Do you remember The Lady Eve? What about Double Indemnity? These are just two of the great films produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age. One thing that both these classic films had in common was that they starred Barbara Stanwyck.
Barbara Stanwyck made strides in both film and television. She played a variety of roles and established herself as a talented leading lady and character actress.
She passed away in 1990 and left behind a significant body of work. But how did she starts as an actress? What was her struggle like to reach stardom?
It wasn’t an easy journey, and she had to overcome many hurdles to become one of Hollywood’s most prominent actresses.
Let’s learn about what happened to Barbara Stanwyck – who gave everything to acting…
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn on July 16th, 1907. She wasn’t from a showbiz family, and her early life was full of tragedy and struggles.
Her mother died when Ruby was only 4. She pushes off a moving streetcar and died immediately. Ruby’s father couldn’t deal with the grief of losing his wife and eventually abandoned his children.
As a result, young Ruby had to learn to take care of herself at a young age. She raises by her elder sister – who is a showgirl. However, most of the time, Ruby leave her own devices and had to navigate through life without adult supervision.
She quit school in her early teens and began her career as a chorus girl. In 1926, she performed as a cabaret dancer in a Broadway production of The Noose. It was around this time that Ruby adopted the stage name “Barbara Stanwyck.”
This stage name inspires by a theatrical poster that read “Jane Stanwyck in ‘Barbara Frietchie.’”
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Barbara Stanwyck began her film career in 1927 playing a dancer in the film Broadway Nights. In 1929, she acted in the film The Locked Door. These film performances went along with her stage performances in Broadway productions.
She soon moved to Hollywood to further her film career. She found a few bit parts in a couple of small films but managed to get her big break in the Frank Capra film Ladies of Leisure. In the film, she played the lead role of “Kay Arnold” a beautiful woman with a mysterious part. The role was unusual for the time and established her as an actress who could play tough and flawed women.
Her beauty was also one of the attractions of the film. In fact, director Frank Capra once remarked that he was so smitten by Barbara Stanwyck that he desired to marry her! It was clear that Barbara Stanwyck was a combination of beauty and talent, and this would help her in her career tremendously.
She starred in several other popular films of the 1930s including Ten Cents a Dance (1931), Night Nurse (1931) Forbidden (1932), Ladies They Talk About (1932), and Annie Oakley (1935). Before she knew it, she had become part of Hollywood’s elite!
THE HIGHEST-PAID WOMAN IN AMERICA
By the 1940s, Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood. In 1941, she played “Jean” in Preston Sturges’ romantic comedy The Lady Eve – alongside Henry Fonda.
This film remains one of Hollywood’s most popular romantic comedy films and is among Preston Sturges’ best films. Barbara Stanwyck’s character is considered one of the best female characters in a romantic comedy.
The film also showed that she had a knack for comic roles and not just drama roles. She continued to be hailed as a beauty icon after The Lady Eve was released. It was clear that she could play roles in which her beauty could entice men – and even manipulate them.
In other words, Barbara Stanwyck was perfect for playing the “femme fatale” character which was now becoming very popular. The 1940s was the age of film noir – mystery films that had lurid themes that were very controversial for the time.
In 1944, she played Phyllis Dietrechson in Billy Wilder’s film noir Double Indemnity. This remains one of her best roles and one of her best films.
In the film, Phyllis plays the wife of Mr. Dietrechson – played by Tom Powers. She has an affair with insurance salesman Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray. She seduces him and convinces him to help her murder her husband! Her performance still holds up to this day and Double Indemnity is one of Hollywood’s best mystery films.
Barbara Stanwyck was reported to have earned $400,000 in 1944. This led to her becoming the highest-paid woman in America!
Barbara Stanwyck continued her film career throughout the 1950s. In the latter half of the decade, she switched her focus to working in television and continued to work on the small screen in the 1960s.
She began with several roles on the show Zane Grey Theatre – based on the stories written by Zane Grey. She also had a short-lived anthology series called The Barbara Stanwyck Show. Each episode featured her character overcoming obstacles. There were hopes that some of the episodes could serve as pilot episodes for spin-off TV series – though none came to fruition. She did, however, get an Emmy award for her performances in the series.
In the 1960s, she played Lieutenant Agatha Stewart on two episodes of the popular crime show The Untouchables. She also played several roles in different episodes of the popular Western series Wagon Train.
Her biggest TV hit was in the Western series The Big Valley in which she played Victoria Barkley. She later had a role in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and played Constance Colby in “Dynasty” and its’ spin-off “The Colbys.”
By the 1970s and 1980s, her focus was solely on acting in television shows and TV movies. She was able to successfully transition and make an impact on this new medium. Receives an Emmy award for her performances in The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds.
She showed audiences that she was multi-faceted and could make strides on stage, in film, and on TV.
BARBARA STANWYCK’S LEGACY
So, what can one learn from Barbara Stanwyck’s career? It’s that you can achieve anything if you persevere. Barbara Stanwyck gave everything to acting and was dedicated to her craft.
Her childhood was difficult, and it seemed unlikely that someone from her background could reach such remarkable heights. In other words, she was an example of The American Dream.
She was a huge advocate for self-reliance and perseverance. She was outspoken about her political views and was a huge critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s push for government assistance. She believed that working hard to attain rewards was “the American way” and that her life was an example that anyone could achieve in America if they worked hard enough.
Barbara Stanwyck As A Huge Fan
It’s no wonder that Barbara Stanwyck was a huge fan of author Ayn Rand. Barbara Stanwyck read Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” and convinced producer Jack L. Warner to purchase the rights to the book. This was before the novel became a huge bestseller. She would later write to Ayn Rand to express her admiration for her novel “Atlas Shrugged.”
No doubt the ideals of Objectivism expressed in Ayn Rand’s books struck a chord with Barbara’s own ideals. In 1944, Barbara joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The organization was dedicated to preserving the American way of life and combatting the ideas of communism – especially in America’s very influential film industry.
It also bears mentioning how Barbara Stanwyck influenced the type of female characters seen in Hollywood films in her day.
Her performances serve as an inspiration for any actress who wishes to play empowered, complex, and flawed characters. She wasn’t afraid to play controversial characters or appear in controversial films. Many of her films challenged the censors and the social attitudes of the time.
One of her earliest controversial films was the film Night Nurse – released in 1931. This film was shocking because it showed Barbara Stanwyck in lingerie and even showed the attempted murder of children – considered extremely shocking for the time. This film led to the creation of the Hays’ Code which created strict rules on what was acceptable to show in Hollywood films.
Though Barbara Stanwyck was known as a conservative, she wasn’t afraid to challenge the puritan ideals of America through her work. In an age where many entertainers are eager not to offend anyone, it’s admirable that an actress without a background in show business wasn’t afraid to work in controversial films. It’s no wonder that she’s considered one of the most versatile actresses who’s ever come out of Hollywood. She played interesting roles throughout her career in both film and television.
Barbara Stanwyck died of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on January 20, 1990, at the age of 82. Her entertainment career had spanned six decades. She remains an icon of Old Hollywood and is an inspiration for many aspiring actresses today.
Are you a fan of Barbara Stanwyck?
Do you think that she’s gotten her due as one of the best actresses during Hollywood’s Golden Age? Or do you think that her work needs to be re-introduced to film fans?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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