Today is the birthday of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990). Over her 60 year career, Stanwyck played in every conceivable kind of picture, including some very funny comedies (The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire), although I don’t think of her as funny. I think of her archetypal genre as noir, and the first Stanwyck movie that pops into my head invariably is Double Indemnity (1944) because, va-va-voom. But her most dependable, bread-and-butter movies may well have been westerns. She made them throughout her career, with a wide variety of directors in a wide variety of circumstances. Her urban toughness served her well in westerns — when she points a gun at someone, she always looks like she means business. And she could ride. And she looked very good with her hands on her hips cutting someone down to size in her Brooklyn accent.
I don’t pretend to have captured them all here, but these are the ones I’ve happened to enter in my notebook. Warning: we always include spoilers!
Annie Oakley (1935)
This movie is pretty perfect. Despite her big city accent, Stanwyck is well cast as Annie Oakley , if for no other reason than that she came to be associated with westerns over the succeeding decades of her career. We are conditioned to accept Babs in a fringe jacket, a cowgirl hat rakishly cocked to one side, as she squints down the barrel of a rifle. As in the later musical Annie, Get Your Gun, the focal point of the movie is her romance with a fellow sharpshooter (in real life it was Frank Butler, but here he is fictionalized for some reason into one “Toby Walker”). Melvyn Douglas plays her manager, the equally fictional “Jeff Hogarth”. Pert Kelton and silent comedy vet Andy Clyde are in the cast; it was directed by George Stevens.
Union Pacific (1938)
An epic topic worthy of producer/director Cecil B. DeMille’s usual epic treatment. The usual historical story mixed with a love triangle, this one featuring Joel McCrea as a railroad cop, Stanwyck as a train engineer’s feisty tom-boy daughter (with the worst Irish accent I’ve ever heard, in what may be the worst performance of her career); and Robert Preston as an old army buddy of McCrea’s, who’s now in league with the bad guys…he partners with Brian Donlevy to ply the workers with booze, whores and gambling so they wont get to Utah first and win the competition against the rival Central Pacific. Lots of Indian fights. No less than two spectacular train wrecks. After the first train wreck the only people left alive are….McCrea, Preston and Stanwyck!
Then there is a really demented scene where railroad cop McCrea is the good guy — busting the head of a labor agitator! It’s very weird to find yourself on McCrea’s side, kind of insidious in a way. At the end of the scene after McCrea foils their strike, the workers actually return to their shovels and sing “I’ve been working on the railroad”! In the end Donlevy accidentally shoots Preston, leaving McCrea free to get Stanwyck.
The Golden Spike is driven by a robber baron who tried to thwart this event. I found the epilogue—a shot of a modern train speeding down the track, quite moving. A celebration of human endeavor; we don’t seem to do that anymore.
Gorgeous Technicolor production, directed by John Farrow. A historical epic sent against the founding of California. The prologue is one of the most beautifully kitschy segments I’ve ever seen, accompanied by a campy song about California, with lyrics by Yip Harburg.
It starts on a wagon train going west. Stanwyck plays a painted lady who is a pariah on the train. Ray Milland is the wagonmaster who treats her like dirt just as everyone else does, although he eventually makes a play for her and is spurned. She vows revenge for the way she’s been treated. The only person who is nice to her is Barry Fitzgerald, an old Irishman who is going west to start a vineyard. 700 miles east of California, news of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill reaches them. Everyone goes crazy, leaves their stuff behind, and rushes west by themselves so they can pan for gold, leaving only Milland (who has been injured by one of them) and Fitzgerald, who only cares about his grapes.
When they finally reach San Francisco, Stanwyck is a singer in her own saloon, but Milland wins it from her in a card game (a strange, alien card game). She doesn’t mind so much—she’s now the kept woman of a weasel named Captain Coffin. The movie shifts now in an unfortunate way…Stanwyck becomes the bystander in a war between Coffin and Milland, instead of her own character. Coffin, a former slavetrader, now has a plan to prevent statehood so California will become an independent republic—with himself as emperor. The rest of the film concerns Milland’s efforts to thwart him, and Coffin’s efforts to get Milland out of the picture (not stopping at murder). Milland is finally victorious, although it is Stanwyck’s bullet that gets him. Milland is off to a short prison stretch for deserting the army and Stanwyck promises to wait for him. The plot is convoluted—it might have worked better with a more epic length and more compelling male stars.
