Barbara Stanwyck’s first credited role in a film was a Columbia picture, The Locked Door. In the early 1930’s she worked mostly for Columbia, before jumping to Warner Brothers for most of the decade. In 1939 she made her first Paramount Picture, Union Pacific, with Joel McCrea. While she continued to work at other studios, notably Warner Brothers and Fox during the 1940’s and 50’s, with Paramount, she hit her stride. She could have been a poster girl for Warners: she was tough but pretty, exactly the kind of mobster’s girl they were after. But Paramount allowed Barbara to grow and expand as a actress, through the 1940’s with The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). Paramount was unafraid to cast her against type, allowing Barbara to become known as one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood, as well as the highest-paid woman in America in 1944.
Paramount turns 100 this year, this post is my contribution to the Centennial Blogathon, hosted by The Hollywood Revue. Paramount was founded by Adolph Zukor and merged with Jesse L. Lasky’s Famous Players in 1916. They won the first Academy Award for Best Picture with Wings in 1927/28 (which I think beat the competition with sheer length: two hours and twenty-four minutes is still long), and made some of the best-known movies of the Studio Era. In 1945 Paramount’s profits were over 15 million and would rise over the next few years to over 22 million in 1948. Barbara hit her stride at Paramount on an upswing, and both benefited.
The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck as a con-woman Jean Harrington, along with her ‘father’ and confederate Charles Coburn, and their mark, Henry Fonda. On a cruise, Barbara and Charles plot to take Fonda’s money, by seducing him. He asks Barbara to dinner, plays a friendly game of cards with her father, and wham-bam, loses everything. Barbara and Charles are a seasoned team, but Barbara accidentally falls in love. She marries him as ‘Lady Eve,’ another persona, which he falls for. But, it all comes out right in the end of course. Barbara’s Jean Harrington resembles Barbara in that she’s a down-on-her-luck girl who has to make her own way. Barbara (born Ruby Stevens) was orphaned at a young age, and grew up in Brooklyn, raised between her older sister, a showgirl named Mildred and foster homes. She dropped out of high school and took various jobs, making her own living. Jean Harrington is the sort of character Barbara could play with her eyes closed. While Ruby was growing up, she worked filing, stitching, or wrapping packages, but dreamed of being in show business. She had a little streak of the romantic in her, just like Jean. Barbara of course did well in this sort of role, not only because of her personal experience, but because of professional experience as this ‘type.’ It wasn’t the exotic vamp or the prostitute with the heart of gold (well maybe it was), but it was the bad girl who was a little romantic. She got her start on Broadway as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies, and her first role in a straight play as a chorus girl. Her last hit on the stage before moving to Hollywood was in Burlesque. She was no stranger to rough characters and was reportedly “wary of sophisticates and phonies,” pianist and humorist Oscar Levant remembered. She played the role again and again, as Lorna Moon in Golden Boy (1939) and in Ball of Fire (also 1941), but rather than stick in a rut, Paramount cast her in Double Indemnity in 1943.
Double Indemnity was based on a James M. Cain novel of the same name, with alterations made by Billy Wilder, who also directed, and Raymond Chandler. Barbara plays Phyllis, a blonde who seduces an insurance salesman, Walters (Fred MacMurray in one of their many pairings) and convinces him to help her kill her husband. They stage it to look like he fell off a train to collect the ‘double indemnity’ on the insurance. Phyllis and Walter kill each other in the end. In terms of film noir, Double Indemnity is still hailed as perfection. Barbara was concerned about playing Phyllis, a woman so cold and calculating. Phyllis obviously doesn’t love Walter, and just uses him to take some of the heat off of killing her husband. She is more interested in the insurance money. Barbara played the role with a blonde wig, at Wilder’s suggestion. Phyllis’ seduction of Walter is so convincing and so complete, that Barbara was able to branch into a whole new side of films. Film noir was catching on (most historians cite The Maltese Falcon in 1941), and Barbara would be in high demand to play roles similar to Phyllis, especially for Warners.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a film I would place in the film noir category (up for debate), but it was not straight or classical noir like Double Indemnity. Again Barbara plays something of a femme fatale; a headstrong girl who kills her overbearing aunt. Afraid that her tutor’s son Walter (Kirk Douglas) has seen her, she marries him down the line to keep him quiet. Martha’s friend Sam (Van Heflin) runs away; he’s witnessed it too. Walter becomes the District Attorney and an alcoholic and Martha becomes completely controlling. When Sam returns to town, Martha panics, afraid that her secret will come out. Martha and Walters kill each other (common theme?) and Sam drives off with young Lizabeth Scott. The mind games all the characters play make this a different sort of film noir. Not always clear, its convoluted relationships take it a step further than the straight double cross in Double Indemnity. Barbara also seems much more comfortable in the cold and calculating role, unafraid to make herself the villain. Her acting is always praised as naturalistic, and here there is a heightened sense of naturalism. How a woman could be that horrible, that domineering, and have that much power over men is almost outlandish, but Barbara makes it real. She isn’t sympathetic, but she is believable.
Barbara’s acting talent really got to shine in Sorry Wrong Number. She never had to prove herself; studios could see she was talented from the get-go and she worked steadily. She played against type and within type, zigzagging between screwball comedies and film noir- at the avant garde of film trends and doing well. Sorry Wrong Number is a tight, claustrophobic, Hitchcockian thriller about a bedridden nag of a woman who overhears someone plotting to kill her when telephone wires get crossed. All she has is that telephone, but her attempts to reach help are unsuccessful. Before she is murdered (at her husband’s request), she is driven crazy over the course of an evening. If Barbara had been a Hitchcock blonde, she would have kicked out Tippi, Vera, Ingrid, AND Joan in one fell swoop. She is vulnerable, caustic, and again, utterly unsympathetic, but her portrayal is riveting. The story is a great one (That would of course never fly today- wires fore telephones? What’s that?), and suspenseful, but Barbara, necessarily so, makes the picture. Few scenes take place out of her bedroom. Her bedroom is a garish sickroom, and her costume is all lace and looks constraining. We get to watch the breakdown from the constrained and uptight woman as she loses her grip completely.
Barbara flourished with Paramount films, moving between genres and setting standards in each.