What Makes Barbara Stanwyck Tick?
Those spooky members of the motion picture industry known to the public as “star makers” must have gotten something of a jolt from this magazine’s recent poll showing its readers’ 1953 favorites.
The amiable youths, male and female, did not exactly bulk large in the proceedings. Some might say that they hardly bulked at all. Among the gentlemen preferred by blondes were such downy-cheeked upstarts as John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Bing Crosby, fast-greying Jeff Chandler, Robert Taylor, Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. And sandwiched among the ten most admired of the ladies, up or down a trifling notch from the likes of June Allyson, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner and Betty Grable, was Barbara Stanwyck, who is not only fast-greying but greyed. You might call Miss Stanwyck’s close-cropped hair “silvered,” but not through any preference of hers.
Miss Stanwyck was a little surprised by her appearance on the list again, although she took it in her stride, having in the past been acknowledged as rather more than competent. But in this, the era of the star makers and the time of the Jaguar, she didn’t seem to have done anything to deserve so handsome an accolade.
No artillery division had voted her “Girl We Would Most Like To Shoot Out Of A Howitzer.” She had not become embroiled with a single Hollywood committee over what she did or didn’t wear. And she absolutely did not sashay up and down the length of any continent with a man to whom evidently she was not wed.
All in all, Miss Stanwyck’s contribution to her own career was neither more nor less than it always has been: she continued to be one of the best, if not indeed the best, actress in the business.
“That,” said Miss Stanwyck recently, “I don’t admit for a moment, although I’m so moved by your saying so that I would buy you a lunch if you hadn’t eaten. But even if it were true, doesn’t it sound sort of immaterial? I’ve been having a hunch that talent, as a barometer of popularity, has ceased to exist. Or maybe it never existed. Don’t think for a moment I’m carping. The men who run this industry usually know what’s best for the boxoffice. But
there was a time—when I broke in, around 1932—when you weren’t a star until you became a star. It may sound a bit medieval and fuddy-duddy now, but it was true. We thought of it then as orderly progression, like building a house from the foundation up. It never seemed practical to ‘start with the roof. First you learned to act, then you became an actress; then if you worked very hard and if you were lucky and if the breaks came your way, you finally were called a ‘star’ or a ‘name’ and at the very end, if you keep right on doing your best year after year and got to know your business cold, you were a success. After that, there are no problems except staying a success—and that’s no more a problem than walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls. But it helps—it does help—if you know one helluva lot about tightrope walking.”
Miss Stanwyck paused, considered, stubbed out a cigarette, got a light for another, sat back in a modified lounge chair with the prim, straight-backed posture of a little girl whose mother has taught her to sit like a lady at all times, and considered some more. She was wearing a short, full skirt and a sweater, a hunk or two of casual jewelry and a somewhat furrowed look around the brow.
“No doubt,” she said after a while, “I’ve gone on about this before. You might even call it one of my favorite go-on-abouters. But probably there’s something to it. Look, you take a man, a young man—or a girl—who has been in your particular shop for, say, a year, and say to him suddenly: ‘You are now our star salesman.’ Or your star front man, or what have you. ‘We will send out a barrage of letters and fanfare,’ you say, ‘announcing you as such. Thus customer resistance will be beaten to a pulp before you even. show your face. From there on all you have to do is keep breathing.’ Well, it isn’t as easy as that. Or if it is —and once in a while it is—it shouldn’t be. Where does the poor kid stand? He doesn’t know—oh, shipping—he doesn’t know production, he doesn’t know the clerical end, he doesn’t know tooling or purchasing. He just doesn’t know. But he’s Mr. Big. Without the background. So if he falls on his face, who’s to blame? A person? A system? I don’t know. But I’m not sure it’s the best way in the world to run a railroad.”
Nor even the second best, offered another person, muttering about balloons. A balloon was a little, limp nothing. You blew it up and it was a big, fat nothing. But it was still nothing.
