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Wednesday
May282014

Barbara Stanwyck: The Real Best Actress of 1941

It's unofficially 1941 Week. Here's Abstew on the year's greatest actress...

See anything you like?

Purrs Barbara Stanwyck's con artist Jean Harrington to Henry Fonda's smitten ale-heir-turned-Ophiologist Charles Pike in Preston Sturges' 1941 screwball classic, The Lady Eve. The question is asked as the contents of her wardrobe are on display (and the sultry delivery let's us know that Jean is hardly talking about the fuzzy slippers), but Stanwyck might have easily been asking movie-goers the same thing regarding her stellar body of work that year. In a quartet of successful films (The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, You Belong to Me, and Ball of Fire), Stanwyck earned her second Oscar nomination, starred in a film Time magazine named one of the 100 greatest movies of all-time, and became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Unquestionably, 1941 would prove to be a peak Stanwyck year. 

Stanwyck has claimed that she was not a natural comedienne, but those who have seen her work in The Lady Eve would beg to differ. It's apparent from her first scene, a meet-cute with Fonda as she clunks an apple on his head as he boards the ship she and her card shark father are on–waiting to swindle him out of his millions–that Stanwyck is game for fun. And Stanwyck with her wise-cracks (and absolutely stunning in midriff-baring Edith Head creations) gives an effortless performance full of humor and bite.

Writer/Director Sturges (who was also having a good year with this film and Sullivan's Travels), having worked with Stanwyck previously on Remember the Night the year before, knew that Stanwyck was fully capable of delivering the comedic bits. And Stanwyck thoroughly sells them. I absolutely adore the scene where she gazes on Fonda through her compact, narrating the inner thoughts and imagined conversations of the women around him clamoring for his attention. Her rapid fire delivery shows a razor sharp mind and carefully tuned delivery that may not have been the weapon of choice for Stanwyck but certainly showed that it was a tool she clearly could handle.

But the brilliance of Stanwyck's work is how she fully fleshes out the character, making her real and believable amid the silliness. In the scene where Fonda's character confronts Jean about her swindling past, Stanwyck uses the hurt of a woman who has always been afraid to lay her cards out on the table to skillfully break our hearts and root for her. For once she let her guard down and allowed herself to love, but his rejection of her true self is shattering and just the catalyst she needs to get back at him with her Lady Eve Sidwich character. The deception would ordinarily make Jean come across as mean-spirited, bitter, even petty, but Stanwyck has so thoroughly seduced us along the way that any comeuppance for Fonda seems like his just reward. 

Eve may stand as Stanwyck's best work of the year (and arguably of her entire career), but her biggest box office success of 1941 was her fifth and final collaboration with director Frank Capra, Meet John Doe. Stanwyck stars as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper reporter that is fired from her job in the first scene of the movie. With one last article to write (and in an attempt to win back her job), Ann writes a fake suicide note from a man claiming that the state of society has driven him to this fate. Readers, identifying with Doe's feelings, demand he reconsider and Ann hires a homeless former baseball player (simple everyman Gary Cooper) to play the part of John Doe and spread the message of learning to love thy neighbor.

The film is way too corny, contrary, and kinda bizarre. Stories from characters seem to go on endlessly, including one from the head of The John Doe Club that seems to last half an hour and a retelling of a dream from Cooper about spanking Stanwyck's Ann that becomes downright kinky but never seems to carry any significance at all. Stanwyck plays her part with her typical moxie and makes the softening of her hardened career girl seem plausible. And with her fine comedic work in the other films of that year, it's nice to see her range on display within this misguided hokum.

Stanwyck's next film teamed her up once again with her Eve co-star, Henry Fonda, in another romantic comedy called You Belong to Me (no, not based on the Taylor Swift song). Stanwyck plays a doctor named Helen Hunt (I wonder if the Oscar winner's parents were a fan of the film) that meets Fonda, playing another millionaire character, after a ski collision. The two seem to making a habit of violent greetings. After the two marry, Fonda becomes jealous of Helen's male patients and after he takes a job she becomes a housewife. But knowing how much his wife loves her work, he buys a hospital and puts Helen in charge. Although the least well-known of her four films from 1941, it was well-received at the time of its release and Stanwyck got to play a professional woman allowed to love her job as much as her husband. Kind of unthinkable for the time period, but then again, Stanwyck has always seemed ahead of her time. 

The film that brought Stanwyck her second Oscar nomination (from a career total of four–without a win) was this Billy Wilder-penned take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs directed by Howard Hawks, Ball of Fire. Amazingly, Stanwyck was the fifth choice to appear in the film after Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers were all offered the role. Stanwyck is a sexy delight as one of the best named characters in all of film, Sugarpuss O'Shea, a nightclub singer that takes up with a group of Professors when she needs a place to avoid the police who want to question her about her mobster boyfriend. The youngest professor, played by Gary Cooper (again. 4 films and only 2 leading men...) specializes in words and is fascinated by the slang that comes out of Sugarpuss' mouth. Naturally she falls for him (the jerk), since he's the first man that's ever tried to move in on her mind.

