Barbara Stanwyck — The Tough Cookie

by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini

Barbara Stanwyck is easily the best-known actress of pre-Code in this series of articles. In fact, almost all of the actresses featured so far hit the height of their fame in the early 1930s. Not so for Stanwyck who had an extraordinary career in terms of quality, range, and longevity. She made at least five pre-Code films that pushed the boundaries of the era with subject matter that would then be absolutely forbidden for the next thirty years.  
Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn on July 7, 1907, she was the youngest of five children. Orphaned at three when her mother fell and died stepping off a streetcar, her father abandoned the family two weeks later. Ruby and her brother were put into foster care until her older sister married and was able to raise them. She characterized her childhood as, “Hapless, but not hopeless. We were free to work our way up as far as we could dream.” She left school at 13 and became a showgirl at 16, eventually landing in The Ziegfeld Follies. She soon quit dancing and took to the stage where she met her first husband, actor Frank Fay. The two went to Hollywood to find work in the movies, but their marriage crumbled as Fay succumbed to drinking and abusive behavior when his wife’s career took off and his did not. 
Stanwyck struggled at first, but a meeting with Frank Capra, who understood her talent and nurtured it, helped make her a star. Together they made five films — four in the pre-Code era. Her harrowing childhood gave her the ability to plumb the depths of raw emotion in a way that audiences had never seen onscreen before, and it drew them to her films. All of her roles in this period contained a scene in which sorrow and rage consumed her, at least temporarily. Her characters were raw, honest, scrappy survivors that audiences identified with. In spite of her roles in 1940’s films like “Ball of Fire,” “The Lady Eve,” “Double Indemnity,” and a marriage to heartthrob Robert Taylor, she was not considered glamorous. However, like Bette Davis, she was respected for her considerable emotional range and talent. 

Of her fifteen pre-Code films, five were groundbreaking in their subject matter and banned when The Code became enforced in 1934:

Night Nurse — a sisterhood film, she and Joan Blondell play nurses in training who graduate and find themselves working at the home of a rich family. The mother is an alcohol and drug addict who allows her two children to be starved to death by her chauffer (played with terrifying menace by Clark Gable) so they can steal the little girls’ inheritance. This movie has alcohol, drug addiction, a doctor on cocaine, men and women slugging each other, child endangerment, and bootleggers as antiheroes.
Ladies They Talk About — an early woman-in-prison film with Stanwyck doing time for bank robbery, it contains almost everything you’d see in later exploitation films, including butch, cigar-smoking wardens who ogle female prisoners. 
The Miracle Woman — based on the life of con-artist and evangelical preacher Amiee Semple McPherson, it’s a scathing critique of the kind of Christian hypocrisy that robs people of their ability to have faith. A wonderful film, outlawed because The Code forbade criticism of religion. 
The Bitter Tea of General Yen — Stanwyck plays a missionary captured by a Chinese warlord with whom she has sadomasochistic affair. Miscegenation (interracial relationships) was forbidden by the Code and illegal until the 1960s. 
Baby Face — Stanwyck at her darkest, plays a girl whose father prostitutes her to his bar room customers. After he dies in an accident, a friend tells her to use men the way they’ve used her. She trades her body for an office job and sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder. As Lily, she is no dizzy dame, but jaded and ruthless. It’s a world of greedy, lascivious men who are easy prey. Usually it’s the women who are used by men in these kinds of films, and it’s shocking that men would allow themselves to be portrayed this way.

Stanwyck was extremely driven. Famously right wing, she resisted joining actors’ equity, and managed to “freelance” without ever signing a long-term contract with any studio. In the 60s, she moved to television starring on “The Big Valley,” “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” “The Thorn Birds,” “Dynasty,” and “The Colbys” — her last acting role. She died in 1990 at age 82.
Night Nurse plays on TCM 12/17 at 9:15 am. Next time we wrap up ladies of pre-Code and talk about the men!

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Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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