Friday, August 22, 2008

Barbara Stanwyck 1907-1990 the "Ball of Fire"

Barbara Stanwyck, for a period during the 1940’s the highest paid actress in Hollywood, (and woman in the U.S.,) was a self-made woman, if ever there was one. Queen of the film noir, Stanwyck was known for playing tough broads, often the girlfriend of a mobster - Night Nurse, Ball of Fire - or a killer herself - Double Indemnity. Having lost her family at a young age, Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, grew up in Brooklyn and got her start on stage at age 13. Often described as ashamed of her lack of education, Stanwyck wasn’t all that ignorant. It was she who fought to have Jack Warner produce The Fountainhead, only to lose the part to Patricia Neal at director King Vidor's insistance. While her role in Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson is often considered one of her best performances, my favorite so far has been her lead as Sugarpuss O’Shea in Howard Hawks’ 1941 Ball of Fire, written by Billy Wilder. In it she plays a familiar role, the gangster’s moll, and gets to show off her figure and her sultry voice as a nightclub performer. On the lam to avoid a “subpeeny” from the D.A.’s office, she meets Gary Cooper’s professor Potts, a befuddled doctor of English etymology, looking to complete his slang dictionary. This screwball comedy has Stanwyck first dupe and then fall for Cooper, each teaching the other about a part of life which each had been missing. Barbara steals the movie when she sings along to Gene Krupa, performing his virtuoso Drum Boogie, first with him on drums and her to the band, then him on matches and her sotto voce. Stanwyck was an actress often too big for the roles she played. (Her struggle against the constraints of a reality sometimes too small for our dreams was most passionately portrayed in her 1983 swan song, the Thorn Birds.) In Ball of Fire, a comedy with a plot, we see her as cunning, coy, fun and flustered, and always fully woman. When you watch it, keep in mind that Stanwyck didn’t pull her punches, and that she actually broke actress Kathleen Howard’s jaw in a stunt you’ll see on film. Above, Stanwyck as Stella Dallas, Below, from Ball of Fire, and Stanwyck's last on screen performance in The Thorn Birds - immortal!

Drum Boogie, with Krupa & Cooper in Ball of Fire

The Thorn Birds


Echo said...

I just watched your video of Ms. Stanwyck in the Thornbirds while simultaneoulsy watching 'Remember the Night' 1940 on TCM.

It was something to see her so young and so old at the same time.

Even in her last performance she really knocked it out of the park. The best acting in the movie. (Thornbirds) Thank you for this article on Ms. Stanwyck. She is my personal favorite actress.

Ted Keer said...

Thanks, Echo. Yes, Stanwyck is incomparable. I have fixed the Drum Boogie link, I hope you enjoy it.

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