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  • Jennifer Kellow Fiorini

Barbara Stanwyck - The Tough Cookie

Updated: Jan 22


Barbara Stanwyck at the height of her career in the 1940's


Barbara Stanwyck is easily the best-known actress of pre-Code in this series. In fact, almost all of the actresses featured 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 be absolutely forbidden for the next thirty years.


With Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, 1941

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.


Barbara Stanwyck in the early 1930's


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 contain a scene in which sorrow and rage consume her, at least temporarily. Her characters were raw, honest, scrappy survivors 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. Like Bette Davis, she was respected for her considerable emotional range and talent.


Barbara Stanwyck circa 1931 - looking a lot like Jennifer Jason Leigh

Of her fifteen pre-Code films, five were groundbreaking in their subject matter and banned when The Code was 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 chauffeur (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.


Stanwyck isn't afraid to go toe to toe with a menacing Clark Gable in Night Nurse

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


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.


Ladies They Talk About, an early version of women in prison exploitation films.

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


The prison warden is introduced with the line- “Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle.”

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


She's ready to do her time. Stanwyck prepares to go to jail in Ladies They Talk About.

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


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 film's disclaimer, after the opening credits - once the code was enforced criticism of the church was not allowed in films. Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com

As Florence Fallon, turned con artist preacher, and David Manners as the innocent blind man who falls for her. Can love inspire sister Fallon find her faith again?

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


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.


Audiences weren't quite ready for this film - they walked out during this kiss between a white woman and an Asian man. The Bitter Tea of General Yen 1933

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com

Emotionally torn Stanwyck removes the make-up General Yen has given her.

Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


Frank Capra (center) on the set of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933, with Stanwyck and Nils Asther. A costly but beautifully made flop due to its extremely controversial subject matter. Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


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.


Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris prepare to leave for the big city in Baby Face. *The film was also notable for giving a larger role to a black woman (the gorgeous Theresa Harris) who plays her maid, but is also clearly her friend. Black actors rarely shared the screen with white actors unless they were portraying servants. Due to racial prejudice black actors scenes could be cut from films shown in the south.


A young John Wayne is one of the men Baby Face/Lily uses and dumps on her way up the corporate ladder. Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com

She's in the money. Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com

Stanwyck with George Brent. Can he make an honest woman out of her? Image courtesy of Pre-Code.com


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. This was a rarity at the time, most actors signed with one studio and were loaned out to others for films with a cut given to their home studio. Although freelancing gave her the freedom to choose the roles she wanted to be considered for, it was the primary reason she never won an Oscar. One of the benefits of belonging to a studio was that they lobbied for their actors when it came to awards. Because of her hardscrabble childhood Stanwyck was obsessively disciplined. Striving hard to be the very best, she even retained her impossibly thin figure her entire life. She believed in success through hard work alone, something she and pal Joan Crawford had in common, even though this isn't the most realistic philosophy, as the playing field isn't level for everyone.


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.


Stanwyck (center) with husband Robert Taylor (left) and Clark Gable (right) in the 1930s.


Next time we wrap up ladies of pre-Code and talk about the men!


Resources


Barbara Stanwyck on pre-code.com


You Must Remember This Podcast - The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck and Rober Taylor


Barbara Stanwyck The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan


A Life of Barbara Stanwyck- Steel True by Victoria Wilson


A Woman's View - How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger