Today is Babs’s birthday, a fitting time to do a little plug for Dan Callahan’s recently released book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman. Stanwyck wasn’t a vaudevillian (our usual hook on this blog) but she was a hair’s breadth away and was intimately connected with several people who were. Her first husband was comedian Frank Fay; her room-mate during her days of struggle was Mae Clarke. Stanwyck herself started out in night clubs and Broadway as a chorus girl. Her evolution was much like Jimmy Cagney’s: from a song and a dance to a meaty acting role on Broadway and thence to Hollywood. Both were prized for the simplicity of their acting, their blunt realism.
If you are looking for a definitive biography, a single, all-encompassing reference book to learn about Stanwyck’s life both public and private, Callahan’s would not be it. Callahan is a film critic. While he, of necessity, does include tidbits about her real life along the way, the real thrust of the book is a series of loving, blow-by-blow breakdowns of nearly all her performances. The book is organized by director (Stanwyck worked with nearly all of the greats of the classic studio era), and then by genre. Thus the book is highly idiosyncratic and subjective. Callahan is a man of strong opinions. And he is without a doubt expert — he has watched these performances with what seems to be an eagle eye, alert to minute nuances with an attention to detail and sensitivity at times almost manic. Still, most of what he offers, in the end are strong opinions, and opinions may be disagreed with. (I can’t go along with his rather sweeping dismissal of Capra, for example). This book, I think, is thus not for the neophyte or newbie seeking a primer on Stanwyck’s life and work, but more for the seasoned fan, looking for an interesting perspective and new insights. One morsel he offered was depressing indeed — in fact it practically sent me into a tailspin. The author reports that when he was working on the book, an informal survey of his friends (all young adults) revealed that very few of them even knew who Barbara Stanwyck was. I usually use her as a landmark to help me tell the story of Frank Fay, assuming that she, one of the biggest stars of the 20th century (and a star as late as the 1980s) would be a universally known entity, a household word. How hard is my job going to be now, if people have never even heard of Stanwyck????