*Dan Callahan intros and book signing; separate admission
We here at Alt Screen couldn’t be prouder or more pleased to announce the publication of Contributing Editor Dan Callahan’s Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman. Callahan has written some of our most popular features, and contributed a few almost embarassingly thorough Editor’s Pick blogrolls; read his musings on Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, My Own Private Idaho, Vincente Minnelli and more here.
Callahan will appear in-person to introduce a superlative double bill of Stanwyck – an event you don’t want to miss. Signed copies of the book are also available for donations of $70 or more to our Kickstarter campaign.
A few advance praises for Dan’s book:
“From the sublime (The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity) to the outrageous (Forty Guns–‘She’s a high-ridin’ woman with a whip!’), the workaday (The Woman in Red) to the why’d-she-make-it bizarre (Red Salute), Barbara Stanwyck possessed extraordinary range and a screen persona that was both tough and tender. Dan Callahan’s marvelously detailed book brings back this nimble, legendary star and her long, astonishingly varied career to radiant life.” – Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis
“Long overdue and full of insight, a thorough, heartfelt, and beautifully researched account of the neglected career of one of the greatest stars in movie history.” – James Harvey, author of Romantic Comedy in Hollywood and Movie Love in the Fifties
Excerpts from the book on the films playing at MOMI and more after the jump.
Callahan on The Lady Eve:
For Sturges, Stanwyck keeps hitting gongs of verbal recognition so that they resonate so deeply they can hardly be explained, finally, with specific thoughts or words, just as The Lady Eve itself is slippery and resists the sort of “deep dish” analysis that Sturges always mocked in his work while still offering as complex a sensory experience as any in the cinema. This movie was a hit, a honey and a riot, and it’s been loved ever since it was released, right when America needed to take its mind off the upcoming war, a war that barely impinged on Stanwyck’s life on film (at one point, William Demarest does a vaudeville-like imitation of Hitler, a reminder of the hell happening off screen).
“They say a moonlit deck is a woman’s business office,” says Stanwyck’s Jean, when Henry Fonda’s Charles goes all mushy on her describing his love. Claudette Colbert would have said a line like that with all her earthy, racy common sense. Jean Arthur would have said it anxiously, as if she wasn’t sure if she didn’t sound silly. Irene Dunne might have said it with a tiny twinkle in her eyes, pressing the tip of her tongue to her palette, while Katharine Hepburn would have said it resentfully (or hopefully, if she was in her “femme” mode). Joan Crawford would have made it sound pushy and needy. Bette Davis would have said it ironically. Only Stanwyck could have said this line like she does in The Lady Eve, casting an eye on all of these possibilities while never quite settling on one of them; it’s clear that the idea amuses her, lightly, but Jean doesn’t take it too seriously. Or does she? Stanwyck makes it clear that Jean loves falling for her own act for once. All through this movie, Jean is at her most sincere when she’s being most blatantly insincere with Charles, and surely this is a paradox of human behavior that a world-class actress like Stanwyck would intimately understand.
For all its fun, The Lady Eve also quite seriously describes a process of disillusionment in youthful nonsense romance and the sort of constantly renewing attraction that is necessary, by hook or by crook, for any long-term sexual relationship after the first flush fades and is replaced by deeper knowledge. There’s no such thing as too much information for real, devoted lovers (even if there are certain things that are definitely better left unsaid, a point that Charles makes in the last scene).
And on Forty Guns:
Total auteur Sam Fuller, a tough-talking former newspaper man, wrote, produced and directed Stanwyck in Forty Guns, her last major movie, a source of dizzying stylistic excitement, and a kind of farewell and tribute to Stanwyck’s film career. “To work with Stanwyck is to work with the happy pertinence of professionalism and emotion,” said Fuller later. “She’s superb as a queen, slut, matriarch, con girl or on a horse… Her form or class or appeal or whatever you want to call it stems from tremendous sensitivity and thousands of closeted thoughts she can select at will, at the right moment, for the exact impact.” Fuller knew what he had in his star and he tailors his film to her measure…Forty Guns is a CinemaScope marvel, Stanwyck’s only real widescreen movie, and Fuller uses every inch of the CinemaScope frame to grab and hold not just our attention but all of our senses (this film really needs to be seen on as large a screen as can be found for optimum viewing).
