Life, career, the best films of a fantastic actress..

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Victoria Wilson’s gargantuan biography of Barbara Stanwyck manages to fill 860 glittering pages of text with only the first half of Stanwyck’s story. It ends after “Stella Dallas” (1937) but before “The Lady Eve” (1941) is even a twinkle in Preston Sturges’s eye. And it ends with a cliffhanger, creating eager anticipation for Ms. Wilson’s concluding volume. What kind of Parkinson’s law, about how work expands to fill available time, can possibly have expanded the Stanwyck story to these proportions?

One answer: “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940” is not about the actress alone. It’s bigger and splashier. Stanwyck knew the most notable directors, writers, actors, studio chiefs and Broadway impresarios of her day, and Ms. Wilson is interested in all of them. A remarkable array of still photographs present supporting characters like Florenz Ziegfeld, Annie Oakley, Clark Gable and Zeppo Marx, all of whom have their places in this account. An even more startling collection of movie ads and posters tells a riveting tale of sexism (about “Baby Face”: “You’ve never seen anything like this frank, man-to-man story of a man-to-man girl!”), even as they chronicle Stanwyck’s career. And each of her two marriages, to the vaudeville maestro Frank Fay and the pretty-boy heartthrob Robert Taylor, could fill a book alone.

So could the rough-and-tumble childhood of Ruby Stevens, the name by which Stanwyck is known for the first 80 pages of this biography. She was the last child of parents who had three much older daughters. When the mother died, the father could not raise his two youngest children, Malcolm and Ruby (about 6 and 4 years old). They lived with foster parents, and Ruby also traveled with her sister Millie, who became a vaudeville star. From an early age, Ruby had big ambition and a smart-talking style.

Ruby becomes a chorus girl and learns many tricks of that trade. She tried to teach Mae Clarke (an early friend, eventually known for having a grapefruit shoved into her face by James Cagney in “The Public Enemy”) how to nudge a date into buying her a coat. When Clarke lost the coat by refusing to let the date into her room, Ruby could not believe her pal’s stupidity. The biggest hustler in these early pages is Lucille LeSueur, whose tactics supposedly included spilling water on Jake Shubert’s lap and then wiping it up very attentively.

BEST MOVIES

The Two Mrs. Carrolls

Dir. by Peter Godfrey (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck & Alexis Smith

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a 1947 mystery film starring Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, and Alexis Smith, directed by Peter Godfrey, and produced by Mark Hellinger from a screenplay by Thomas Job

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Dir. by Lewis Milestone (1946), starring Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck & Judith Anderson

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a black-and-white film noir released in the United States in 1946, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott and featuring Kirk Douglas in his film..

The Lady Gambles

Dir. by Michael Gordon (1949), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Curtis & Robert Preston

The Lady Gambles is a 1949 drama film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Preston. A woman accompanies her husband to Las Vegas and becomes addicted to gambling…

The Furies

Dir. by Anthony Mann (1950), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston & Judith Anderson

The Furies is a 1950 American Western film directed by Anthony Mann and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, and Walter Huston in his last film performance. In 2008, the film was released on DVD…

The File on Thelma Jordon

Dir. by Robert Siodmak (1950), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey & Paul Kelly

The File on Thelma Jordon is a 1950 film noir directed by Robert Siodmak from a screenplay by Ketti Frings. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey…

Sorry, Wrong Number

Dir. by Anatole Litvak (1948), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster & William Conrad

Sorry, Wrong Number is a 1948 American suspense film noir directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. It tells the story of a woman who overhears a murder plot. The..

No Man of Her Own

Dir. by Mitchell Leisen (1950), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Denning & Phyllis Thaxter

No Man of Her Own is a 1950 drama directed by Mitchell Leisen and featuring Barbara Stanwyck, John Lund, Phyllis Thaxter, Jane Cowl and Lyle Bettger. It was the second film she made with director..

Jeopardy

Dir. by John Sturges (1953), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan

Jeopardy is a 1953 suspense film noir directed by John Sturges. The black-and-white film stars Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan as a married couple and Ralph Meeker as an escaped killer. The film

Double Indemnity

Dir. by Billy Wilder (1944), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson & Fred MacMurray

Double Indemnity is a 1944 American film noir, directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and produced by Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom. The screenplay was based on James..

Crime of Passion

Dir. by Gerd Oswald (1957), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Raymond Burr & Fay Wray

Crime of Passion is a 1957 American crime film noir directed by Gerd Oswald and written by Jo Eisinger. The drama features Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr..

Clash by Night

Dir. by Fritz Lang (1952), starring Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck & Robert Ryan

Clash by Night is a 1952 American drama film with some film noir aspects, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes. The movie..

Baby Face

Dir. by Alfred E. Green (1933), starring John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck & Margaret Lindsay

Baby Face is a 1933 American dramatic film directed by Alfred E. Green, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent. Based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck, this sexually charged, Pre-Code Hollywood..
BY MOVIES
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