Category Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

The 1930 Frank Capra film Ladies of Leisure stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck as tough, independent party girl Kay Arnold. It’s New Year’s Eve in New York, and it may be Prohibition, but that certainly doesn’t stop the booze from flowing at the penthouse apartment of dilettante rich boy/artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves), son of a railroad tycoon. The party spills over into drunken absurdities and Jerry, suddenly losing his taste for the wild high life, ditches the party and his love interest Claire Collins (Juliette Compton) and goes off for a solitary drive.

While driving through deserted streets Jerry spots a  young woman as she rows towards shore away from a party taking place on a yacht. The woman, who accepts a lift back to New York, is Kay Arnold, and to Jerry she seems like a breath of fresh air. She’s unpretentious and unaffected, and on the drive back, Jerry and Kay impress each other for various reasons. As a party girl (which is a euphemism for prostitute), Kay fully expects Jerry to step out of line–after all, her line of work involves men just like Jerry–men rich enough to afford her company while they simultaneously don’t expect to be restricted to polite behaviour.

Jerry asks Kay to model for him, and although she’s suspicious at first, she soon ends up at his penthouse apartment putting in long hours. Jerry just can’t seem to get his painting right. In his head he has a vision of Kay gazing toward the heavens with a beatific gaze, but he just can’t seem to get the pose. He buys Kay clothes, wipes off her makeup, but there’s still something missing.

In the meantime, everyone sees Jerry’s real motive for employing Kay as his model. Jerry’s amusing, permanently boozed-up friend, Bill (Sherman Lowell) fancies Kay for himself, and he makes it clear he’s interested, even dangling a cruise to Havana in front of her nose. Claire senses a shift in Jerry’s interest, and Jerry’s parents step in with separate attempts to prise Jerry away from Kay.

The role of Kay Arnold was a breakthrough in Stanwyck’s career, and she’s really wonderful as the gum-chewing, rough-around-the edges party girl who reforms thanks to love. I’ll admit, though, that I prefer Kay in the beginning of the film. She becomes far less interesting when she falls in love and giddily dons an apron. The role of Jerry is problematic–mainly because he’s such a wanker. He’s completely out of touch with his feelings–which isn’t a problem in itself, but then he orders Kay around in a most annoying fashion. He doesn’t make much of a romantic figure especially when Kay appears to transform, dropping some of her most appealing characteristics as she tries to please Jerry. There’s a vast gap between these two and as far as the love story goes, I don’t hold out much hope for this couple.

On the other hand there are two other performances well worth noting: Lowell Sherman as Bill and Kay’s hilarious chubby best friend: Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost): a woman who believes “you can’t weigh sex appeal.”

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The Gay Sisters (1942)

“Let that be a lesson to you not to go driving around the county deceiving strange men.”

After the death of his wife on the Lusitania, wealthy New-Yorker Penn Sutherland Gaylord (Donald Woods) decides to ‘do’ something and goes off to fight and subsequently die on the fields of France. This leaves his three small children, Fiona, Evelyn, and Susanna orphaned. Before Gaylord leaves to fight in WWI, he imagines that he’s taking care of his children’s future by leaving an iron-cast will which includes a vast fortune and the splendid Gaylord mansion to his three daughters. Early scenes show Gaylord with his eldest daughter, Fiona–a proud, imperious child who hides her emotions in front of the servants.

The film then flashes forward. The Gay sisters (as they are now known) are all adult. Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck) and Susie (Nancy Coleman) still live in the Gaylord mansion while Evelyn (Geraldine Fitizgerald) is married and living in England. The Gaylord estate has been tied up in litigation for years, and has gradually been bled dry with multiple versions of the will, various lawsuits and a series of  lawyers. Think Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House and you get the picture. Fiona–the oldest girl and the backbone of the family is the tough one of the bunch–the most vocal and the one who’ll fight to the death to keep the mansion.

