Actor Spotlight: Barbara Stanwyck
The name “Barbara Stanwyck” is perhaps not well-known outside of cinephile and classic film buff circles; her most famous film Double Indemnity has a lofty reputation, but as you can see with the Flickchart Top Ten below, her films quickly fall not just out of the Top 100, but out of the Top 1000 and Top 3000. This is a crying shame, because Barbara Stanwyck is one of the finest, most consistent, and most prolific actresses of the classic era. She made 85 films over her 38 years in Hollywood, and went on to a highly lauded career on television as well, winning three Emmys. Stanwyck is one of a very few actresses who can make an average or mediocre film worth watching by virtue of her mere presence in it.
Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, and orphaned by the age of four. After spending time in and out of foster homes, she followed her older sister into show business, becoming a chorus girl for Ziegfeld and a burlesque dancer in various nightclubs from the age of 15. At 19, she was pulled out of the chorus and into supporting/lead roles on Broadway, where she was a bright, if brief sensation – the siren call of Hollywood proved too strong, and she moved in California in 1928.
While it was easy to get typecast in Hollywood, and many actresses fell into the same types of parts over and over, Stanwyck managed to play Pre-Code seductresses, breathless comediennes, self-sacrificial mothers, street-smart dames, and heartless murderesses – all while retaining her distinctive Brooklyn-inflected voice and her unyielding strength in every role. You didn’t know who Stanwyck was going to be, but you knew she wasn’t going to take any guff.
Yet despite her on-screen toughness (which was derived, let’s be clear, from her real-life survival of a very difficult child- and young adulthood), she was well-beloved by most of Hollywood. She was generous and protective of her costars, a consummate professional with her directors, and there wasn’t a person in Hollywood who didn’t want to work with her or affectionately call her “Missy.” That professionalism showed through in every role – no matter how small the film, Stanwyck gave her all, often elevating a relatively mundane film into something entertaining and moving. She could get a laugh or elicit tears at will, often within the same film.
Unusually for the time, Stanwyck was never tied to a long-term studio contract, so even though she worked with well-known restrictive studios like Columbia and Warner Bros., she never had the trouble with them that Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, or others had – perhaps this professional freedom contributed to her wide range of roles. It perhaps also helped her become the most highly paid woman in America, which she was in 1944, the year of one of her greatest roles, Double Indemnity. That role marked a turning point in her career, as she had previously been known for light comedy or women’s pictures, mostly in sympathetic roles. Film noir opened up a whole new kind of role for her, and she became one of the greatest noir actresses of the late ’40s and ’50s.
Here are Stanwyck’s Top Ten films on Flickchart; let’s see if we can raise some of those user numbers.
10. Stella Dallas (1937)
When Stanwyck is remembered today, it’s usually as a femme fatale or a comedienne, but she was also plenty capable of eliciting the waterworks, and never more so in this three-hanky weepy about a self-sacrificial mother. Stella Dallas is a lower-class girl who falls for an upper-class guy; they get married, but when it becomes clear that Stella is extremely out of place in his family’s posh circles, she bows out, leaving her infant daughter so she’ll grow up with the comfort and advantages of her father’s family. This story seems pretty strange to us today as extreme class differences like this have almost disappeared, but Stanwyck sells the story of a woman’s self-sacrificial love for her daughter like no other, and even if you’re screaming “but that’s STUPID” at the top of your lungs (because it is), you’ll also be in tears thanks to her powerful performance.
Currently ranked #4176
Ranked 1417 times by 100 users
Wins 46% of its matchups
9. Clash by Night (1952)
This is rather a nasty little film about desperately unhappy people from director Fritz Lang – and it’s quite good if rather harsh at times. Here Stanwyck returns home to a dingy industrial fishing community when a relationship goes south – she’s angry and bitter but desperately wants to feel safe and protected. Fighting her attraction to an equally angry and bitter Robert Ryan, she marries the older, rather schlubby fishing boat owner Paul Douglas. You can probably guess where that’s going, and you’re right. There’s a lot of hurt in this film, a lot of loneliness, and a lot of self-destructive actions that Stanwyck especially still manages to make sympathetic. Oh, and Marilyn Monroe has a breakout supporting role (I’m guessing that’s why this film has a slightly higher number of viewers but a low win rate – it’s definitely not the film Marilyn Monroe fans will be expecting).
