Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Raw, gutsy and independent, Barbara Stanwyck was a “brawd” in the truest sense of the word and one of the best examples that Hollywood had to offer. This tough dame persona, which ran rampant in classics like Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and a variety of westerns in the 1950’s, found its roots in the actress’ pre-code movies of the early 1930’s. While many of her contemporaries tried to speak with a pseudo-British accent, a common trait as part of actor's film diction training by various studios (MGM was the worst), Stanwyck not only spoke in her native Brooklyn-ese, but wore it as a badge of honor. Among other things it made her stand out from the pack of young actresses who seemed bound for stardom in the early days of talkies.
In the period of Hollywood history known as the pre-code era (the time in the early 1930’s before the Production Censorship Code was put into strict enforcement), Stanwyck’s roles stood out as some of the most notable and brazen. Along with Mae West’s early cinematic romps, Stanwyck’s racy Baby Face (1933), helped pave the way for a tighter hold by Hollywood censors later in the decade. Her husky, knowing voice not only betrayed her Brooklyn roots, but revealed in her roles of this period, an earthy, wanton past. Her characters had been around the block, and if they hadn’t, they wanted to.
Her screen image in the Thirties was that of a self-sacrificing mother or a tramp, either with a heart of gold or cold and hard, with the capacity of redemption. Some of her film’s plots during this interval were contrived and hard to swallow, such as The Purchase Price (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), but Stanwyck’s performance always shined and made otherwise unbelievable situations extremely entertaining. She possessed similar screen traits to one of her screen peers at MGM during the same time, Joan Crawford. Like Crawford, she was often cast as a lower class young woman scraping her way in a man’s world. Just as Joan was the eternal shopworn shopgirl in her pre-code films, Barbara actually starred in a film titled Shopworn (1932). But unlike Crawford, Stanwyck was more hard boiled. She could play not only a gangster’s moll but the gangster, and she had no qualms when it came to revenge. Also unlike Crawford, who was, and wanted to be, iron clad contracted with her studio, Stanwyck had non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia AND Warner Brothers during a time when the studio ruled. Talk about gutsy.
Barbara Stanwyck’s real life past lent a certain credence to her onscreen performances. Born in Brooklyn in 1907 as Ruby Stevens, she was orphaned at a very young age and was cast about in several foster homes until eventually hitting the stage as a teen and becoming a chorus girl. Mind you, a chorus girl in the 1920’s was not exactly a Little Bo Peep existence. She met and married Frank Fay, a popular vaudeville star and followed him to Hollywood, where she got a less than auspicious start in movies. Her first two features were duds, and discouraged and distraught, she went, on recommendation of Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn, to see director Frank Capra about a picture he was casting called Ladies of Leisure (1930). Capra thought Stanwyck “sullen” and she left the interview prematurely. But after viewing a test she had made for another film, the director wanted her in his picture and the two became great friends with Capra saying of the actress in his autobiography, “In a Hollywood popularity contest, she would win first prize hands down.” A notion shared my many in the film community for years to come.
In Ladies of Leisure, the actress plays a “party girl”. In her next film, Illicit (1930), as if the title wasn’t titillating enough, she plays a girl who wants to live with her lover outside of marriage (this is 1930 we’re talking here). Forbidden (1932), shows her as a sexually repressed librarian who throws caution to the wind and becomes the mistress of a married man, even having his child out of wedlock. Ladies They Talk About (1933), she winds up in a women’s prison. These kinds of roles and ones similar to them, were a prevailing theme in Stanwyck’s early work. Bouncing back and forth between Columbia with roles in early Capra films and Warner Brothers, the actress made great career strides eventually gaining full fledged stardom. The culmination of this bad girl image arguably came in the form of Baby Face, the deliciously decadent diatribe which helped push Hollywood censors over the edge.
Baby Face features Stanwyck as Lily Powers, product of a grimy factory town where her bootlegging father has been pimping her out since she was 14. When he is killed she heads for the big city to make her mark. Starting from the ground floor, she literally sleeps her way to the top in a large metro bank, where she eventually becomes the mistress of the vice president then marries the banks newly elected president (George Brent). The film’s imagery of Stanwyck’s ascent to material wealth is priceless. With each corporate conquest (one of which is played by young pre-stardom John Wayne, pictured above), the camera pans further upward the exterior of a New York skyscraper, which represents the bank in which she intends to prevail, all to the sound of St. Louis Blues on the saxophone. How pre-code is that.
Even in her more tame film efforts after the enforcement of the censorship code, Barbara Stanwyck’s tenacity and vitality shined through. She went on to make better known and glossier pictures, but the seed had been planted in her early days. In these pre-code offerings of sin, seduction and self-sacrifice, Stanwyck showed she not only had what it took, but knew exactly how to use it.
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