The Gaylord mansion is, apparently, in the crosshairs of Charles Barclay (George Brent), one of the will’s contestants. He wants to demolish the Gaylord house and build some monstrosity (according to Fiona) to be known as Barclay Square. It looks as though the litigation will continue when sister Susie who’s in love with artist Gig Young (played by Byron Barr before he changed his name to Gig Young) secretly goes to Barclay on a mission to persuade him to drop the suit. Her action causes a chain of events to take place….

The Gay Sisters, directed by Irving Rapper, certainly has the feel of a novel, so it should come as no surprise that it’s based on a book written by Stephen Longstreet. While the film isn’t bad (I actually rather enjoyed it), it never quite reaches the heights it strains to touch. It’s not quite soap opera, not quite drama and not quite romance, and yet at the same time, I suspect that the novel was a grand mixture of these elements. As it is, the film develops some intriguing asides but then wraps them up all too implausibly as the plot dashes to the final scenes.

The sisters are a mixed bunch with Evelyn (back on a visit) the bitchy pretentious one who sports a monocle, and Susie is the most human of the litter. That leaves Fiona played with Stanwyck’s usual backbone. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the sisters who collectively moan about how poor they are, and yet none of them work and there’s more than one fur coat flapping in the breeze. At one point, Fiona mentions she inherited a cool $100,000 dollars from an aunt–quite a fortune in those days. It might as well be $100 from the way it’s mentioned almost as an aside–while today, sixty years later, $100,000 is still a large amount of money to the average working stiff. But that’s just the money issue; when it comes to character, Evelyn is nasty, and the way Fiona used Charles isn’t exactly charming either. That leaves Susie, but there’s dirt in her past too. Perhaps the novel managed to be a grand tear-jerker, but somehow that’s lost in the film version. That said, the sympathy that does come to the sisters comes courtesy of understanding the burden of responsibility of having a great house, and a great name and two dead parents. The weight of this burden taints all three sisters in different ways, but the film makes the point that they certainly haven’t had a normal life (whatever that is).

If you’re a Stanwyck fan, you won’t be able to resist watching the film just to see her in this role.


“We’re all little people trying to find and grab what happiness we can . We fight back and love each other, work a while and die still little people. But once in a while one of us has a chance to do something . Life hands it to us on a platter.” (Gig Young to Evelyn)

“Love is something you cut out of yourself or it moves in and cuts you apart.” (Fiona to Susie)


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Forbidden (1932)

“You’re poison to me. Poison. I wish I’d never met you!”

The Frank Capra pre-code film Forbidden examines a love affair between a single career girl and a politician. Yes, the story of the backstreet love affair has been done a million times, but there are nice little complications to Forbidden that elevate this drama from the mediocre. And of course, it does star Barbara Stanwyck….

The film begins with librarian, Lulu Smith (Barbara Stanwyck) deciding on a whim (and infected with spring fever) to cash in her savings and take a cruise to Havana. In the library, she’s a spectacled frump complete with a bun, but once aboard ship, she’s dressed in a full-length evening gown, fur stole and glittery jewelry, but she’s still noticeably alone–a fact that confounds the ship’s crew. 

Lulu meets and promptly falls in love with another solitary passenger, Bob (Adolphe Menjou). Nicknaming each other 66 and 99 (after the numbers of their cabins), Bob and Lulu spend the entire time together–both on the cruise ship and later in Cuba’s nightclubs. Their love affair is light and devil-may-care. Any serious discussion is deliberately avoided–although at one point Lulu does drop a broad suggestion about skipping the homeward bound ship and staying in Havana.

But Lulu and Bob return to their old lives. She begins working at a newspaper office where she attracts the interest of Holland (Ralph Bellamy), but Lulu makes it clear she’s not interested. Meanwhile Bob’s continuing relationship with Lulu is marginalized into the odd stolen hour, and in spite of the fact he’s a lawyer, Lulu never sees his name in the paper. Eventually of course, Bob reveals he’s married and cannot divorce his wife. Lulu is content to take crumbs but circumstances drive the couple apart.