The tone here is blunt and outrageous, close to Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) even, yet it’s married to the most sophisticated visual technique imaginable, and thus Fuller possesses an entirely suitable dichotomous sensibility to make a grand filmic swan song for Stanwyck, who made so much of her career by verbally bridging the most yawning gaps between disparate ways of living and looking at the world.
As the plot starts to resolve itself, Fuller freezes Stanwyck’s Jessica into a still photo under a dissolve to her forty male guns on horses and zooms slowly into the lingering photo, a surprisingly lyrical effect (this movie is always surprising us). “You could still be the boss, if you wanted to,” says her lawyer, but Jessica is about to abdicate, just as Stanwyck herself is pretty much at an end as a star performer. The lawyer tells her that she’ll lose everything, “everything you’ve built up,” and Stanwyck stares out at us, plunking a melody out on a piano with her finger; at this point, we’re ready for one of those looks of recognition she used to honor us with, but those are gone now. What’s left is an indescribable look, something so deeply personal and labyrinthine that there’s no following it or guessing where she could possibly be in her mind. There’s a kind of psychic wilderness in her face in this scene. Stanwyck was always smart enough to perceive what was coming for her, but who can really be truly ready for death, which to her meant retirement from the movies? Her face says all of this in this scene and more that can’t be ascertained, no matter how long we think about her trajectory as a woman and as an artist. Her career would only be resurrected, in an often bastardized, sentimental form, on television, a cruel kind of shrinking after the CinemaScope glories of Forty Guns where, Prospero-like, her powers were celebrated and then relinquished.
Scott Eyman reviews the book for the Wall Street Journal:
Dan Callahan’s “Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman” is a serious book about a serious woman, less a biography of an actress than a biography of her career. Mr. Callahan follows her choices of roles and tries to capture what she was saying about herself through her acting. […] when he sticks to Stanwyck’s work, the moment-to-moment quicksilver of her performances—the sudden flash of sincere regret she shows just before “Waltuh” kills her in “Double Indemnity,” which makes her so much more than a one-dimensional murderess—he is almost always sensible and occasionally inspired. At one point, discussing her performance in Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night,” he refers to Stanwyck’s “daring, her need for flesh.” Beneath the physicality, there was honesty, and beneath that, there was an avidity, a hunger—a combination that explains why Stanwyck’s reputation has only grown in the years since her death. […] it will certainly stand as an invaluable critical guide. It’s a book that would have initially embarrassed its subject, if only because she would be uneasy about any book about herself. And then, as she thought about it, and maybe reread it, she would be just a little flattered, then, finally, pleased. And she would be right, as usual.
Mark Asch speaks to Callahan for The L Magazine:
How did your understanding of Stanwyck’s work and understanding of Stanwyck’s biography end up deepening and informing each other over the course of writing?
As I watched all of her films for the book, in rough chronological order, and researched her life, which at a certain point really did narrow to making those movies and giving her all to them, I was struck by how hard it must have been to sustain her all-out sensitivity on screen over the 60 or so years of her career. Her private life was in many ways disappointing, or unsatisfying, but she never closed up for the camera. She had the discipline to keep herself open without ever being destroyed by the hard knocks that kept coming at her in life. That’s why, to me, what she achieved really is a kind of miracle.
Of course female self-sacrifice was both a moral and aesthetic norm in the American movies of the time, but what would you say is distinctive about the way Stanwyck played these storylines?
Stanwyck personalized the standard motions of self-sacrifice by suggesting that she wasn’t trying to please society or please men but to appease her own personal standards or demons. She never plays just one emotion or one line of thought in her best work but always has a few thoughts and emotions running on different tracks, and when they collide with each other, they feel like epiphanies, like an orchestra playing. Most actresses, even the very best ones, would wind up with a total confused mess if they tried to keep as many plates in the air as Stanwyck does. It took skill and practice on her part, but by 1940 and 1941, she was capable of all that and more.