“That’s true and it isn’t,” said Miss S. “Because sometimes they shoot it full of helium instead of just air and it keeps rising. It’s a funny thing, but the phony inflation of a personality does sometimes work, and all your arguments fall apart. You’re right but you’re wrong—and they can prove it. Pictures are no business for the scientific minds or the engineers. They’d go berserk in no time. There are stars, big stars, out here who have traveled to the moon on nothing but a gimmick—and more power to them. May I make a point of that, by the way? I wouldn’t want you to think that as one of the busy beavers myself, I envy or—or deplore success of any kind. That’s not Girl Scout talk; it’s true. I like to see it happen, whether it’s rigged to a gimmick or what they call in the front office, genius. But you have to feel sorry for the youngsters who haven’t got genius or a gimmick either, because then there’s nothing left to fall back on but the things in the middle—some talent, a capacity for hard work, genuine ambition. And those things, all three together, aren’t common. And even if the kid does have them all he’s pretty vulnerable to premature publicity.”
“The talent’s vulnerable because it’s brought along too fast, like a flashy young fighter being overmatched. I could name you names, but what would it prove? Please don’t conjecture. I’m not talking about Marilyn Monroe, for instance. She’s trying hard to leave the launching phase of her publicity behind her and she’s developing into a fine comedienne. She’s really ambitious. I’m coming to that. All right. The capacity for work is blunted by a kind of surface success being handed to you before you know what work is. You see? A youngster makes two pictures, has umpty-ump magazine stories written about him, gets the A-treatment at Mocambo and he’s in. Without working. So why work? And in a little while, when he’s out again, he won’t know why and perhaps he’s incapacitated from ever learning, which is even worse. He’s been a star, even if he wasn’t really one. What is there after that?
“And ambition. By ambition, I mean wanting, truly wanting, to act, not simply to be an actor, a star. There’s a world of difference. One wants in his heart and in his mind to learn to move an audience. The other wants only to sign autographs and be pointed out in nightclubs. That’s not an ambition, it’s a daydream. What the second wants may come to the first in the natural, healthy order of events. But the second should never leave home. They start with nothing, seek nothing and will get nothing.”
Miss Stanwyck, as the foremost exponent of the husky, breathless, catch-in-the-throat delivery, has a bit of a gimmick of her own, but on her it looks incidental. Now in her twenty-second year of unquestioned stardom, she has incited inestimable millions of people to tears, wrath and the deepest sort of male breathing (e.g., Double Indemnity, in which Miss S. portrayed a trollop so artfully as to make the Johnston Office uncertain whether to write a new rule or just wash its hands of the whole business). For such undeviating polish, Miss Stanwyck has a word of her own, which covers all the adjectives in splendidly succinct fashion. She necessarily does not apply it to herself—although it certainly does apply—but to such highly respected colleagues as Shirley Booth, Thelma Ritter, Clifton Webb, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Ralph Bellamy and many others. The word is “pro.”
“It says everything,” avers Miss Stanwyck. “There are the pros and the non-pros. The pros have it. They are the actors. One of the classic examples here in pictures is Bill Holden. I’m prejudiced, sure. The Holdens are dear friends. But Bill did it the slow way, the sure way, the quiet way. He had good pictures and fair ones and bad ones. The bad ones got him down. I told him to forget it and learn from them what he could. He would have anyway, but I told him. He plugged ahead, another beaver like me. Bobby-soxers didn’t mob him. He didn’t get umpty-thousand letters a month before he’d opened his mouth on a screen. But he learned and he grew. Now look at him, this wonderful run of great pictures, beginning with Stalag 17—and you won’t mind my mentioning Executive Suite? That’s what I’m talking about. Bill can be around forever if he wants to, just because he built and was built from the bottom instead of the top. It can be cruel the other way around and sometimes needlessly so. I’m not trying to tell the masterminds how to run their business, because they knowhow. But what can be good for the business can be bad, very bad, for the player. I have no reforms. It’s the way it’s done. The rules of the jungle didn’t come from Frank Merriwell. But, now and then to survive: you’ve got to be good and tough. Or tough and good.”
Well, who, for example, had been clawed and survived?
“Bob Taylor was one,” said Miss Stanwyck without breaking stride. “He had this ‘Pretty Boy’ label pasted on him. Girl fans hiding under the bed. It was nonsense and all the wrong kind. It antagonized people more than anything else. It almost knocked Bob cold. He’d come home some nights and—Well, that’s beside the point. But he stuck with it. Because he’s an actor, a good actor, and now he has proved it. But I don’t think those days were easy.”