Forbidden traces the relationship between Bob and Lulu over several decades. Bob’s political career soars while Lulu remains in the background, and she sacrifices again and again–career, relationships, motherhood–these issues are sacrificed on the altar of Bob’s home and career.  Forbidden explores the oppositional forces of selfishness and selflessness through their relationship.  At first, Bob and Lulu think of themselves and their desires, but then Bob shifts and suddenly he has to protect his wife, Helen (Dorothy Peterson) due to  her ‘invalidism’. His argument against a divorce to protect his wife also rather conveniently ensures the continuance of his political career. The film doesn’t explore Bob’s motives a great deal, but the tantalizing possibility that Bob uses his wife as an excuse to protect his political ambition is evident. 

Forbidden is a film that can generate a lot of intriguing discussions, and I suspect many of us would have different opinions about the characters, their motives, and just how selfish or unselfish they really are.

The film makes it clear that Lulu and Bob both very deftly avoid any discussion of their lives when they first meet. In fact at one point, Bob seems (in retrospect) on the verge of confession, when Lulu stops him. Later, Bob’s late night visits must also rouse Lulu’s suspicions but once again she avoids confronting the truth until she’s forced to. This conspiracy of silence extends beyond the lovebirds and even includes Bob’s wife. During one scene in the film, Bob’s wife is about to take off for Europe for a ‘cure,’ and she gives Bob carte blanche to do as he pleases, telling him:

“While I’m away, I want you to have a good time and I won’t ask any questions either.”

So it seems that Bob and Lulu’s affair will be ignored by the missus just as long as he keeps it under wraps. So we have a mistress who’d rather not know about the wife, and a wife who’d rather not know about the mistress. And what of Bob? He has his proverbial cake and eats it too. At one point, Bob rather lamely tells Lulu: “why I’ve taken your life almost as though I’d been a murderer,” and in another scene, he whines (rather unconvincingly, I thought) about how difficult his life is.

Then there’s the question of Holland. He’s every bit as ambitious as Bob, but his goal as newspaper editor is to ruin Bob’s career, and so Holland digs hard and deep for a scandal. Lulu uses Holland, and yet Holland uses Lulu too. So basically we see these four adults in twisted relationships that are a bizarre combination of selfishness and selflessness, and by the time the film ends the results of these relationships are disastrous and destructive.

Forbidden is a really interesting early pre-code vehicle for Stanwyck. The drama steers clear of hysteria and too much melodrama. The weepy bits are well done and conducted with beautiful touches–my favourite scene is when Bob runs after Lulu in the rain. Catch the moment when the rain drips from Bob’s hat. It’s a magnificent touch.

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Shopworn (1932)

“Your thoughts are just like your kitchen … DIRTY”

A very young Barbara Stanwyck shines in Shopworn, a dreary little drama that doesn’t have a great deal to recommend it. The film begins rather abruptly with an accident that claims the life of Kitty Lane’s (Barbara Stanwyck) father. The death scene is atrociously acted, and that is unfortunate as it basically opens the film.

Kitty Lane, now orphaned, and penniless, goes to her Aunt who works in a café in a university town. Kitty quickly becomes the attraction at the café, but class places an almost insurmountable obstacle between her and the young men who come in to flirt. One day she meets the serious minded David Livingston (Regis Toomey), and a romance blossoms briefly before his mother sabotages it.

The plot of Shopworn–a romance ruined by class–is not new. Here, Livingston’s mother (Clara Bandick) is selfish, malicious and hysterical, and while she’s convinced that Kitty will ruin her son’s career, she basically wants to keep him all to herself. She uses her money and influence to ensure that her son doesn’t marry Kitty.

Years pass, Kitty becomes a famous and notorious actress, and so ironically she becomes even a worse match for David in his mother’s possessive and snobby view. But this time, Kitty has power and money to fight back.

