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Hell Bent For Stardom: Barbara Stanwyck, Steel True

Determined to reach her goal despite terrible obstacles.

Determined to reach her goal despite terrible obstacles.

While I’ve always been a big Old Hollywood fan from my youth, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve come to appreciate some of the real greats of the Silver Age. Two male actors who serve as good examples of that are Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. I was simply too fascinated by Bogart as a kid to really pay any attention to them.

The best female example of this is Barbara Stanwyck. While she was an enduring presence in the pop culture world, probably most familiar to me from the long-running The Big Valley, popular during the antediluvian times of my youth, I didn’t really appreciate her magnificent qualities as an actress. It was only when I recently saw her films that I understood her range and force, from wonderfully timed comic performances in Xmas In Connecticut and The Lady Eve to her emotional, dramatic tours de force in such noir thrillers as Double Indemnity and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers. I consider Barbara Stanwyck a powerful, emotional actress who was able to project personality and purpose way and above her diminutive, slight frame.

I therefore read Victoria Wilson’s exhaustively researched, lengthy biography of Stanwyck with a great deal of interest and pleasure. Stanwyck had a harrowing childhood, basically abandoned to a large extent at an early age after her mother’s tragic death, forced to live in different strangers’ homes with periodic interventions by her much older sisters, busy with their own lives and children. Like something from a corny old movie or play, she got into show business in emulation of her older sisters, first working as a dancer and then getting a big break with a small part as an actress where she excelled. She worked her way up through persistence, talent, and a hard boiled willingness to do what it took to succeed, to include dispensing sexual favors. Wilson describes in intricate detail how Stanwyck met her first husband, Frank Fay, a wildly successful vaudevillian considered by many to be the man who invented stand up comedy. Fay was the one who brought Stanwyck to Hollywood, figuring he’d conquer films just like he had Broadway. Reality intervened and Fay reacted by crawling into a bottle all while Stanwyck became increasingly more successful, scoring in one film after another, until her star far outshone his. Wilson describes Fay’s fights with Stanwyck, his increasing alcoholism and insane behavior, and, most unforgivable of all, his abuse of their adopted son Dion.

Wilson relates all these distasteful bits along with thumbnail portraits of other people in Stanwyck’s life both personal and professional, some of them highly informative, most notably about Robert Taylor, Stanwyck’s second husband. Rather than take a narrow gauge approach and focus on the personal detail of Stanwyck’s life, Wilson tries to give a broad picture, to show the actress’s life and career in the context of the United States at the turn of the 20th Century as it entered an era of unprecedented change and upheaval. Stanwyck was very much a part of that change, staking out a career for herself in the still young film industry and making a tremendous go of it. She always worked her hardest, gave nothing less than a hundred percent, walked on set knowing all her lines and everybody else’s too, and made a point of knowing everyone on the crew. Her dedication, professionalism, and talent shine through in every film she made, even pedestrian oaters.

I recommend this book highly, but with one caveat. Like I wrote before, it is lengthy, almost nine hundred pages worth and might prove to be a tough slog for someone who’s not really all that interested in so much information. I kind of nodded off myself when the author extensively described the stables Stanwyck had built on a horse farm. Still, if you’re a real old film buff, I think you’ll find that the trek is worth it.

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