Stanwyck proves once again that even if comedy didn't come naturally to her, she certainly never let you see it. Spouting off slang that seems to be made-up only for the movie ("screw, scram, scraw"), Stanwyck delivers each line with her Brooklyn sass. Sensational in her first appearance in the film, signing a song called "Drum Boogie" (although her signing voice was dubbed by Martha Tilton) and decked out in a sequined gown with a skirt seemingly  modeled from a car wash, Stanwyck (perhaps recalling her earlier days as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer) has never been as slinky and alluring on screen. Her best scene combines her comedic skills with her sensuality when she playfully seduces Cooper's Professor Potts (Pottsie) by standing on a stack of books and showing him just what yum yum is (it's kissing, by the way).

The film suffers when Stanwyck's not on screen and she elevates the film with her presence. Her nomination that year should have come from her superior work (and a far superior movie) in The Lady Eve, but since Ball of Fire was released in late December to qualify for Oscars, it was still fresh on everyone's mind (Eve had been released all the way back in February, which just goes to show that some things never change when it comes to Oscar.) But the nomination was really a way of honoring her entire body of work for the whole year and even if she lost the award to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (who seemed to be receiving it as consolation for losing the year before for her exceedingly better work in Rebecca), there's no question that the real Best Actress of 1941 was Barbara Stanwyck.

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Reader Comments (13)

A highly enjoyable piece on the fabulous Miss Stanwyck. I wonder if when she said she wasn't a natural comedienne she meant it in the same way that Lucille Ball did. Lucy always said, and it was backed up by those who knew her personally or worked with her, that she was not by nature a funny person but she understood what funny was. She said the most naturally funny woman she ever met was Carole Lombard who had the gift to be funny both in person and on screen.

Meet John Doe is a cornball feast even by Capra standards but the cast manages to put it over, just barely. I was disappointed in You Belong to Me, which took forever to track down, since after a good beginning it got mired in Fonda acting like a fool for most of the film. Surprising that quartet of actresses turned down Sugarpuss it's such a good part and I can envision all of them doing well in it, I guess it was just meant for Stanwyck. While neither are my favorite of her films, I've always had a soft spot for two that would never make any best of list, Christmas in Connecticut and Titanic, it's impossible to pick a favorite between Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve both are so good.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Great article! Truly a fabulously talented actress. Hard to imagine anyone having a year like she had and still not scooping the Oscar.

Nitpick: Taylor Swift's song is called "You Belong WITH Me".

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMia

I'm seeing The Lady Eve again on June 11, on a big screen at the Los Angeles Theatre, one of those old landmark LA movie palaces. Sold out already. Can't wait, I just love this movie.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

PS. "You Belong to Me" is the title of two different songs I like, one by Elvis Costello, the other by Carly Simon, both released in 1978. ;-)

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

While the other 4 actresses could service the part of Sugarpuss, Stanwyck had the "girl from the wrong side of the tracks" persona to pull it off completely. I really love this movie, but her chemistry with Fonda in The Lady Eve is so magical and delightful, her performance as Jean/Eve wins 1941.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I adore her, but if you need to pick just a single Stanwyck performance, that would be The Furies. It's a devastating star turn full of passion, anger, love and tage, but it's never campy. She takes the stock role of a western tomboy and takes it to heights no other actress could reach, because it's so damn believable, heartfelt and real, in spite of the movie's stylization. It's a hurricane of a performance.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Paul! You're going to Last Remaining Seats? Me too! I can't go to The Lady Eve unfortunately, but I'll be at another screening later. I can't think of a better setting for Barbara Stanwyck than the Los Angeles Theatre! Have you been to any of the other movie palaces downtown?

abstew, I love your reviews as always. I haven't seen Ball of Fire yet, but now it's at the top of my list. Thanks!

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

oh man. would love to see that on the big screen. have fun all.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks, Nat!
Anne Marie, I'm a Conservancy member and usually go to at least two of the screenings every year, so I've been to all the theatres. This year I couldn't resist Eve and Citizen Kane.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul Outlaw, it is a small world indeed. I'm actually a Conservancy member as well! I docent for the Conservancy's Historic Downtown tour. This year because of time constraints I'm only doing one LRS screening: Back to the Future. I've been dying to get into the Ace Theater since they reopened it in January. I'm glad to find another Conservancy member at TFE! What are the odds?

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I'll bet we're not the only ones—come out, come out, wherever you are...

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

just one mistake - the headline should read:
"Barbara Stanwyck: The Real Best Actress of Every Year Ever"

But otherwise: fabulous write-up!

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Yes, Barbara (or Bette Davis in LITTLE FOXES) were better than Joan Fontaine in SUSPICION who actually in REBECCA was better than Rogers in KITTY FOYLE, sigh...

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

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