This handsome but minimalist package (a few contextual factoids, a couple of trailers as the only video extras) featuring six rarely seen Barbara Stanwyck films in crisp prints gives the lucky viewer a rich survey of the astonishing range of this masterful actress across three different decades. As well, the set provides a fascinating journey through several Golden Age Hollywood genres.
We start with what is easily the best of the batch, Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), the first outing of Dr. Kildare, once a character of wide renown. Played by Joel McCrea, Kildare is still a feisty intern at this stage, happily involved with gangsters and lowlifes. He falls in love with Stanwyck’s luminous character, an ex-con widowed and in search of her lost toddler daughter. Moving alternately through a beautiful Art Deco hospital and the warrens and haunts of the poor, McCrea and Stanwyck ride the seesaw of his sunny optimism and her wounded despair. As a desperate mother, Stanwyck conveys tigerish determination and passion.
McCrea returns in The Great Man’s Lady (1942), which finds Stanwyck—at blessedly infrequent framing moments—smothered beneath makeup to portray a 100-year-old woman telling her story in flashback. Intended as an homage to pioneer spirit, the story instead comes off as one striver’s egocentric train wreck, in which Stanwyck’s support for her man reads as folie à deux. Only in her scenes with roguish Brian Donlevy (coincidentally enough, involving the gambling theme of our fourth film) does she exhibit some spitfire sparks.
The makers of The Bride Wore Boots (1946) were trying for Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but fell short of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Paired with Robert Cummings as her husband, Stanwyck, affecting a strange posh accent and a laugh that can cut steel, portrays a member of Virginia’s horsey set. Marital squabbles and unfunny hijinks ensue.
The Lady Gambles (1949) takes the honors for most-over-the-top scenario and performance—and that’s saying plenty, considering that our final two entries are helmed by Mr. Melodrama, Douglas Sirk. Married to stolid and steadfast and loving Robert Preston, Stanwyck develops a raging gambling addiction and sinks as low as she can go—to the point of being brutally beaten in a slimy alley. Her orgasmic, sheened face when the cards are going her way contrasts with the look of sexual degradation she sports when some hambone palooka orders her to kiss his dice for luck.
The two Sirk vehicles—All I Desire (1953) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)—are overstuffed with domestic tumult, but in intriguingly contrasting ways. In the first, Stanwyck is a Bad Wife, absent from home for years, returning with hopes and open heart, but unrepentant and smelling of cheap perfume. In the latter, she’s the Other Woman, threatening Fred MacMurray’s boring marriage. But her presence is an accident, she never deliberately angles for her man, and she ends the affair-that-hardly-was with a saintly act of abnegation. No matter the limitations of script or director, or the variant valences of her leading men, Barbara Stanwyck always moved in front of the camera with assurance and confident grace. She could at times be shrill and overbearing, but that flaw was counterblanced by moments of vulnerability and sincerity. Playing noble or dastardly characters, looking to elicit tears or laughter, she seemed convinced that she always had something in her that audiences needed to see.
-PAUL DI FILIPPO