Currently ranked #4039
Ranked 2024 times by 148 users
Wins 38% of its matchups
8. The Furies (1950)
The Furies is the least-seen film on this Top Ten (in fact, I had to track down a copy myself last week), and it certainly deserves a look. Stanwyck’s Brooklyn drawl seems unsuited to westerns, but she made several of them – with no attempt to change her voice or accent, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter. Here she’s the daughter of a cattle magnate – their ranch is called “The Furies,” but it could just as easily apply to the two of them, too much alike to either get along or let each other go. Director Anthony Mann is known for the cycle of westerns he made with James Stewart, but this predates most of them and straddles the line between noir (his typical genre before he got into westerns) and western in a really interesting way. It’s also a surprisingly female-centric western, prefiguring Nicholas Ray‘s equally strange Johnny Guitar. This film is a Criterion release, and definitely due for rediscovery.
Currently ranked #3569
Ranked 1906 times by 89 users
Wins 51% of its matchups
7. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
After her appearance in 1944’s Double Indemnity (see below), Stanwyck turned toward a new kind of role – either femme fatale or victim in noir films. In Sorry, Wrong Number, she’s a fussy invalid who overhears a phone conversation that sounds like a pair of men planning a murder. As she tries to figure out what’s going on, flashbacks tell us about her relationship with her husband (an early Burt Lancaster role) and his growing frustration with her condition and she realizes that she herself may be the intended victim. A crime story wrapped up in a melodrama about a potential victim who’s only sporadically sympathetic is certainly a perfect role for Stanwyck, and even though she’s bedridden the entire film, she owns it.
Currently ranked #3403
Ranked 2259 times by 152 users
Wins 54% of its matchups
6. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
A fun bit of fluff that ought to be more of a Christmas viewing tradition that it is, with Stanwyck as a columnist who rhapsodizes about her farmhouse in Connecticut and all the wonderful foods she cooks and her lovely husband and bouncing baby. Except she doesn’t have any of these things, and lives on her own in a one-room flat in New York City. When a serviceman returns from the front wanting nothing more than to convalesce at the farmhouse he’s grown to love through reading her columns, she’s in a pickle (her editor wants the publicity and doesn’t know she’s been lying about the whole thing), so she borrows a farmhouse, a cook, a husband, and even a baby. It’s a charming and delightful film, with just enough schmaltz to carry you through the unbelievable aspects. Stanwyck’s clueless dealings with the infant are simply hilarious.
Currently ranked #3293
Ranked 2313 times by 145 users
Wins 49% of its matchups
5. Baby Face (1933)
The first splash Stanwyck made in Hollywood was during the Pre-Code era (1930-1934) in a series of films directed by Frank Capra. Baby Face wasn’t directed by Capra, but it’s quite possibly the most Pre-Code film ever made. “Pre-Code” refers to a span of time after the Production Code of America (Hollywood’s self-censorship board that monitored films for content until the mid-1960s) was created in 1930 but before it was stringently enforced in 1934 – many films from this era are very suggestive, violent, and lascivious in a way that would become impossible once the Code was enforced. In Baby Face, Stanwyck plays a girl who’s basically been used by her father to keep his speakeasy customers (including city officials) happy, until she decides to turn the tables and use men to get what SHE wants – she runs away to New York and quite literally sleeps her way up the top of a major bank, moving from man to man until she gets to the president. The film is quite jaw-droppingly frank about what she’s doing, and yet Stanwyck always keeps our sympathy with her. Look for a young John Wayne as a junior clerk in a couple of scenes – maybe the only time he ever rocked an office job on screen.
