Archive for Barbara Stanwyck

On Barbara Stanwyck: Babs of Broadway, Burlesque and the Big Valley

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens, 1907-1990) is a July 16 baby. I’ve done many smaller articles about her various films as well as a book review  — high time for a full proper post, especially since there are so many aspects of her career that touch on frequent content themes of this blog. By now, I have been thoroughly steeped in her career. My wife is a major fan of hers as well, so with her largely driving the process, I’ve ended up seeing very nearly ALL of Stanwyck’s movies — and it’s a lot of movies. It includes more obscure stuff like pictures from her Pre-Code period and her late western B movies, in addition to all her well known stuff.

While Stanwyck was never in burlesque per se it would remain a part of her image through the first couple of decades of her film career. That’s less well remembered nowadays; I would imagine that, of the minority of the public who remember her at all, their first thoughts are of noir, melodramas and the tv work. (Don’t bother, as some of you will, to protest that Stanwyck has not been forgotten. Author Dan Callahan devotes a section of his Stanwyck book to talk about an informal canvas he made of millennial friends — well-educated, fairly sophisticated New Yorkers — most of whom had no idea whom Stanwyck (the highest paid woman in the U.S. in 1944) was, in even a vague sort of way. You’d be shocked to learn what major figures of the past today’s young people have never heard of. I spoke to a room full of NYU kids in the performance studies department — none of whom had heard of Mae West. But enough with the digressive diatribe.) Stanwyck’s association with burlesque occurred because she started out in a highly related occupation, as a chorus girl in speakeasies and nightclubs and Broadway revues.

Orphaned at age four, a middle school drop out, a brawler, a smoker by age nine, a runaway at 10 and 11, Stanwyck followed into her sister Mildred’s footsteps by becoming a chorus girl. She’d made a study of it, watching her sister’s performances for years, and learning the routines. When she was 16 she got her first job at the club on the Strand Roof. It is said that she was in the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922 and 1923, although IBDB doesn’t list her there. She performed and taught dancing in Texas Guinan’s nightclubs. In 1924 she danced in the Paul Gerard Smith revue Keep Kool, which featured Hazel Dawn, Charles King, and Johnny Dooley. Through these years her room-mate and close friend was fellow chorus girl Mae Clarke, also to become a movie star in the early 30s. Both were to be cast in their first dramatic roles in the 1926 play The Noose, which had been stunt cast with real chorus girls. The play was a hit, running for nine months.

Stanwyck in “The Noose” with Rex Cherryman and Ann Shoemaker

It was at this stage that she took the stage name Barbara Stanwyck (having been billed as Ruby Stevens, previously). In 1927 she starred in the hit play Burlesque, which ran for ten months. In this show she played the leading lady of a burlesque company. Going forward she would be playing such characters, as opposed to living the life.

This might be my favorite picture of the pair. He’s trying very hard to be cheerful, and her expression says “Get me the hell out of here!”

In her first film role (and only silent one) she and Ann Sothern, played fan dancers in Broadway Nights (1927). The following year she married big time vaudeville and Broadway star Frank Fay, who was 16 years Stanwyck’s senior.  (For the longest time, I thought Stanwyck hadn’t done vaudeville. But I just came across two items on my own blog! She did a sketch with Fay at the Palace in 1929. And, as a chorus girl, she had danced in Anatole Friedland tab shows in vaudeville and presentation houses).

In 1929, Fay and Stanwyck headed out to Hollywood so Fay could appear as the host in The Show of Shows. Most people anticipated big screen stardom for Fay and a shot in the dark for Stanwyck. The opposite happened. Many folks think their story was at least a partial model for A Star is Born. Fay was an abusive alcoholic. His dreams of being a leading man in movies were dashed by 1932. By that point Stanwyck had already starred in nearly a dozen Pre-Code melodramas, including some by Frank Capra, and she was just beginning her 60 year career at the top. In 1933, Stanwyck did Fay a favor and returned to New York to appear in his self-produced Broadway revue Tattle Tales. It closed after a month. The couple divorced in 1935.