[…]I think Barbara Stanwyck should just have her own channel that plays her films from The Locked Door (1929) to The Night Walker (1964) on a continuous loop. She made at least 20 films that are masterpieces or close to it, and at least another dozen or more that are of real interest. It’s just an unprecedented body of work because the films around her are often so strong, so unusual, so special. As far as great directors go, she really covered the waterfront. The fact that she was also one of the greatest of all performers makes watching all her films just the ultimate aesthetic cinephile treat.
Kim Morgan insists The Lady Eve is her crowning achievement, for The Sunset Gun:
I realize one reason why Miss Stanwyck isn’t aped with frequency: She is, fittingly, one tough babe to crack. The actress, had such singular style while exhibiting an expansive range that moved through melodrama, screwball, noir, Western and television with seeming effortlessness. A rare blend of leading lady and character actor, Stanwyck possessed something usually reserved for men like James Stewart or Jack Nicholson: an offbeat sex appeal that was as recognizable as it was mysterious. And yet, aside from devoted cinephiles, we hear less of Stanwyck. There are Stanwyck performances that are not only brilliant, but also make me, like Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, a little cockeyed.
The Lady Eve is Barbara Stanwyck’s crowning achievement, a role that’s so brilliantly tuned in its blending of satire, romance, sexiness and slapstick, that you leave the picture believing she just might be the perfect woman. Stanwyck, who talks not just to Fonda but at him (at his lips, at his eyes, at every aspect of his libido) generates a lusty allure that’s hot and aggressive but amazingly not vulgar or obnoxious. She’s disarming and completely in control and entirely equal to the man she’ll eventually fall for herself. In scene after scene, Stanwyck boasts an intelligence and verve that remains modern to this day. You can see Hepburn taking on this role, but she wouldn’t have touched Stanwyck’s combustible mixture of silky rawness and mystery. There’s a sense of the unexpected to Stanwyck that’s incredibly natural while being deliciously sophisticated, especially in The Lady Eve, where the battle of the sexes is such glorious, subversive fun. And no one can match Stanwyck with a compact — watch the movie and you’ll understand.
A frivolous masterpiece. Like Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve is a mixture of visual and verbal slapstick, and of high artifice and pratfalls. Barbara Stanwyck keeps sticking out a sensational leg, and Henry Fonda keeps tripping over it. She’s a cardsharp, and he’s a millionaire scientist who knows more about snakes than about women; neither performer has ever been funnier. The film, based on a story by Monckton Hoffe, and with screenplay and direction by Preston Sturges, is full of classic moments and classic lines; it represents the dizzy high point of Sturges’s comedy writing.
Tom Milne for Time Out (London):
A beguilingly ribald sex comedy, spattered with characteristic Sturges slapstick (Fonda can hardly move without courting disaster) and speech patterns (‘Let us be crooked, but never common,’ urges Coburn’s conman). Fonda and Stanwyck are superbly paired as the prissy professor and the brassy card-sharp who meet on a liner for a ferociously funny battle of the sexes in which she proves triumphantly that Eve and the serpent still have the drop on poor old Adam. The glittering screwball comedy of love’s labours that ensues – denounced as a brazen gold-digger and cast off, Stanwyck vengefully seeks revenge by reconquering Fonda’s heart while masquerading (inimitably) as a flower of English society – is not just funny but surprisingly moving, given the tender romantic warmth of the early shipboard scenes in which, with Stanwyck’s veneer slowly melted by Fonda’s vulnerability, the pair first fall irrevocably in love. Very nearly perfection, and quintessential Sturges.
David Thomson in Have You Seen…?
The Lady Eve is a screwball, yet it is a fine romance, too, one in which the dense Charles has to learn to look at Jean/Eve and decide what it is she sees. Very funny, strangely erotic, utterly endearing, this may be the Sturges film that outlasts all others. Stanwyck was in her harvest mood period.