Stanwyck fans will treasure seeing her in this role, but the rest of the cast just seem left in the dust. There was no chemistry between Kitty and her leading man, little or no character development, and the film’s conclusion is abrupt and simplistic. Keep an eye open for Zazu Pitts as Kitty’s Aunt Dot.

From director Nick Grinde.

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Clash By Night (1952)

  “People have funny things swimming around inside them.”

In the film Clash By Night Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home after a ten-year absence to a small coastal fishing town in California. Her brother, Joe, doesn’t ask too many questions–he can tell that she’s down on her luck. Mae arrives with just a single suitcase and a large chip on her shoulder about life and men.

clash-by-nightJoe’s boss, Jerry D’Amato, shows interest in Mae. Jerry is a very solid character. He owns a fishing boat, and he takes care of his demented father and irresponsible Uncle Vince. Mae marries Jerry–making it clear that she does not love him–but that the relationship offers her security. After a year of marriage and a baby, Mae, who has long been attracted to Jerry’s sleazy friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), breaks out of her housewife routine and begins an affair with Earl.

Clash by Night is film noir, but it has soap opera tones too. The thing that prevents one from reaching for the nearest hankie is the performance of Barbara Stanwyck as hard-as-nails Mae Doyle D’Amato. Although her dilemma is clear–security vs. excitement, Stanwyck’s hard-edged speeches eliminate the need for tears. It’s difficult to feel sorry for her husband, Jerry. He’s a good, decent man, and obviously out-of-his depth with Mae, and he goes into the marriage knowing she doesn’t love him. Jerry is the sort of man other men like to make fun of–probably because they can never be as solid and reliable as he is. Jerry seems emasculated and this is largely due to Uncle Vince–an opportunist who blatantly uses Jerry.

Mae’s attraction to Earl–even though he’s exactly the sort of man she’s trying to avoid–adds interest to the plot. Also, Marilyn Monroe stars as Peggy, the tomboy sweetheart of Joe Doyle. She works in the cannery, and the cannery represents the sum total of the career opportunities in town. Peg sympathizes with Mae, and it’s curious to see a very young Monroe in the role of a tomboy and without that carefully developed blonde bombshell role.

Clash by Night is directed by Fritz Lang. It was filmed in Monterey, and fans of Barbara Stanwyck will find the film well worth watching for its strong characters and excellent acting.

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The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946)

 “Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”

Young Martha Ivers shares a terrible secret with her two childhood friends, Sam Masterson and Walter O’Neil concerning the death of her Aunt. Years pass, and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) is now married to District Attorney O’Neil (Kirk Douglas). They still live in Iverstown (named for Martha’s wealthy family). Their marriage is not a happy one, but it’s sealed by shared guilt. Martha is now the wealthiest woman in Iverstown, and she and her husband either own or control everything in this corrupt small town.

strange-love-of-martha-iversOne night, a car accident strands Sam (Van Heflin) in Iverstown. It’s mere coincidence that he’s back after an absence of almost twenty years, but Walter and Martha assume he’s there to blackmail them. Their guilt alerts Masterson to the possibilities of the situation, and so he sets out to exploit it.

From director Lewis Milestone, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a classic entry in the genre of film noir. Kirk Douglas, in his first screen role, stars as Walter O’Neil. Obviously the studios did not yet have Douglas type-cast in the strong hero roles he later assumed. In this film, he plays mealy-mouthed O’Neil–a spineless man who’s pushed around by his wife. O’Neil’s love for his wife is sick and corrupted. He knows she despises him, but he’s going to hang onto her no matter what it takes. Lizabeth Scott stars as Toni–the girl Sam meets on his first night in town. Scott enjoyed an all-too brief career but chose to stay out of the limelight shortly after an expose in Confidential magazine. Scott reminds me very much of Lauren Bacall, and this may sound like heresy, but I prefer Scott. She’s rough around the edges and seems to be the genuine article. If Bacall hangs out with low-lifes, she is just slumming, but Lizabeth Scott seems to belong with the dregs of society–just waiting for some man to rescue her and take her home. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to envision her as Toni–the hard luck girl who’s just released from jail.