Currently ranked #3014
Ranked 2357 times by 141 users
Wins 49% of its matchups
4. Meet John Doe (1941)
Ten years after Frank Capra set Stanwyck’s career on course with a series of Pre-Code films, they teamed up again for one of Capra’s most Capracorniest films. None of their Pre-Code collaborations made the Top Ten list, but do check those out, as they show a very different side of Capra AND Stanwyck. Here she’s a newspaper columnist who invents a down on his luck John Doe who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills. Challenged by a rival paper, she has to come up with a real John Doe (Gary Cooper) to play the part, and ends up inadvertently starting a grass-roots movement to “be kind to your neighbor.” It’s all very heartwarming, though somewhat of a lesser entry in Capra’s series of socially conscious films.
Currently ranked #1583
Ranked 5464 times by 290 users
Wins 51% of its matchups
3. Ball of Fire (1941)
A second teaming with Gary Copper in 1941, Ball of Fire casts Stanwyck in a role with which she was quite familiar – a street-smart burlesque dancer. Cooper is a stuffy professor working with six other stuffy professors on an encyclopedia. Faced with an entry for “slang” they realize they have no idea what it is and they get Sugarpuss O’Shea (best character name ever in film) to come help them out with it. She’s cool with the idea because her boyfriend is on the run from the cops and she needs to lay low for a while. It’s one of Stanwyck’s most fun roles, and she has a ton of fun with it – plus it’s a wonderful showcase for great character actors like S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the professors.
Currently ranked #913
Ranked 6072 times by 278 users
Wins 58% of its matchups
2. The Lady Eve (1941)
Stanwyck had a huge year in 1941 – four of her top five films on Flickchart were released that year, and she worked with Frank Capra, Howard Hawks (on Ball of Fire) and Preston Sturges on The Lady Eve – three of the greatest filmmakers Hollywood has ever known. Sturges’ specialty was zany romantic comedy, and The Lady Eve is likely his best, with Stanwyck centering the film in a sort-of double role. She’s a con artist who delights in fleecing a naive Henry Fonda out of his fortune, until she falls for him just as he discovers what she’s doing. When he heads home, she takes on the role of an uppercrust Brit (The Lady Eve Sidwich) to get her revenge. Let me tell you, you’ve never heard a British accent until you’ve heard it with a Brooklyn twang – AND STANWYCK PULLS IT OFF. I don’t even know how this is possible. She’s amazing as both con artist Jean and the lady Eve, and the film is one of the most hilarious comedies of 1940s Hollywood.
Currently ranked #337
Ranked 14270 times by 758 users
Wins 58% of its matchups
1. Double Indemnity (1944)
When Billy Wilder came after Stanwyck for the part of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, she was hesitant to take it. Though she’d played a wide variety of roles by this point, she’d become hugely popular in sympathetic roles, and she was a bit afraid to play someone as calculating and heartless as Wilder’s quintessential femme fatale. (Fred MacMurray, already a frequent Stanwyck costar in light romantic comedies, was similarly concerned about the role of Walter Neff.) Thankfully for everyone, she agreed to do it, and was rewarded with one of her four Oscar nominations and a whole new career in film noir. The brassy blonde wig she wore makes her look nothing like herself, but Phyllis’ steely determination and unbending will are Stanwyck trademarks. While it remains her best-known role and film for good reason, it’s only the starting point for a career full of wonderful and surprising performances from Barbara Stanwyck.
Currently ranked #33
Ranked 92787 times by 5865 users
Wins 57% of its matchups
A Few Hidden Gems
Technically speaking, almost all of Stanwyck’s films are hidden gems in Flickchart terms, but here are a few more from even further down the list that are worth checking out.
- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) – ranked #4588
- The Miracle Woman (1931) – ranked #10422
- Jeopardy (1953) – ranked #12359
- Remember the Night (1940) – ranked #5646
- The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) – ranked #8827