Anthony Lane, in a centennial profile on Stanwyck for the New Yorker:
One of the most liberatingly funny films ever made. Step back for a second, though, and you can still hear the “alert, precocious, and savage” tone that Stanwyck ascribed to her ruptured childhood. “The Lady Eve” is a Preston Sturges movie, which means that it does not and probably cannot stop, hurling Stanwyck headlong into the chase. First, she is a cardsharp who sucks money from a wandering heir (Henry Fonda) on an ocean liner; then, scarred by his rejection, she becomes an English grande dame, bewitching him into a series of emasculating pratfalls; finally, she reverts to her first persona, fooling everyone except Muggsy, the hero’s cynical valet. “Positively the same dame,” he growls in the final shot, refusing to believe that life is anything but a fix.
Stanwyck’s greatest strength, in other words—her range—was also the reason that she is impossible to tie down and tame. You think that “The Lady Eve” marks her as the best and most devil-tongued comedienne of her time, up there with Katharine Hepburn and the Rosalind Russell of “His Girl Friday”? Correct, but consider the moment when Henry Fonda, an amateur natural historian, claims that snakes are his life. “What a life!” reads the published screenplay, but that’s not what Stanwyck delivers. “What a life,” she says, with mild wistfulness, as if noting for an instant what a loner this rich boy truly is, and how he might want to be wooed for something other than his cash.
Jeff Stafford provides some context, for TCM:
For Stanwyck, The Lady Eve marked a real turning point in her career. Audiences that had grown used to seeing her play tough, take-charge working girls, self-sacrificing mothers or hard-bitten prostitutes were dazzled by her stylish, sophisticated appearance in Sturges’ film. Here she radiated sex appeal in her scenes with Fonda, whether she was throwing out a sleek leg to trip him or nibble provocatively on his ear. Stanwyck, in an interview about Sturges for the New York Times said, “He’d ask us how we liked the lines. If we didn’t, we’d say so, and he’d say the scriptwriter was fifty kinds of an imbecile – and change them. But, you see, he wrote the thing himself.” In the biography, Stanwyck, author Axel Madsen wrote that the actress compared Sturges’ set to “a ‘carnival.’ In Fonda, she met her match. He, too, always knew his lines and was affectionately called ‘One-Take Fonda.’ After The Lady Eve, he called Barbara his favorite leading lady…The set was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, the players relaxed in canvas chairs with their sparkling director, listening to his fascinating stories or going over their lines with him. To get into mood for Barbara’s bedroom scene, Sturges wore a bathrobe.”
Those marvelous luminous images of tough-mindedness that the golden age of Hollywood offers in its great stars are at their best ambivalent. There is perhaps no better example of this ambivalence than the figure of Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most dependably good and longest-lived of all the stars. And as much as Garbo in her way, she embodies the mystery of the star. Familiar as she was, her peculiar quality (at least before she became typed as villainous and domineering)—the unstated expectations that audiences of the thirties and forties brought to a Stanwyck film (of which there were many in almost all the genres)—remained elusive, hard to pin down. Partly because her effects were so plain and undecorated, so forthright and down-to-earth. But not the flourish and rococo of down-to-earthness that Jean Arthur perfected so attractively—nor the corrupt imitation of it, the affectation of non-affectation, that characterized Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper in his Frank Capra phase. Stanwyck’s communication with camera and audience was peculiarly direct and unmediated. And yet just because of this she illustrates Norman Mailer’s insight into the star-personality perhaps better, more simply and clearly at least, than anyone: the sense the star gives us of having other things on his mind. Stanwyck always seemed very sensible, and rather sad. And in The Lady Eve, all her energy and activity—her flights of comic enthusiasm, her self-delighted feats of impersonation and deception—seem superimposed on an essential reserve, something final and deep held back. Her voice is both flat and eloquent, oddly both nasal and husky, and most at home perhaps in assured declarative statements. But its huskiness suggests not so much whiskey or disillusion or sexual provocation as it does the quite unsentimental sound of tears—which have been firmly and sensibly surmounted but somehow somewhere fully wept. Of the tough independent heroine in comedies of the thirties she was almost a definitive embodiment: no one could seem more independent or intelligent in a healthy, confident, unshowy way. And yet she also unfailingly suggests the ambivalence of this health and sense, in ways and moments that can be startling. When in The Lady Eve she threatens to beat her card-shark father at his own game—“I can play some cards, too,” she says angrily, and adds: “I’m not your daughter for free, you know”—the moment is a nearly perfect instance of Mailer’s point about the star. An otherwise ordinary line comes to surprising life, carries suggestions of pain and experience beyond itself, echoes of a really felt self-judgment.