A couple of Stanwyck’s early roles, Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Ten Cents a Dance (1931) seem to hearken back to her chorus girl past, and this is an illuminating period to watch her in. She’s scarcely more than a girl here, 23 and 24, and so as a “bad girl”, there is still an emphasis on “girl”. She is like a wild, adorable, fun-loving kid in these early Pre-Code pictures. But, much like her contemporary James Cagney, who had the same combination of a show biz background and real natural acting ability, she had access to a volcano of emotion she could unleash at a moment’s notice and pretty much blow anybody else out of the water. Frank Capra, who directed her in Ladies of Leisure, was the first to recognize this potential, and starred her also in The Miracle Woman (1931) a thinly veiled expose of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as well as Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and the much later Meet John Doe (1941). The naughtiest of her pre-code pictures may well be Baby Face (1933), in which she ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top, and there’s nothing subtle about it.

Racy melodrama would grow to be her meat and potatoes, even after the Production Code began to be strictly enforced in 1934. But she did re-visit the chorus girl theme in some notable later pictures. There’s the Howard Hawks-Billy Wilder screwball comedy Ball of Fire (1941) in which she plays chorus girl and gun mall Sugarpuss O’Shea. And the Gypsy Rose Lee murder mystery Lady of Burlesque (1943), in which she plays the heroine Dixie Daisey. This seems like her goodbye to the genre.

The most fatal femme fatale ever

The smoldering sexuality she had access to was channeled into subtler expression as we get into her more mature years. Her performances in The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) practically cause the celluloid to burst into flames. But as early as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), the balance has begun to tip in another direction. In a lot of her later pictures she plays a tyrannical, overbearing woman, strong-willed and powerful but no longer so attractive. Instead of allure (a gaze, a mysterious smile) she substitutes chains. One wonders: can it have anything to do with her marriage to the fatally uninteresting cigar store Indian of an actor Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951? One pictures him being not unlike the Kirk Douglas character in Martha Ivers: “Step away from the window, Bob — I wanna look at that man across the street.”

In the 50s, a lot of her movies were westerns; I blogged about them here.  She’d reinvented herself completely. From urban tough to a creature of the great outdoors. The ultimate was Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) — in which she plays a lady rancher who rides at the head of a column of 40 men at her beck and call, and goes around cracking a whip, yelling “Ya!” This wasn’t just some anomaly Stanwyck was forced into, however. She really loved making westerns. When she died in 1990, by her request her ashes were scattered over the wilderness area where she’d shot many of the films during this phase of her career.

I don’t know if anyone has written about the parallelism of Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Both began as chorus girls. Both compensated for faded beauty by becoming tough and “mannish”. Crawford had even done a western called Johnny Guitar (1954) which compares very nicely with Stanwyck’s westerns. And Stanwyck’s last couple of movies pair VERY nicely with late Crawford vehicles: her performance in the Elvis Presley movie Roustabout (1964) would go excellent with Crawford’s Berserk (1967) which also has circus setting and features a mature woman attempting to bed a handsome young stud. And Stanwyck’s last film The Night Walker (1964) was a psychobiddy hagsploitation film by William Castle, who had also made Straight-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) with Crawford. And both women were lifelong Republicans.

“The Colbys”. Colby is a kind of cheese, isn’t it?

But unlike Crawford and almost every other actor of her generation, Stanwyck managed to add a third act to her long career. Almost every classic studio era movie star tried their own tv series in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Very few lasted beyond a single season. Stanwyck managed to be a staple of television until the 1980s. In fact that was how I first knew her — she was just a contemporary tv star. We saw her in reruns of he western series The Big Valley (1964-1969), and my mother watched her in the prime time soaps The Thorn Birds (1983), Dynasty (1985), and The Colbys (1985-1986.) She’d also had an earlier program The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961). She won three Emmys during this phase of her career.