Miss Stanwyck would please excuse it, but there had been reports that—
“No,” she said sharply. “We’re good friends again. At last. It took some doing. But—no. A flat and final no. I am good and sick of conjecture, too. Conjecture is the cheapest thing in the world. We’ll eat dinner together or go out to a nightclub, and yackety-yackety-yack. People simply don’t know what they’re talking about. I know what I know; Bob knows what he knows. They don’t.”
But a partial reconciliation had been affect—?
“I don’t know what you call a reconciliation. We’ve gone back to getting on well, that’s what I’m trying to say. And that’s all?
But even that much had not been easy?
“Easy? It was terrible. For a year I was so bitter, I—I— Well, I don’t know. Bob wanted to be friends right along. Not me. Then gradually— Well, he’s a nice guy to be with. Always was. You’ve got me off the track, though. My point was that Bob was exposed to cheap publicity and ridicule, and survived it. Not many do. The ones that can survive are the good ones. Vic Mature. He got off to a bumpy start. Too fast, too bumpy. The beautiful hunk of man and so forth. It might have seemed great then but he knows better now. But Vic got by it, too, because he’s a fine actor and he’s proved it and it can’t be denied. But take those two and only a handful of others, and I can’t name you a single player who was victimized—and I do mean victimized—by freak promotion who’s up there today. Up there solid, I mean. It just doesn’t do them any good.”
The cause of Miss Stanwyck’s decision to divorce Robert Taylor after more than eleven years of marriage is not, of course, wholly unknown, but neither are any of the guesses notably documented or authorized. A close friend of Miss Stanwyck, queried point blank on the subject, has said with a kind of tired frankness: “Certainly I know the answer. Why should I lie to you? I’m one of the very few who do. And to provide it to you or to anyone else would be an inexcusable invasion of privacy. And that’s about the truest statement you can hear or read on the matter.”
As to whether Miss Stanwyck has a new male interest, the reply is substantially the same. That portion of her private life open to general survey these days does not tend to encourage any reckless chitchat about romance. When she’s not working—which is rare—she’s up at about eight-thirty in the morning, in her pool by eight-forty-five and tearing into a breakfast steak by nine. A little later she’d just as soon play tennis if her partner will swear not to hit her over the head with his racket, because Miss Stanwyck’s tennis isn’t what it once was. Nor her golf. In fact, her golf never was. Golf looked like a cinch to Miss Stanwyck after tennis, merely a problem of hitting a little old stationary object from here over to there. But first there was the problem of hitting the little old stationary object in the first place and that was the one she failed to master. Always raising her head to gaze with the look of eagles down the fairway to see where the ball had gone, which was nowhere, largely because she’d raised her head.
“In golf,” Miss Stanwyck has snarled on occasion, “either you hit it and can’t see it or you see it and can’t hit it.”
Evenings, she likes to have friends in for music and conversation but absolutely no word games like Scrabble. They set Miss S.’s teeth on edge. Maybe an early movie with her close friend and personal publicist, Helen Ferguson, one-time screen star who now operates a glossy public relations salon in Beverly Hills. Maybe reading until four A.M. Miss Stanwyck is an omnivorous reader, who’ll sail happily through anything from a pocket whodunit to Arnold Toynbee. She has no taste for nightclubs and will go only to hear a favorite entertainer—and then only to the early show. Then back to West Los Angeles as fast as her very fast car and the Los Angeles ground rules will permit.
She is a woman to whom “order” is a word with obsessive overtones. She clocks her engagements and diversions to split seconds and is actually pre-punctual for dates. “You wouldn’t think,” a friend has said, “of dropping in on her without calling first. It would shatter her schedule.” With intimates she is utterly relaxed; with strangers or casual acquaintances, shy but with a shyness she contains well under surface volubility and a trace of discernible tension. Like so many persons with neat minds, she is a furious ashtray emptier. Let more than one-and-a-half butts sully a tray the size of a wagon wheel, and swoosh! It is emptied, wiped and in position for the next trip.