Barbara Stanwyck is, of course, one of film noirs great leading ladies. She’s ice cold and cruel in this role. But there’s more to Martha than meets the eye. In Martha’s first hysterical scene with her aunt, we get a glimpse of the hard, heartless woman she’ll become. And yet Martha claims to love Sam–but her love is twisted and sick too. She’s not capable of loving anyone in any normal sense of the word. Van Heflin as Sam–is a cipher. He’s a WWII veteran with a checkered past. As a child, he dominated Walter, and when Sam blows back into town, he picks up where he left off. Yet ultimately, Walter and Sam seem to recognize each other’s position. The relationship between Martha, Sam, and Walter dominates this fascinating film. The DVD is excellent quality. For film noir fans, I wholeheartedly recommend The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It’s a fantastic film


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Crime of Passion (1957)

  “I hope all your socks have holes in them.”

crimes-of-passionIn the film Crime of Passion, tough, successful career woman Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) abandons her newspaper column and a prestigious new job to marry LA police detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). She imagines a life of domestic bliss, and soon she’s living in suburbia–along with all the other detectives’ wives. Doyle is happy plodding along in his career, but Kathy really can’t stand the life she finds herself in. The Doyle’s social life is composed of dreary evenings with Doyle’s co-workers. The men play card games, and the women chatter on about inane subjects. While no unpleasant words exit from the mouths of the detectives’ wives, it’s quite clear that a strict social hierarchy exists. In particular, one wife, Sara Alidos, is all too happy to carry on at length about her intimate friendship with the Police Commissioner Pope (Raymond Burr) and his wife. Kathy really doesn’t belong with these other wives. Try as she might, she just doesn’t fit in, and her own lack of conformity drives Kathy to the brink of a breakdown.

But then Kathy has an idea. In Kathy’s mind, her husband is superior to the other detectives, and she is cleverer than the rest of the wives. And so Kathy sets out to use her brain to promote her dullard of a husband through whatever means are necessary.

Barbara Stanwyck is excellent in the role of Kathy–a woman who gives up her career and lives to regret it. Kathy is hard and tough, but when she meets Bill, she gives into romance, and in her case, this is a big mistake. Bill Doyle is a good, hard-working man, but Kathy doesn’t respect him. Raymond Burr as Pope is the man who sees past Kathy’s persona and sees the conniving woman underneath.

From director Gert Oswald, Crime of Passion contains some extremely interesting comments especially about the roles of women in the 50s. For film noir/Stanwyck fans, this is a film well worth watching.

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Lady of Burlesque (1943)

 “Makes me want to leave the wife.”

burlesqueDixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck) is the hot new number in a burlesque show. As Dixie, Barbara Stanwyck wears a see through sarong and performs the song Take it off the E string, put it on the G string to a packed house with an audience of middle-aged men who go crazy every time she wiggles her hips. Dixie’s big problems are an amorous comic, Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea), battling burlesque dancers, and a rival with a fake Russian accent. But Dixie’s problems become suddenly more serious when following a police raid, a showgirl shows up dead strangled by her very own lacy g-string. The murder investigation points to Dixie as a main suspect.

Based on the novel The G-String Murders written by Gypsy Rose Lee, The Lady Of Burlesque is an amusing glimpse at life both on and off the stage of a ‘risque’ burlesque show. The murders take place amidst the chaotic lives of the performers, and some of the very best scenes are in the dancers’ changing rooms as the women reveal their ambitions, jealousies and viciousness. This is a very different sort of role for Stanwyck, and the film really is great fun to watch. Most of the burlesque employees see this stint on the burlesque stage as the prelude to making it to the big-time, so an air of amateurish hope reigns amongst the employees. This mood adds to the film’s lighthearted approach, and some of the dancers wave to their boyfriends in the audience while others try to hog the stage. My Alpha DVD is passable quality. The black and white film is a bit grainy, but nothing that seriously interferes with enjoyment. Directed by William Wellman.