The formula character Stanwyck plays is of course a hallowed one: the wandering lady card-cheat who lives by her wits and her sex. She is also a comic variant of the Camille figure: the erotic cynic who is seduced into new life and sexuality by male innocence and inexperience. When I say that Sturges sophisticates the formulas here I don’t mean that he makes them more “real” (as Philip Barry does in The Philadelphia Story). If anything, he makes them more outrageous. Stanwyck’s con-woman is even more a daydream embodiment of feminine power and allure than the stripper in Ball of Fire. And this intensification—and of course Stanwyck’s power to make the exaggeration real—is what to begin with involves our feelings. It also makes clear the nature of those feelings: the delight in aggression, in putting down and beating out the other guy that characterizes the energy and happiness of these films in general. But Sturges’ exaggerations in The Lady Eve make explicit what has been only implicit in the heroines of The Awful Truth and Shall We Dance?: the element of potential destructiveness in their authority and style. What was an underlying complexity in those other screwball comedies is here an overt meaning—the special tone of this film is a kind of energetic cruelty, a malicious exuberance, reflected in Stanwyck’s treatment of the Henry Fonda character: a kind of relentless and systematic humiliation. And the movie rarely lets us forget this destructive element in the heroine’s character. “I need him,” she says, her face in close-up filling the screen, “like the axe needs the turkey.” This moment is certainly odd for a romantic comedy, ambiguous and troubling—but, like the film itself, not really unpleasant. For the oddest thing of all is that the effect of this anarchic, coldly brilliant comedy about the humiliation of a man by a woman, far from being unpleasant, is not only exhilarating but positively good-natured.
Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:
If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda’s hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds. Stanwyck plays an adventuress who has lured a rich but unworldly young bachelor to her cabin on an ocean liner, and is skillfully tantalizing him. She reclines on a chaise. He has landed on the floor next to her. “Hold me tight!” she says, holding him tight — allegedly because she has been frightened by a snake. Now begins the unbroken shot. Her right arm cradles his head, and as she talks she toys with his earlobe and runs her fingers through his hair. She teases, kids and flirts with him, and he remains almost paralyzed with shyness and self-consciousness. And at some point during this process, she falls for him.
What is delightful about Stanwyck’s performance is how she has it both ways. She is a crook, and yet can be trusted. A seductress, and yet a pushover for romance. A gold digger, and yet she wants nothing from him. And he is a naive innocent who knows only that her perfume smells mighty good to someone who has been “up the Amazon” for a year. She falls for him so quickly and so thoroughly that she’s even frank about her methods; just before he kisses her in the moonlight in the ship’s bow, she tells him, “They say a moonlit deck’s a woman’s business office.”
Fonda remains vulnerable and sincere throughout the picture because, like all young men who are truly and badly in love, his consciousness is focused on one thing: the void in his heart that only she can fill.hat frees Stanwyck for one of her greatest performances, a flight of romance and comedy so graceful and effortless that she is somehow able to play different notes at the same time. Although the movie would be inconceivable without Fonda, “The Lady Eve” is all Stanwyck’s; the love, the hurt and the anger of her character provide the motivation for nearly every scene, and what is surprising is how much genuine feeling she finds in the comedy. Watch her eyes as she regards Fonda, in all of their quiet scenes together, and you will see a woman who is amused by a man’s boyish shyness and yet aroused by his physical presence. At first she loves the game of seduction, and you can sense her enjoyment of her own powers. Then she is somehow caught up in her own seduction. There has rarely been a woman in a movie who more convincingly desired a man.