The Furies (1950)
This is Anthony Mann’s first western. A sort of hybrid, it’s also what they used to call a “women’s picture”. Stanwyck the very strong-willed daughter of self-made rancher Walter Huston. (This was his last role before he died yet he’s very lively in it!)
“The Furies” is the name of their ranch, yet as always there is more than a hint of Greek style tragic fate at work. An Elektra Complex? Their relationship too close? Not a problem until other romances creep in to drive a wedge between them. Stanwyck has two boyfriends in her life. A Mexican squatter on the ranch—played by Gilbert Roland, and written and played with a respect for his ethnic identity completely unique for the time. And Wendell Corey is a gambler with a claim against the ranch—Huston had killed his father for a piece of the land. Neither of these men work out very well, leaving Babs humiliated. (Mann is brilliant at making such humiliation palpable—at one point Corey pushes her head down into a wash basin).
Meanwhile, Huston starts his own relationship with a wonderfully hateful Judith Anderson. The two plan to get married and she is clearly going to push Stanwyck off the ranch. Stanwtyck does what we would all like to do—throws a pair of scissors at the woman’s face, permanently disfiguring her. Huston retaliates by hanging Stanwyck’s Mexican boyfriend. She vows revenge. She does an old-fashioned takeover scheme, maneuvering to buy all his cattle and pays him off in his own self-minted scrip, which is worthless, so the sale won’t help him save his ranch. When she succeeds, he is so proud of her, they reconcile. But then he is shot by the mother of the Mexican he hung. Ah, Fates! Ah, Furies!
Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan in this late RKO offering. An ungodly patchwork of: a) location shooting with the principals; B) location shooting using stand-ins in extreme long shots; C) process shots; and D) very cheesy exterior sets in the studio. And the lighting is so bad in many scenes that even I noticed. (Mostly teepee interiors harshly overlit from no apparent source). Though in Technicolor and featuring major stars, the combined effect of the technical incompetence and cheesiness is beneath that of even a B picture.
The plot is of a sort we associate with B movies of the 30s as well. Stanwyck comes with her father with a thousand head of cattle from Texas to their new Montana spread. It’s the last day to renew their title. Rustlers/Indians immediately cause a stampede, killing the father. Stanwyck and her foreman (a Gabby Hayes type named Chubby Johnson) are captured by Indians so they can’t refile their claim. They later learn that it was taken over by a neighboring cattle baron, who collaborates with a faction within the Blackfeet tribe. Fortunately there is another faction within the tribe, whom Stanwyck works with.
Meanwhile Reagan appears throughout the picture to be one of the bad guys, a hired gun for the cattle baron. He turns out to be a secret agent for the army, going undercover to bust the collaboration with the Indians (in particular a purchase of 200 rifles for them). In the end he reveals himself and Stanwyck and he come together. The two factions of Indians battle—and all the bad guys die.
Maverick Queen (1956)
The mighty have fallen. This one is for Republic Studios — technically making it a B picture. Saloon owner Stanwyck (with weird lipstick) is running with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, helping them rob trains and rustle cattle. Sundance is her man but she is dissatisfied with him. Barry Sullivan comes to town claiming to be Jeff Younger, cousin of the famous outlaws. They let him in on the fringes of their gang and Stanwyck falls for him. He turns out out be a Piinkerton man in disguise and Stanwyck sides with him as he angles to nab the outlaws. Some beautiful shots of Colorado mountains, all things considered.
Forty Guns (1957)
Written, directed and produced by Samuel Fuller, this is not only one of the most gorgeously shot black and white films I’ve seen (especially for its gorgeous shot compositions—up there with Ford, Welles?) but also a bit of a camp hoot—a close kin with another of my favorite “Lady’s Westerns” Johnny Guitar. Stanwyck is the mistress of a massive ranch, who rides everywhere at the head of a column of no less than 40 mean cowboys. It is both surreal and full of Freudian sexuality. There’s even a theme song that goes “She’s a hard ridin’ woman with a whip….”