And above all there is this wonderful discovery, this 1980 back-door pilot for a gender-reversed Charlie’s Angels, called Toni’s Boys. We blogged about that hilarious artifact here.

Even in Toni’s Boys, Stanwyck was not bad precisely. While all was stinking around her, she at least was gamely giving a performance. Could she ever be bad? I can only think of two of her performances I’m not crazy about. In the 1939 Cecil B. DeMille western Union Pacific she is called upon to speak in an Irish accent, and the results are most unfortunate (her English accent in The Lady Eve is also lousy, but as it’s a performance within a performance we can give it a pass). And for the most part, I don’t think comedy was her forte. She’s great overall in The Lady Eve, but Sturges had crafted the whole just for her, and was able to communicate to her just what to do. And she’s great in Ball of Fire. But I’ve always found Christmas in Connecticut (1945) to be fairly dreadful. Some people call it a classic, but I find it fairly unbearably. Largely because of the script — I don’t care about any of what transpires. But also because of the casting. Farces are usually funny because someone who cares what other people think desperately wants to save face, so they run around from pillar to post trying to cover up whatever embarrassments are popping up. That ain’t Stanwyck. Stanwyck was about nature. “This is me. Take it or leave it. Make your decision. The clock’s ticking.” It’s no wonder to me I’d be attracted to a movie star like that.

For more on show biz history, including burlesque, Broadway revues, nightclubs and Hollywood, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

Barbara Stanwyck and the Gender-Reversed “Charlie’s Angels” Spin-Off

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2015 by travsd

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All credit to the Mad Marchioness for being the one to unearth this a couple of years ago. It being Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday, I thought it would be a good time to share it.

In 1980, during the 4th season of Charlie’s Angels, producer Aaron Spelling tried one of those backdoor pilots, hoping for a spinoff series. This was both post-Farrah Fawcett and post-Kate Jackson. The cast was getting more anemic and gimmicks were needed (I mean, beyond the intrinsic gimmicks in that series), as well as possible series offspring to survive when this one tanked.

In this episode, the “Bosley” equivalent was played by none other than Barbara Stanwyck. And she was in command of three good lookin’ studly disco dudes, none of whom is any different from the other two (much like the Ritz Brothers. And come to think of it, that would have been a way better show).

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What’s hilarious about the misguided concept (if it isn’t already obvious) is: aren’t ALL cop shows already all about guys? The difference here is, they aren’t primarily cops, but primarily sex objects and only incidentally cops, just like Charlie’s Angels. And, hey, Charlie’s Angel’s succeeded. What I’ve always loved about that show along with (The Love Boat and Fantasy Island) is that the concept is so appalling, terrible and in bad taste that on paper you would say “This will never work!” But no one ever went broke underestimating, etc.

Anyway this episode was entitled Toni’s Boys. Stanwyck was Toni. And the show never made it past this one experiment. Stanwyck (though she was to live another ten years) was mighty frail at this stage; I’m sure that was part of it. (That, and her “boys” didn’t have a single personality amongst them).

Sadly, Mae West died that year. She would have been the perfect Toni!

Someone very thoughtfully stitched together bits of the episode to make a fake credit sequence, which is duly hilarious and much less painful than watching the entire show, in which you occasionally have to hear those three boys try to speak:

Barbara Stanwyck: The Westerns

Posted in Hollywood (History), Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2015 by travsd
Barbara Stanwyck as Vance Jeffords in THE FURIES (1950), directed by Anthony Mann.

THE FURIES (1950), directed by Anthony Mann.

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! 

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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.

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 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.

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California (1947) 

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 Firtzgerald, 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) Directed by Anthony Mann Shown: Barbara Stanwyck

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!

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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.

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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.

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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….”

“Yah! Yah!”

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).

“You may go in. Dr. Freud will see you now”

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!

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Looks like they spared no expense on that backdrop!

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.

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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.

Billy Wilder and “Ball of Fire”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , on June 22, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood auteur Billy Wilder (1906-2002).