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His Brother’s Wife (1936)

“Decent women don’t wreck us.”

In this 1936 film, Robert Taylor stars as Chris Claybourne (Robert Taylor), the black sheep of a highly respectable, New York based family. His brother Tom (John Eldredge) is a successful physician, and his father (Samuel S. Hinds) is a researcher. Chris, a ne’er-do-well with a gambling habit, is a doctor too, and he’s about to ship out to the jungle to conduct research on a mysterious tick-borne disease. Chris doesn’t take this too seriously, but then life is just one big joke as far as he’s concerned. He’s down to just a few days before he leaves when he loses $5,000 in a New York Casino owned by Fish-Eye (Joseph Calleia). Chris blithely writes a bad check to Fish-Eye expecting that he’ll be able to make it “good” some time in the future.

That night in the casino Chris meets mannequin, Rita Wilson (Barbara Stanwcyk). Instant chemistry, combined with his imminent departure lead to a devil-may-care romance for Chris’s last few days in New York, and the relationship seems to suit both Chris and Rita. It’s all just a load of laughs until it comes to the eve of Chris’s departure, and then the couple realize they’re in love….

His Brother’s Wife examines notions of duty vs. personal desire. Chris and Rita are similar; in the beginning of the film, neither one of them tends to take life too seriously, and they both have a gambling habit. But when their casual relationship turns serious, they enter into a deadly game involving dangerous stakes of revenge and self-destructive one-up-man-ship. This is a great role for Stanwyck. In His Brother’s Wife, she talks tough, and when she has no power and no control, she maneuvers the situation until she’s completely in control. This film is sheer delight for fans of the marvelous Barbara Stanwyck.

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Baby Face (1933)

 “Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame?”

The marvelous Barbara Stanwyck stars as gold-digger Lily Powers in the pre-Hayes code film, Baby Face. Lily is raised in a depressingly poor and grimy mill town. Her father runs an unofficial speakeasy and makes his own moonshine in the outdoor shed. Lily serves drinks–and a lot more–to the male customers. When Lily becomes tired of her father’s ‘arrangement’ with some of the male customers, she escapes to New York. Here she begins her long, hard climb to wealth–man by man. Along the way, she ruins careers, wrecks lives and even causes a suicide.

babyfaceLily Powers is a great character–very focused, avaricious, hard-edged and driven. Thanks to the early scenes that depict the harsh realities of her life, her ambitious and self-protective need to accumulate wealth is clearly understood. When she first arrives in New York, she identifies a building she wants to work in, and then rapidly rises to the top of the food chain using her looks and various male supervisors along the way. The film doesn’t try to hide Lily’s harpy-like materialistic tendencies, and she’s seen beginning work at literally the bottom floor of an office building. Then scenes depict Lily’s plying her tactics (this includes letting men look down her blouse). Honky tonk music plays as the camera sweeps the front of the office building and Lily moves up to another department (and figuratively improves her place in society). With each new department, she brings herself to the attention of increasingly wealthier men–until she manages to reach the top floor–leaving a trail of broken men in her destructive climb.

As Lily’s jobs become more important, so do the men she seduces. At first, the men have little to lose–she discards a very young John Wayne with little more than a broken heart, but as she crushes more powerful men, the stakes become greater. And this inevitably leads to a front-page scandal.

Stanwyck fans will love watching her unleashed in this role–at one point she acknowledges: “I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.” There’s little pretense regarding her single-minded ambitious drive, and from the beginning of the film until the last scene, this is clearly Stanwyck’s film.

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