Thursday, July 1, 2021

Steel-True: Barbara Stanwyck

Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940. Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Barbara Stanwyck, born as Ruby Stevens, was orphaned by the time she was four: her mother died as the result of an accident and her widower father abandoned the family. Growing up in foster homes and with relatives, by age fourteen she was working as a chorus girl in New York nightclubs, and before she was 20 had begun appearing in movies. Her first films were not successful, but her husband Frank Fay paid for a screen test that convinced director Frank Capra to cast her in Ladies of Leisure (1930). After it did well at the box office, Stanwyck went on to appear in a series of Pre-Code films now considered classics. 

The late 1930s and early 1940s witnessed the fading of the careers of many actresses who had come to prominence in the early years of the sound era, such as Ruth Chatterton, Mae Clarke, Bebe Daniels, Miriam Hopkins and Ruby Keeler. But Stanwyck's appeal only grew: during this period she worked with directors such as King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, becoming one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars.

The story of her rise from poverty and neglect to movie stardom would seem to require no great effort from a biographer to maintain the reader's keen interest. But Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is such a mess it's hard to know where to begin. It offers page after page (nearly 900 of them) of runaway research, poor writing and sloppy editing. (Ironically, Wilson is a senior editor at Alfred Knopf.)

Wilson seems to have no sense of the significant—or even relevant—detail, and no idea what to leave out. She includes the date of Lee's surrender to Grant and information about the mourning flags and rosettes displayed following Lincoln's assassination (p. 5), because Ruby's paternal grandfather and two half-uncles served in the Union Army 45 years before she was born. She offers a four-page discussion of the development of the movie serial, including an extensive description of the plot of The Perils of Pauline and four paragraphs on its star Pearl White, because it was Ruby's favorite serial as a child (pp. 19-22).

Ruby Stevens around age 17. Photograph by Alfred Cheney Johnston, ca. 1924. Image source: Wikipedia

And we find ourselves reading salacious stories about another chorus girl named Lucille LeSueur, ("known in Kansas City, Missouri, as Billie Cassin"), including allegations that she bragged to a producer about her skill at fellatio and "was walked in on by a Ziegfeld dancer late one night in the bedroom at a party making love to a well-known actress. Nothing surprised people about Billie" (p. 48).

The only thing that might surprise the reader about Billie is that when she became a movie actress she changed her name to Joan Crawford, information that Wilson passes on so obliquely that it's easy to miss. After a mention of the movie Sally, Irene, and Mary, which co-starred Constance Bennett, Sally O'Neil, and Crawford, we learn that "Sally O'Neil called Billie 'Freckles,' though Joan had long wanted to be called 'Butch'" (p. 55). The mid-sentence name-switch from Billie to Joan is the only indication in the book that they are the same person. Incidentally, Lucille LeSueur, Billie Cassin and Joan Crawford are listed separately in the index with no cross-references, as though they are separate, unrelated individuals.

Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse (1931). Image source:

Wilson often adds the insult of sloppy writing to the injury of irrelevant detail. When Calvin Coolidge is mentioned Wilson can't resist quoting his most famous utterance: "'The business of America is business,' Coolidge said" (p. 46). But as the Library of Congress makes clear, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1925, Coolidge actually said "the chief business of the American people is business." If you're going to place Coolidge's cliché in quotes you should at least get it right (but why include it at all?).

The Noel Coward play The Vortex is described incoherently: "Its caricature of well-mannered, light-hearted moderns, 'flowers of evil' nourished on [does she mean "by"?] a civilization that made rottenness so easy, amused audiences until the third act, when playgoers were stunned by mother and son—Lilian Braithwaite and Noel Coward—and revelations of sexual excess and drug addiction" (p. 54). Stunned by mother and son. . .doing what, exactly? (In the play, in the third act the son confronts his mother about her lack of maternal feeling and confesses his drug use: each agrees to try to change.) And in what way is this relevant to Ruby, who at the time was in the chorus of a variety show called Gay Paree?

Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris in Baby Face (1933). Image source: Midnight Only

Theater history is clearly not Wilson's forte: she also garbles the technical details of playwright and producer David Belasco's innovative lighting system (p. 69), and misquotes the opening lyric of "Tea for Two" from the 1925 Broadway show No, No, Nanette (p. 105; when sung by a man, as in the show or in Frank Fay's nightclub act, it would be "Picture you upon my knee" and not, as Wilson has it, "Picture me upon your knee." The latter version may derive from the words that Doris Day sings in the movie Tea for Two, which wasn't made until 1950. In addition Wilson implies that Irving Caesar's lyrics were written by composer Vincent Youmans).

But she's not much better when it comes to the movies. In Remember the Night (written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen), Stanwyck plays serial shoplifter Lee Leander; Wilson writes of her co-star, "Fred MacMurray was to be the hard-driving assistant district attorney prosecuting the case who, instead of sending her to jail, falls in love with her. Leisen thought MacMurray was a good-looking actor—with a beautifully built body and great legs, six feet four, tall and lanky—but MacMurray was quiet, genial, modest, and inexperienced" (p. 801). Later we read that by the time of Remember the Night "MacMurray had appeared in twenty-four pictures as a leading man. . .he'd starred opposite Hollywood's top actresses, including Ann Sheridan (Car 99), Katherine Hepburn (Alice Adams), Sylvia Sidney (The Trail of Lonesome Pine) and Irene Dunne (Invitation to Happiness)" (pp. 819-820). In what conceivable way, then, could he be described as "inexperienced"? It becomes evident later that Wilson seems to mean that when he was starting out in his film career he was inexperienced—as are most people when they are just starting out in a profession.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Remember the Night (1940)

Finally, here is a caption from a picture of Stanwyck on page 857 of the hardback edition, quoted in its entirety:

With Frank Capra during production of Golden Boy, visiting the set of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; both Columbia Pictures, 1939. Capra's next picture, his first with Barbara in eight years, would be their fifth collaboration. She was making Golden Boy and was also visiting Capra on the set of his movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, being made at the same studio.

Not Columbia Pictures, by any chance?

Amid all the dross Wilson does manage to record a few insights about Stanwyck's film work, but they are buried in such a mass of undifferentiated detail that they lose impact. Steel-True reads like a first draft that went straight to the printer; the book would be twice as good if it were half as long. Is there no such thing as a copy editor any more? 

One also quails at the thought of what is to come. When the book ends in 1940 Wilson has made it less than halfway through Stanwyck's film career. Stanwyck would go on to star in 48 more movies, including The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong Number, No Man of Her Own, Clash By Night, and There's Always Tomorrow. She would then have a second career on television, with featured roles on the shows Big Valley, Dynasty, and The Colbys, and many guest appearances. Wilson takes about 800 pages to cover the years 1927-1940; at that rate she has about 3000 pages to go before her biography will be complete. The time required to read Wilson's recounting of Stanwyck's life would be far more profitably spent watching Stanwyck's movies instead.

Posts about Barbara Stanwyck's films:

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