Barbara Stanwyck: a Hollywood legend for the right reasons

Black and White
As a child I used to love watching black-and-white films that were on TV on Sunday afternoons. Bette Davis films were always my favourite, but I also loved the even older films with Shirley Temple. Somehow, the wonderful Barbara Stanwyck passed me by. This has now been put right thanks to a season of her films that are being shown at London BFI Southbank. I have only caught two films so far, Stella Dallas and Meet John Doe, but I am determined to watch more. Her passion and wit jump off the screen, and as you would expect of a film siren, her beauty is luminous. Her performances in both films moved me to tears (not easily done, I have a heart of stone).  

How I managed to miss her films before is a mystery as I have loved films for as long as I can remember, and Stanwyck was no slouch, starring in 85 films made over a 38-year period.  

Strong and Chatty Type
Stanwyck was not a victim, in her films or in her career, she plays confident, resourceful, capable women, which is what she was in real life, succeeding in a movie world that was even more male dominated than today’s.  

White and Black
This is not to say that you see a thoroughly modern woman in the films made in the 30s and 40s. During both the films I saw, I was transported back in time to a place that was not comfortable. Women’s roles were clearly much more restricted, and the only parts for black actors were those of servants.  

Hollywood Drama
However, it is thanks in part to strong women such as Stanwyck that attitudes towards femininity were challenged. Stanwyck’s own life sounds like a plot of a movie, and if they make it I will be first in the cinema queue to see it. She was born in working-class New York and was orphaned at just four years old. Her mother died after a drunken stranger knocked her off a streetcar then a few weeks later her father went to work on the Panama Canal and disappeared for good.  

Star is Born
This meant Stanwyck was raised by her older sister as well as spending time in foster homes. Despite this unpromising start, Stanwyck moved from working in menial jobs, first to dancing in nightclubs and eventually to stardom. By 1944, Stanwyck was the highest paid woman in the United States. When it comes to her love life, this is another epic story in itself, so much so, that some claim it is the inspiration behind the film A Star is Born.  

Happy Ending
I may have come to the party late, but I am now a big fan and am looking forward to many happy hours watching Stanwyck on the silver screen. Although I may have to take a box of tissues as well as a box of chocolates (popcorn in cinemas should be banned, far too noisy).