Much like Preston Sturges, some of Wilder’s best work as a screenwriter was written previous to his ascension to the director’s chair. Such I feel is one of his lesser known gems 1941’s Ball Of Fire. (oh, film buffs know it well enough, but I imagine its far less well known among the general populace than the likes of Double IndemnityLost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard,  Some like it Hot and The Apartment. )

Ball of Fire is a screwball comedy, helmed by Howard Hawks and co-written by Wilder’s frequent writing partner Charles Brackett. That’s already a magical and interesting combination of ingredients, but then throw on Gary Cooper in full Frank Capra mode (with a character which recalls Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe) and Barbara Stanwyck in a part that builds on the one she’d played in Sturges’s The Lady Eve and anticipates the one she would play in Lady of Burlesque.

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The scenario is a sort of updated reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Stanwyck is the titular Ball of Fire, a burlesque/ night club performer named Sugarpuss who needs a place to lay low to avoid a police interrogation. Fortunately, she is approached by lexicographer Gary Cooper who is investigating modern slang — and she is full of it, to a hilarious baroque degree. Cooper and his six bachelor cohorts work full time in a secluded house on a grant funded project to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. (The very idea of printed encyclopedias seems positively medieval nowadays.) Stanwyck decides to stay with the gents for a few days to avoid the authorities, but since one of them is Gary Cooper (and the other ones are sexless, aging character actors like Cuddles Sakall, Henry Travers and Oskar Omalka), sparks soon begin to fly.

Intellectual nerd Cooper has no idea he’s any different from the Ewoks around him. But Stanwyck soon sets his engines revving. This won’t sit any too well with her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) or his henchman Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea). Now THAT is a good cast and they really toe the mark. (Add to it, the inevitable Charles Lane as a numbers crunching accountant for the foundation who is eager to pull their funding) and this is a dream screwball cast.

Much like certain other Hawks films like The Thing from Another World and Rio Bravo, this one is oddly stagebound, claustrophobic and talkie, but not enough to be a deal-breaker — not with this script and this cast. And as always, Wilder’s way with words, in a second language no less, is dazzling.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2012 by travsd

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????

Frank Fay: The Comedian Who Inspired Hatred

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by travsd

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“Of all the great vaudevillians, I admired Frank the most”James Cagney.

Almost all of the great comedians speak with reverence about Frank Fay. He originated the stand-up comedy style we associate with Hope, Benny, Carson, Leno and Letterman, the extremely polished “American Institution” style, an unspoken confidence that says “an army of people made me possible.” You might call such performers “comc laureates”, almost branches of the U.S. government. As opposed to the more burlesquey Milton BerleHenny YoungmanRodney Dangerfield approach, these are not men who take or deliver a pie in the face, cross their eyes, or say “take my wife, please”. What they do is tell America the jokes they will repeat around the water cooler at work the next day. While there was no t.v. in Fay’s heyday, he was the king of the Palace, the flagship theatre of the top vaudeville chain in the nation.

There was much to set Fay apart. Unlike most vaudevillians, Fay was no populist. He cultivated the aloof arrogance of the aristocrat – his trademark was the barbed put-down delivered on the spot with dependable lethalness. That is what audiences prized him for.

He was charming, dashing, and impeccably dressed, with a broad handsome Irish face something like the actor Ralph Fiennes’. He had a very distinctive, swishy style of walking that was almost effeminate, but it was so effective that both Bob Hope and Jack Benny emulated it to their dying day.

He generally finished his act with a sardonic version of “Tea for Two”, wherein he would stop every few bars in order to tear the song apart:

Tea for two, and two for tea (spoken: ) Ain’t that rich! Here’s a guy that has enough tea for two. So he’s going to have tea for two. I notice that he doesn’t say a word about sugar!

Well, it ain’t exactly Duck Soup, but with his wavy hair, straight teeth and twinkling eyes, one gets the feeling that Fay sold his jokes through charm.

