When I first discovered my love for classic Hollywood, every film conversation I had inadvertently led back to the same question: “Who are your favorite actors and actresses?” At the time I didn’t really have an answer. In fact, I would watch a film, enjoy it, and suddenly become enamored with the leads. My “favorites,” therefore, would continue to change with no semblance of continuity. Until I found Barbara Stanwyck.
I remember my first exposure to this incredible actress. I was taking an online Film Noir course that required me to seek out noir’s most poignant examples and dissect them. 1944’s Double Indemnity was at the top of the list. I became transfixed on this blonde, quietly psychotic woman who knew what she wanted and had enough sex appeal to lure an innocent man into her web of madness. From that point on, “Missy” was my cinematic everything. I devoured every film of hers I could find and searched for a biography that would educate me on her life and career. To my shock and disappointment, there didn’t seem to be one. The few books that did reflect some level of professionalism, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith, The Films of Barbara Stanwyck by Homer Dickens, and Barbara Stanwyck: A Biography by Al Diorio, left a lot to be desired. It’s not that those books were poorly written, but none were definitive. That’s what I wanted, a definitive biography on Barbara Stanwyck. After years of waiting, it has finally arrived.
Author Victoria Wilson has released the first volume of her tirelessly-researched Stanwyck epic, titled A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940. Unlike other biographies, Ms. Wilson’s book precedes Barbara herself, delving into the Stevens family (Stanwyck’s birth name was Ruby Catherine Stevens) generations back. Though some might argue that such information is unimportant, a realistic grasp on Stanwyck’s forebearers helped unearth the sense of determination that became the actress’ model for success.
While it is fairly well-known that Stanwyck’s beginnings were both humble and rife with hardship, Ms. Wilson skips the traditional means of overwhelming the reader with cold facts; rather, Stanwyck’s life is delivered as a tale that plays out like a dramatic novel, with characters that enter and leave, influence and disappear. Stanwyck’s doomed marriage to Frank Fay, working relationship with director Frank Capra, and the adoption of her son Dion (which would ultimately prove to be an emotional rollercoaster) are also covered in great detail. Of course, Robert Taylor, the handsome male star with whom Stanwyck would be most identified, makes his appearance.
Ms. Wilson’s book does not read like a career timeline, much to my delight. The writing carries the reader smoothly alongside Barbara Stanwyck as she develops into Hollywood’s butterfly. A great deal of Stanwyck’s work in this first volume involves the 1930’s films that would later be considered career benchmarks: Baby Face, Ladies of Leisure, and Stella Dallas to name a few.
The use of rare photographs, some never before seen, is a wonderful accompaniment to Stanwyck’s life story. Ms. Wilson’s dedication to her subject is obvious, though one does not get the impression that Stanwyck is treated simply as a handpicked actress. To the contrary, the author displays a high level of esteem for the actress, and writes as if she is preserving the legacy of a close friend.
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