grandparents were Scotch-English (his) and Scotch-Irish (hers); Bob and Barbara came from different worlds, but in basic ways they found likenesses: when they were children, circumstances led them to be alone, Barbara because she didn’t have a mother, Bob because he didn’t like to play with other children. Like Barbara, Bob was remote. Barbara was shy and assumed she was not really welcome. Bob was private, not outgoing or talkative; he too assumed he wasn’t liked. She’d allowed herself to be taken in hand by wiser, more experienced professionals like Willard Mack, Arthur Hopkins, Fay, and Capra who taught her and showed her the way. Bob’s kindness and attentiveness were transforming Barbara. She felt “warm and glowing and happy and wanting to be loved.”

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor shortly before he left for active duty, 1943

Bob Taylor hated to quarrel; he hadn’t grown up around it. His mother and father had loved each other without reservation, selfishness, bickering, or jealousy. “My father,” Bob said, “used to say to my mother almost every day of his life, ‘You are the most beautiful woman in the world to me. Every day we live together, I love you more.’ When Barbara did get angry with Bob, he didn’t argue back. Barbara suffered from moods; she called them her “black Shanty-Irish gloom.” Bob was shy but he liked people and liked to be around them. Barbara seemed to cut them off. Bob was in love with her; he was four years younger than she and prettier, the most sought-after male actor of the moment, bigger than Gable.

“She wasn’t me, that woman,” said Barbara of Stella Dallas. “But she was a woman I understood completely. She was good; cheap but good, and I could play her.” Barbara saw Stella as “a woman who cheated failure. One who eagerly paid the full measure for what she wanted from life.” “Stanwyck’s test was undeniable,” said King Vidor. “She put everyone else to shame.” Barbara’s versatility was undisputed.
-"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940" (2013) by Victoria Wilson

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