He was born in San Fransisco in 1897 to vaudevillian parents. He played his first part at age three in a Chicago production of Quo Vadis? His first vaudeville act was the team of Dyer and Fay, but it must have been pretty awful: Fay later downplayed his involvement with it. By 1918 he had established himself as a monologist, and by 1919 he played the Palace. “The Great Faysie”, as he styled himself, was appallingly successful on the vaudeville stage. To play the Palace – at all — was the very highest aspiration of most vaudevillians. A select handful ran a week there. In 1925, Fay ran ten weeks. So he might be a little forgiven if it went to his head.

But there is something to the old adage that what lives longest are not words but deeds. Today Frank Fay lives on in the recorded memory as a notorious S.O.B. and a mean drunk, with nary a kind anecdotal word from anyone who knew him. Milton Berle once said, “Fay’s friends could be counted on the missing arm of a one-armed man.”

An early example of the arrogance that was to overshadow his reputation throughout his career occurred at this early stage. In the incident, which became notorious throughout theatrical circles, Fay let the audience wait several minutes while he struggled to tie his tie in the dressing room. “Let ‘em wait!” he apparently snapped at the stage manager, establishing a tradition that would not be revived until rock and roll was invented forty years later.

Fay didn’t go in for slapstick. He used to taunt Bert Lahr by saying  “Well, well, well, what’s the low comedian doing today?” Fay’s bag was verbal wit, and he pulled no punches, offtstage or on. To Berle’s challenge to a battle of wits on one occasion, Fay famously said, “I never attack an unarmed man.”

Apparently, Fay had one of those smirking faces that’s just itching to be smacked. On one occasion, he attempted to humiliate Bert Wheeler by dragging him onto the stage unprepared, and firing off a bunch of unrehearsed lines at him to which he was supposed to attempt rejoinders. Tired of such treatment, Wheeler unnerved him by remaining silent the whole time. when Fay finally cracked and said “What’s the matter? Why don’t you say something?” Wheeler said “You call these laughs? I can top these titters without saying a word” and smacked him on the face – to howls from the audience. Some run-ins were far less light-hearted. Milton Berle recalled having watched Fay perform backstage from the wings, which is a real no-no with some performers. Berle heard him say “get that little Jew bastard out of the wings” and something about “that little kike”, so (according to him) he grabbed a stage brace and busted open Fay’s nose with it. Lou Clayton also let him have it across the jaw for his smart mouth.

Even when Fay meant to be nice he was rotten. Introducing Edgar Bergen for his first Palace date, he said: “The next young man never played here before, so let’s be nice to him.” As any performer can tell you, such an introduction is patronizing at best, sabotage at worst.

Bastard or not, Fay’s vaudeville success led to several Broadway shows during the years 1918-33. He even wrote and produced two starring vehicles for himself (a la Ed Wynn): Frank Fay’s Fables (1922) and Tattle Tales (1933).

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Through his friend Oscar Levant, Fay met and married Barbara Stanwyck, then a young chorus girl who’d just gotten her first starring part in a Broadway show (Burlesque, 1927) In 1929 they did a dramatic sketch, as “Fay and Stanwyck” at the Palace. Later that year, they were called to Hollywood, so Frank could star in the film Show of Shows. Fay and Stanwyck’s marriage and their experience in Hollywood later became the basis of a Hollywood movie – A Star is Born.

In Hollywood, as everywhere he went, Fay did not make a lot of friends. A standard joke of the time went “who’s got the biggest prick in Hollywood?” Answer: Barbara Stanwyck. The womanizing, alcoholic Fay’s career floundered, while Stanwyck’s flourished for decades. In 1935 the two were divorced, and Fay continued his downward spiral, until 1944, when he was chosen to play Elwood P. Dowd in the original Broadway production  of Harvey.

Fred Allen said: “The last time I saw Frank Fay he was walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.” He passed away in 1961, a humbler, and, one hopes, a wiser man.

Here he is, wearing a great deal of make-up, singing “Your Love is All I Crave” in 1929:

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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