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Book Review: 'A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,' at 1000 Pages, Builds a Living Thing

Thompson on Hollywood By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood November 25, 2013 at 1:16PM

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson ends abruptly in 1940. Still ahead are “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire,” “Meet John Doe” and “Double Indemnity,” not to mention more than 40 other movies and four years as the matriarch of a sprawling 19th century ranch on the television series, “The Big Valley.” Yet the book, which takes Stanwyck from birth in 1907 to the age of 37 and stardom in a town she hated for the “pretense” of its “so self-important” people, is exactly 1000 pages long if you include its meticulous stage, film, radio and television chronologies and notes on sources.
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Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson ends abruptly in 1940. Still ahead are “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire,” “Meet John Doe” and “Double Indemnity,” not to mention more than 40 other movies and four years as the matriarch of a sprawling 19th century ranch on the television series, “The Big Valley.”

 A Life of Barbara Stanwyck

Yet the book, which takes Stanwyck from birth in 1907 to the age of 37 and stardom in a town she hated for the “pretense” of its “so self-important” people, is exactly 1000 pages long if you include its meticulous stage, film, radio and television chronologies and notes on sources. And it has a cast of thousands, with each director, actor or owner of a speakeasy Stanwyck encounters given not only his own backstory but the histories of the people with whom he has worked or played. Carole Lombard, for example, tended the “cows, chickens, ducks, pair of mules, goat, rabbits” on the 21 acre estate she and Clark Gable turned into a working farm.

The 36 movies Stanwyck made between “Broadway Nights” in 1927 and “Remember the Night” in 1940 are treated the same way. The chapter on “Stella Dallas,” the movie that brought Stanwyck the first of four Oscar nominations, not only includes a biography of Olive Higgins Prouty, who wrote the novel, but a biography of Belle Bennett who played Stella in a 1925 silent movie.

There are books in which details are piled on top of each other harum-scarum until the reader struggles to breathe under the weight of them. This is not one of those books. In “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,” the accretion of detail, told simply and unemotionally, builds a living thing. Do we really need to know that one of the many families with whom the half-orphaned child Ruby Stevens lived gave her hot oatmeal for breakfast? Yes. “They were the first to give me affection,” the grown up Barbara Stanwyck once said.  A hundred small details create the tough and unyielding Brooklyn child whose mother, pregnant with her sixth child, died after she fell off a trolley when she was kicked in the stomach by a drunk; and whose father then deserted his six-year-old son and four-year-old Ruby for a freighter to Panama.

Intent on becoming a dancer but with no money for lessons, Ruby Stevens left school at 14, was in the chorus of a revue at the Strand Roof supper club a few months later, and at 15, underage, one of 16 tap dancers, called “ponies,” in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “1922 Follies.” The clubs at which she and her friend Mae Clarke danced and sang (“I couldn’t sing worth a darn. It didn’t matter as long as I could belt it out so they could hear me in the back row”) were filled with gangsters who generally behaved like gentlemen when they took the girls out for a steak dinner.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Barbara Stanwyck, Books


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.