Into town (Tombstone, AZ) ride three Federal bounty hunters, all brothers (Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry and a third one —a kid). Hank Worden is the simple-minded blind marshall. Stanwyck’s bad guys, led by her wild kid brother, shoot the marshall in the leg for sport and then commence to shoot up the town. Sullivan, who is recognized, scares off the 40, and then pistol whips the drunken kid. A chain of events follows. Sullivan is here to serve papers on a deputy who committed a crime, and bring him in. Both the sheriff (Dean Jagger) and deputy are in Stanwyck’s pocket. When the deputy is in custody, the sheriff shoots him so that he won’t testify. (In typical Sam Fuller fashion this is very graphic — the guy froths at the mouth).
Then Sullivan and Stanwyck begin a romance – he saves her in a spectacular tornado and then they “talk” on the barn floor. Later, in town, a trap is laid for Sullivan – his kid brother unexpectedly saves him. (A spectacular stunt as the gut-shot gunman tumbles to the street from a second story window). The crook’s body is displayed in store window like he was one of the Clantons (see any movie about the Gunfight at the OK Corral). In another scene, the sheriff (who has a masochistic obsession with Stanwyck) shows his jealousy for Sullivan, and realizing he is bested, hangs himself.
Meanwhile Gene Barry has been romancing the gunsmith’s sex-starved daughter—much hilarious Freudian business here. On their wedding day, Barry is murdered by Stanwyck’s kid brother, who has been released. The kid is put in jail and escapes with his sister as hostage. Sullivan, ice cold, shoots them both. Later we realize she is OK. Sullivan is such a good shot he shot her right where he wanted to!
Sullivan is about to leave town in his buckboard, and then Stanwyck comes running down the street, having exchanged her black cowboy outfit for a Victorian dress, meek as you please, and jumps on the wagon. Shrew Tamed!
Trooper Hook (1957)
Joel McCrea as a cavalry soldier who rescues Stanwyck from Indians. He is a sergeant in charge of a patrol. We open on a battle with a band of Apaches. The soldiers find Stanwyck among the prisoners. She had been a captive, was made the squaw of the chief, and now has a small son by him. McCrea is ordered to return her and the boy to her white husband (John Dehner). Lots of prejudice and animosity towards the boy from everybody along the way. (This an early movie for such a liberal message. It was independently produced).
A stagecoach picks up folks along the way. Royal Dano as the stage driver. Earl Holliman as a young trouble-loving cowpoke. Edward Andrews as a rich man. And an old Spanish woman and granddaughter. The stage breaks a wheel and they stuck. Then some Apache captives escape the soldier’s encampment. Holliman rides to warn the stagecoach and held defend it. They parlay with the Indians and mange to escape (McCrea threatens to kill the chief’s kid — a bluff). When they get to their destination the racist husband doesn’t want the boy. Fortunately he dies (killed by Indians) and McCrea gets the prize — Stanwyck.
The Big Valley
This tv series, which ran from 1965 through 1969 was without a doubt my first exposure to Barbara Stanwyck. (I am too young for the original run, thank you, but it played in re-runs throughout my childhood and beyond). Television was a godsend for actors of her generation when they got too long in the tooth for starring film roles any more. Still, Stanwyck was one of the very few classic era movie stars to make a go of it in her own series. It may have been because she was so at home in the western genre, so associated with it, and westerns were so popular at the time. And, yes, Stanwyck was a star of the first magnitude. In The Big Valley, she played Victoria Barkley, matriarch of the Barkley ranch (a kind of female version of Lorne Greene on Bonanza). Richard Long, Lee Majors and Linda Evans played her children. (Strikingly each would go on to a successful series of their own: Long on Nanny and the Professor, Majors on The Six Million Dollar Man, and Evans on Dynasty — and Stanwyck would return herself on Dynasty, The Thorn Birds and The Colbys. I remember my dad having a certain amount of scorn for The Big Valley, citing as evidence for the decline of the western, and its essential de-evolution into soap opera (a valid point, the same thing even happened later with Gunsmoke, of all shows.) At any rate, it kept Stanwyck before the camera, and audiences were grateful.