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article imageReview: Retrospective shows Barbara Stanwyck was force to reckon with Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Mar 5, 2015 in Entertainment
The Barbara Stanwyck retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox highlights an accomplished career of many strong female characters.
In the early days, Hollywood was an interesting and complex playground. Under long studio contracts and the watchful eye of Will H. Hays at the Motion Picture Production Code, it could be difficult to build a career with much variety or risk. Yet it’s clear some actors and filmmakers were determined to push the envelope and not succumb to accepted practices. Actresses like Barbara Stanwyck were excited to push the limits of perceived decency; but more importantly, she chose big screen roles that challenged the notions of acceptable behaviour for women. TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Hollywood Classics retrospective, “Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck,” is an excellent sampling of her career that brought a series of strong, competent and uncompromising female characters to the screen.
The bold and brassy Brooklynite was one of the greatest actresses to ever step in front of Hollywood’s camera. She had natural class and could infuse any role with total authenticity. She could convincingly portray an unrefined woman unknowingly offending everyone in her presence, a seductress who knows how to get what she wants or a woman seemingly in complete control of her destiny. The following is a selection of films from the program that’s reflective of all these personalities and then some.
A scene from  Baby Face
A scene from 'Baby Face'
One of the earliest films from her career being screened is the uncensored version of Baby Face (1933), which is considered one of the most salacious pictures to be produced under the Hays Code. Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a beautiful woman who on the advice of a bar patron moves to the big city and uses her good looks to get everything she ever wanted in life. Cold and calculating, she literally sleeps her way up the corporate ladder, which is cleverly represented in the movie by office floors in a building. The men (including John Wayne in one of his earliest film appearances) grovel at her feet, risking their careers and families to be with her, and she casually discards them when they no longer serve a purpose. The pre-release version is far more lascivious than the repressed theatrical film, which makes significant changes to thoroughly vilify her character. For example, the scene in which a man attempts to rape her is severely edited, a gift applauding her behaviour is replaced by a chastising letter, and an extended ending condemns her actions and loses so much of the original film’s meaning.
Ed Munn and Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from  Stella Dallas
Ed Munn and Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from 'Stella Dallas'
In the title role of Stella Dallas (1937), Stanwyck portrays a woman trying unsuccessfully to live above her class — the actress’ personal favourite of her own work. The blue collar girl marries a man (John Boles) of sophistication, but he’s disappointed to realize he can’t shape her to be the ideal housewife as he’d hoped. However Stella could not be a more devoted mother to their daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley). The contrast between Stella and Lily immediately demonstrates Stanwyck’s range as an actress, going from conniving seductress to loud, crass and embarrassing. Moreover, even within the film Stella undergoes several transformations from naïve debutante to doting mother to outrageous party girl to humbled caregiver who makes the greatest sacrifice for Laurel’s future.
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in a scene from  The Lady Eve
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in a scene from 'The Lady Eve'
The Lady Eve (1941) is a hilarious screwball comedy in which the mismatched couple can never seem to get it right, even when they’re actually making an effort. Jean (Stanwyck) poses as Lady Eve, the daughter of 'Colonel' Harrington (Charles Coburn), in order to dupe Charles (Henry Fonda), an heir to brewery millions, out of a substantial chunk of his money via some “harmless” games of cards. But a wrench is thrown into their plan when Jean falls for their clueless mark. Various revelations and further dishonesty keep the pair running in circles after one another, generating some of the greatest situational mishaps one can find in a romantic comedy. It’s now apparent that Stanwyck’s strong personality led to her being casted in a variety of roles in which the apparent villain is revealed to have a heart of gold.
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from  Double Indemnity
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from 'Double Indemnity'
Stanwyck was clearly unafraid of portraying unpopular characters, totally embracing the role of cold-hearted femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). This classic film noir depicts an unhappily married woman (Stanwyck) who convinces her lover (Fred MacMurray) to forge insurance papers and kill her husband. Even though the Production Code prohibited the couple from getting away with the murder on screen, the sordid journey on which they take audiences is more than worth the ride. Stanwyck’s confidence informs Phyllis Dietrichson’s assuredness as she shrewdly pulls her puppets’ strings, manipulating them to carry out her will while she conceals herself in the background in case things go awry.
Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in a scene from  The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in a scene from 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers'
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1947) is not as dark, though Stanwyck portrays a similarly controlling female character. The film begins as a child’s nightmare: living under the iron fist rule of a relative after her parents’ deaths, Martha beseeches the young men in her life to free her. Fast forward and an adult Martha (Stanwyck) is still feigning a damsel in distress, though she’s proven time and again she never really needs to be saved from anything but herself. In spite of Martha being at the centre of the story, she has limited screen time; however Stanwyck’s commanding presence still gives these scenes the impression of being of the utmost importance to the narrative, whether they are or not.
Walter Huston  Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey in a scene from  The Furies
Walter Huston, Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey in a scene from 'The Furies'
Later in her career, Stanwyck would jump on the Western bandwagon — a genre in which strong women could thrive. However, within this selection, The Furies (1950) is the only time one of Stanwyck’s characters is forced to succumb to a man. This is in sharp contrast to the other women she portrayed who are always in control and steering her male counterparts in her desired direction. In this movie Vance Jeffords’ (Stanwyck) practiced tactics are turned on her, placing her in the comparable position of a horse that needs to be broken. The symbolism of her being struck for the first time in this viewing series is especially significant when considered in the context that this is also Stanwyck’s first traditionally feminine role in the sequence, in which she attempts to fill the role of agreeable domestic housewife. Fortunately this submission is restricted to one man and Vance spends the rest of the film proving her competence to everyone who doubted or deceived her.
Stanwyck not only had extraordinary talent, but she also had amazing courage and conviction. These five films and many others are screening as part of this season’s edition of Hollywood Classics at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox until April 4.
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