- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
TIFF Cinematheque Presents - The Films of Barbara Stanwyck
TIFF presents for the first time, an exhaustive retrospective of Stanwyck’s work. For late film risers like me, this will be the first chance to watch her body of her work.
Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens; July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress. She has made a total of 85 films in 38 years in Hollywood, before turning to television.
Stanwyck had a hard life which is reflected in the roles of the characters she portrayed. She ran away many times from her foster homes reflected in the film THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, in which she escaped a total of four times. Her mother passed away when she was little and her father disappeared. She worked a variety of demeaning jobs before finally striking gold on the big screen.
She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress four times, for Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). For her television work, she won three Emmy Awards, for The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961), The Big Valley (1966) and The Thorn Birds (1983). The Thorn Birds also won her a Golden Globe. She also received an Honorary Oscar at the 1982 Academy Award ceremony and the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMill.
For the complete program listing, venue, ticket pricing, please check the TIFF Cinematheque website at
or google TIFF Barbara Stanwyck.
Here are Capsule Reviews of Selected Films. (More will be posted in the following weeks):
BABY FACE (USA 1933) ***
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Besides the innocent title of the film BABY FACE, the tune of which everyone is familiar with, the film is a sexually charged drama that delves into several taboo topics which it does so matter-of-factly. The story of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) begins with her at the age of 14 sleeping around while working at her father’s speakeasy in Pennsylvania. When her father dies in an accident, she leaves with her African friend Chico (Theresa Harris) to NYC. There, she uses sex to climb the corporate ladder destroying many men’s lives, finally reaching the top before she turns over a new leaf. The issues tackled here include under-aged sex, father/daughter abuse, racism in terms of how the film treats the Chico character, just to mention a few. But the marvel of it all is that Green’s film just chugs along innocently. It helps that the Lily Power character finally comes to her senses and love triumphs in the end. The film makes a few assumptions - every man Lily encounters will fall madly in love with her; se can do no wrong; she can outsmart anyone. The young John Wayne has a supporting role of one of Lily’s victims. Unsurprisingly, BABY FACE is supposed to be one of the key films that caused the Hollywood Production Code to be enforced.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (USA 1944) ****
Directed by Billy Wilder
At the end of the film, insurance representative Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) tells his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) that it is a crazy story with a crazy angle to which Keyes replies: “You can’t figure every story out. This is Stanwyck’s best film and the one that has the most unpredictable storyline. Stanwyck plays femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, who with Neff plans an elaborate insurance scam that includes murder of her husband (Tom Powers). As in very film about the perfect crime, something has to go wrong and plenty does in Wilder’s film noir and one of the best film noire to date. Stanwyck is excellent in her role and won an Oscar nomination though it is Robinson who steals the show as the know-it-all Keyes. A brilliantly written, directed and acted film, compelling from start to finish that demands repeated viewings.
THE FURIES (USA 1950) ***1/2
Directed by Anthony Mann
The most camp and most fun of the Stanwyck films that includes a scene in which Stanwyck throws a sharp pair of scissors at her father's mistress. This is Stanwyck in full wild filly mode, flirting with two men and being rejected by one. THE FURIES refer to the ranch and land owned by T.C. who has squandered most of the money by his old age. Daughter Stanwyck is efficient and ruthless enough to take over the property until father kills her lover (Gilbert Roland). She turns to hate in order to survive in a tale that is quite unpredictable compared to the ones in her other films. Stanwyck is at her bet her riding a horse, telling off her father and lovers and looking the most beautiful than in her other films. THE FURIES is my favourite Stanwyck in the retrospective.
THE LADY EVE (USA 1941) ***
Directed by Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges is the master of screwball comedies and this film is one of the rare romantic comedies that Stanwick does screwball. There are no longer screwball comedies currently, the last successful one I can remember being in the 70s’s, Peter Bogdanovich’s WHAT’S UP DOC? The humour is different and young audiences will find it hard to appreciate this type of comedy. The love story is of Jean (Stanwyck) and ale mogul’s son Charles (Henry Fonda). Jean and her father (Charles Coburn) are card sharks looking for prey on a luxury cruise. Charles is the prime target but the two fall in love, but not after problems like her not disclosing her real identity. There are some prize moments such as the segment when various women on the ship try to attract the attention of Charles. Though the romantic comedy is an all predictable affair, this is screwball comedy at its best and perfectly executed under the apt direction of Sturges.
STELLA DALLAS (USA 1935) **
Directed by King Visor
STELLA DALLAS is a woman’a tearjerker that centres on a mother, Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) that loves her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) so much she would do anything for her, including giving her up so that she can have the best in life. Other than that, there is nothing to say about the film except to watch Stanwyck perform. She covers well the various aspects of the role from craze over dresser, to flirtations wife, to good mother to flirtatious teenager. But Vidor’s film, though entirely watchable does come across as chick fluff, designed for that target audience. As such, the film feels contrived and is predictable up to the very end. The comedic parts such as the itching powder segment on the train is hardly funny at all. Stanwyk does her utmost best, and whether she succeeds or overacts is up to the particular viewer to decide. Both Atanwyck and Shirley were nominated for Oscars in acting.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (USA 1946) ***
Directed by Lewis Milestone
1928 - Iverstown, when and where the film begins. A young Martha runs away for the fourth time from her rich aunt. She lives with her after her father, a millhand married rich into the family. She will run and run away again. But on the dark and stormy night when Martha is caught and brought back home, she kills her aunt (whether accidentally or not depends on how the audience takes it) after witnessing her killing her cat. A very impressive beginning and one hopes, naturally that the rest of the film can match up. It does not, but the film almost works owing to the strong characters played by Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas (as the grown-ups) and the occasional solid direction. The film’s main problem is the silly, unbelievable over-melodramatic ending.