That is Miss Stanwyck away from a studio. When she works—she works.
Ruby Stevens, as the kids around Broadway correctly called Miss Stanwyck in the latish Twenties, was born in Brooklyn one hot July 16, 1907, and was orphaned four years later. She did not, however, go to an orphanage or to any other charitable institution, no matter what you may have heard to the contrary. She was boarded out by her sister Mildred with various families. First she wanted to be a dancer like Isadora Duncan. Second, a missionary to China. Then she went back to Isadora again and at the distinctly tender age of thirteen, Ruby was hoofing on Broadway’s Strand Roof.
In those days she was one of an inseparable triumvirate, of which the others were Mae Clarke, later to crack pictures herself, and Wanda Mansfield, today the widow of songwriter Walter Donaldson. While at liberty (a near-chronic condition then) the three hung around a tavern run by Billy LaHiff (whose niece got to be known here and there as Nancy Carroll) until Billy, apparently in self-defense, decided to get Ruby a job. Willard Mack, a top producer of the day, was the lad who took the chance and presently he had promoted Miss-Stanwyck-to-be from a chorus slot to a poignant and juicy role. This she performed right tastily and that was that and has been ever since. But while he was about it, Mr. Mack took care of her name. The story is that he was standing near an old playbill reading, “Jane Stanwyck in Barbara Frietchie.” And that he just took one fast look, held out his hand and said, “Hello, Barbara Stanwyck.” Well, it could have been like that.
The Noose ran a year in New York and led to Burlesque, a sad and tender play in which Miss Stanwyck and the late Hal Skelley sustained two performances which couldn’t have been much better or more affecting. Then came Hollywood.
The roll of drums that accompanied Miss Stanwyck’s entrance made the sort of noise that indicated that the drummer had gone out for a smoke. She tested for nine roles and got none of them. Her tenth time at bat found Director Frank Capra looking for someone for an item titled Ladies Of Leisure. Would Miss Stanwyck test? “No, thank you,” said Miss Stanwyck. “I’ve already had some.” According to Miss Stanwyck’s official biography this moved Mr. Capra to hire her on the spot, and if that is not precisely so, it’s too much trouble to check right now.
Ladies Of Leisure was a good picture (although two predecessors resisted the strongest deodorants with total success) and Miss Stanwyck, in it, a brilliant actress.
Nor has she been anything less since. Just—even in the misfires—better and better and better.
Such whole-hearted conscientiousness and application deserve a footnote. A few weeks ago Miss Stanwyck was asked, as she is frequently asked, if she hadn’t had enough, if she wouldn’t care to get out while she was on top and raise Herefords in Calabasas?
“Nope,” she said. “Herefords and I aren’t simpatico. Besides, I love to act.”
Or return to the stage?
“Nope. Not enough variety. In this business it’s always something different.”
What, then, if she did slip, if recession, as it must to all, came to her?
“Slip and act at the same time.”
And if the point came when she were forced to take character roles with sleazy, run-down studios?
“Try to make it the best character performance the sleazy, run-down studio ever had.”
Not mentioned by Miss Stanwyck’s current history, but an item of record nonetheless, is that before Taylor she had been married to Frank Fay, a superb master of ceremonies and later a gifted serious actor, but not a fellow of predictable behaviour. Miss Stanwyck once pronounced her own epitaph on this union.
She was asked if she wished to attend Harvey in New York, a spectacularly successful play in which Mr. Fay played in triumph an amiable souse opposite a nonexistent, six-foot bunny.
“I think not,” said Miss Stanwyck. “I’ve already seen all the rabbits Mr. Fay has to offer.”
Miss Stanwyck, for all her perfectionism in the professional sense, is not one to raise much of a rumpus while her picture is in production. She raises it all beforehand and gets it out of the way. She’s impatient of small talk, would as soon not use the telephone if it could be avoided and has managed somehow to channel her tensions into creative endeavor.
The chances are, moreover, that she is quietly really happy over your citation to her, via Modern Screen. She likes to have accomplishment designated as such.
—BY JOHN MAYNARD
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE APRIL 1954