On to Fuller’s Forty Guns, Time Out (London):
Possessed of a gun-crazy sting all its own, Fuller’s near-legendary B Western still excites dazed amazement and still resists critical shorthand. As an explicitly sexual range-war yarn, you’d automatically dub it a Freudian Western, except that the good doctor’s shade could never cope with dreams like Fuller’s: vivid, abstract, brutal affairs of naked emotion and violence. So you’re left cataloguing the movie’s startlingly pleasurable elements – the daring, darting camera style; the keynote performances from Stanwyck as a sensual autocrat and Sullivan as a tired, Earp-like killer; the radical jettisoning of comfortable myth – until you happily concede that essences are irreducible. And this is the essence of American action cinema. Just watch, and be stunned speechless yourself.
Tony Williams for Senses of Cinema:
Forty Guns is an exemplary film in many ways. It reveals a filmmaker ahead of his time who pioneered techniques which were appropriated by acclaimed art movie directors while Fuller himself is still regarded as a B-movie director. Fuller’s comments on violence and politics in American society are stated subtly within the image, never didactically bombarding the audience into insensibility but leaving them to consider the implications for themselves. It is much more subtle than anything which appears in Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) or the message-ridden films of Oliver Stone. Style and substance unite in this film linking history, politics and emotion together in a significantly cinematic and meaningful combination.
Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:
The chapter devoted to Forty Guns in Samuel Fuller’s autobiography is entitled “stuffed with Phalluses,” a good indication that this film is as brash, unsubtle, and pointed as Fuller’s best work. With its bravura camerawork and withering social conscience, the film also stands among a number of Westerns of the 1950s that sought to dismantle the mythology of the cowboy and re-envision the frontier with a modern sensibility. Along with the works of Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar is an obvious model), Forty Guns is a kind of a paradox of filmmaking, an open criticism of the urge for violence that is at the very heart of its genre.
That Fuller has stuffed his film with phalluses is part of his point about the sexual nature of America’s fascination with violence. “Hell if I know why people think guns are sexy,” Fuller states in his autobiography, and the film presents myriad, sneering (and often hilarious) permutations of the gun-penis metaphor. Fuller’s tack here is characteristically blunt. Many filmmakers (Hitchcock and Kubrick among them) have chosen the sinister connections between sex and death as their subject matter, but few have displayed the link so openly, with such lack of restraint or of cold remove as Fuller.
There is little indication that American society’s fascination with guns and violence has abated, and Fuller’s indictment of that fascination is even today persistently searing and relevant.
Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:
Samuel Fuller’s wild, wonderful, semicoherent black-and-white ‘Scope western (1957) was shot in ten days, and in some ways looks it. But it’s also the feature that fully announces his talent as an avant-garde filmmaker, even in this unlikeliest of genres. There’s a hilarious romantic subplot involving a female gunsmith (whose sexual initiation is handled through an iris and dissolve that Godard incorporated into Breathless), an endless crane-and-track shot through a western town that defies belief, a lot of delirious violence, perverse sexuality, imaginative visual energy, and several startling plot twists. If you’ve ever wondered why Godard and other French New Wave directors deify Fuller, this movie explains it all.
Kim Morgan insists that Stanwyck rules the picture “in every way possible,” for the Sunset Gun:
By the 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck had aged into a handsome woman, just as sassy, capable and, though in her huskier way, sexy. The reality of aging appeared (as it should for every healthy woman) a natural progression — unlabored. And unlike many older actresses then or now, she never appeared desperately obsessed with her youth. So Stanwyck fit like a glove in Samuel Fuller’s glorious Forty Guns, a Western that honors the actress’ hot, wizened visage with an inventive, feminist bent. Stanwyck plays the man, or rather, the woman in black here, as Jessica Drummond, a corrupt cattle matriarch who dominates her Arizona territory astride a white stallion, brandishing a whip and with 40 hired guns blazing behind her. Though the picture is stylistically masterful and filled with terrific performances (and some choice moments of double entendre), it is Stanwyck who rules in every way possible (she even did her own stunts), making this a character filled with a tough depth one rarely sees in females on-screen. The opening tracking shot of Stanwyck on her horse is absolutely iconic, proving that, like a man, Stanwyck was a seasoned figure of strength — enough to produce chills when she utters her first line of dialogue.
– Compiled by Brynn White