Barbara Stanwyck: A Lady or a Liar?

Barbara StanwyckJust this past December, I profiled TCM’s then star of the month, Barbara Stanwyck, or “Babs from Brooklyn.” The sassy broad is back again for the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol.

Barbara Stanwyck played her share of angelic mothers and the like (SO BIG (1932), THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947), STELLA DALLAS (1937)), but my favorite Stanwyck roles are when she played a smart-talking chiseller  Often, Stanwyck was even able to bring a certain degree of empathy to the dastardly of characters (excepting Phyllis Dietrichson, of course). Many of her swindling characters weren’t really bad women, they were just involved in some pretty seedy dealings. Here is my list of Stanwyck anti-heroines. Whichever way you take your Stanwyck, these movies are definitely classic cinema gold.

lady eveTHE LADY EVE (1941) comedy, romance
Director: Preston Sturges
Co-starring: Henry Fonda and Charles Coburn
Synopsis: After spending a year studying snakes in the Amazon, wealthy beer heir Charles Pike inintentionally falls head-over-heels in love with a card shark’s daughter.
Stanwyck anti-heroine: Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) pulls some fast ones on Pike, before they fall in love, that is. Unfortunately, Pike discovers who she is before she can come straight with him. This leads her to continue to deceive until she can earn back his love, while teaching him a few lessons in the process!

“You see, Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.”

john doeMEET JOHN DOE (1941) comedy, drama, romance
Director: Frank Capra
Co-starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan Spring Byington, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart
Synopsis: After she is fired from the paper, reporter Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) writes a fictional letter from a fictional John Doe who threatens to commit suicide in protest of social ills. The paper rehires her and employs a man to play out the John Doe character for the public, starting a radical political movement.
Stanwyck anti-heroine: Ann Mitchell intended to stir things up for her own benefit, to let off steam and to harm the institution that had just put her out of the job. Little did she know that her selfish angst would spark a national movement.

ball of fireBALL OF FIRE (1941) comedy, romance
Director: Howard Hawks
Co-starring: Gary Cooper, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Dana Andrews, Gene Krupa and his Orchestra
SynopsisA nightclub singer moves in with seven professors working on an encyclopaedia while she hides out from the cops. What she doesn’t wager on is falling in love with the youngest brain, who employs her assistance for his article about American slang. (Here’s a great article about Stanwyck’s costume)
Stanwyck anti-heroine: At the start of the film, Sugarpuss (Stanwyck) is in with a bad crowd. When her boyfriend gets in trouble with the cops, she does her best to help him stay out of trouble, believing he actually intends to marry her. But when she starts associating with the gentle professors, she learns that other people, people she has come to love, are effected by her choices. This causes her to rethink what she really wants out of life.

“Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!”
lady of burlesque
LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943) comedy, musical, mystery, romance
Director: William A. Wellman
Based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee

SynopsisWhen a burlesque performer’s rivals are murdered, she hunts down their killer so as to prevent herself, the prime suspect, from being arrested for a crime she didn’t commit.
Stanwyck anti-heroine: Although Stanwyck plays a stripper, and though she is surrounded by other catty stripper, this film is actually one of the best examples of communities of professional women that I have seen. The camaraderie and friendship exhibited by the showgirls as they work through this case is pretty stellar. The dialogue is also fast-paced, witty, and freaking hilarious!
christmas in connecticut
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) comedy, romance, CHRISTMAS!!!!
Director: Peter Godfrey
Co-starring: Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, Una O’Connor, Dennis Morgan
SynopsisAlthough single New York “Smart Housekeeping” journalist Elizabeth Lane doesn’t even know how to boil an egg, when her editor invites a heroic sailor to spend Christmas at her “farm,” she must recreate the fiction she has established in her column – that she is an excellent cook, wife, mother, and housekeeper.
Stanwyck anti-heroine: As in MEET JOHN DOE, this female journalists fictitious writing is mistaken for real life and lands her in a whole heap of trouble. Elizabeth (Stanwyck) has to jump through hoops of lies in order to save her job and, eventually, her relationship.
“Where am I gonna get a farm? I don’t even have a window box!”
“The things a girl will do for a mink coat.”
double indemnity
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) crime, film noir, thriller

DirectorBilly Wilder
WritersJames M. Cain (novel), Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (screenplay)
Co-staring: Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson
SynopsisAn insurance salesman falls in love with the wife of one of his clients and they have an affair. The couple then plots the murder of her husband so they can collect his life insurance and begin a new life together.
Stanwyck anti-heroine: I saved this one for last because it is most definitely Stanwyck’s cruellest character. Indeed, Phyllis Dietrichson might just be the most evil woman in the whole of movies. Her cold-blooded plotting, dieciet, and murder is just bone-chilling. This is not a Stanwyck that will reform. She does not have a warm heart under all that sinisterness. Just turn around and run a way now.

“I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.”

“It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.”

“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”


Barbara Stanwyck was nothing if not a versatile actress. And what talent! I honestly hadn’t realized how many of her films I had seen, and there are still plenty more on my list. If you are a Stanwyck fan, or thinking of becoming one, do check out my profile on “Babs from Brooklyn,” as well as the other contributions to the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon from The Girl with the White Parasol. Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Barbara Stanwyck: A Lady or a Liar?

  • Matt Faust

    “Remember the Night” is my favorite Barbara Stanwyck movie thus far in my attempt to see all of her films. It’s a redemptive tale wrapped around a tender love story that has Barbara Stanwyck bringing tears to the viewers’ eyes by the end of the movie. The structure of the story is so symmetrical and balanced that the viewer doesn’t realize this amazing effect until the story ends. In the beginning of the movie, Miss Stanwyck is the bad girl petty thief and Fred MacMurray is the wily, good guy lawyer and assistant DA, pitted against each other in a NYC courtroom just before Christmas. The set-up is ordinary and familiar but what ensues is not. By the end of the movie, Barbara Stanwyck is the good girl repentant, and Fred MacMurray is the bad guy manipulator, which causes the viewer to recollect the saying, “there’s a whole lot of good in the worst of us and a whole lot of bad in the best of us”. Barbara Stanwyck is so good at making us wonder about her character and revealing her inner feelings just by watching her face on screen, even when she is not speaking, showing nuances that drive the audience to care about her character. This fantastic actress has been so underrated for so many years that it is difficult to believe that she never won an Academy Award (she was robbed!). At the end of the movie, Barbara Stanwyck really pours it on and shows us that not only is her character capable of reforming but, she is indeed noble, even willing to sacrifice her own happiness for that of another. We realize that her character is a real diamond in the rough. Soon, tears appear in the viewer’s eyes as Miss Stanwyck thoroughly entrances us.

    Best Lines: (While the two are in a clinch in silhouette with the Falls in the distance) MacMurray: Do you know where we’re going on our honeymoon?; Stanwyck: (reluctantly) No, where?; MacMurray: “Niagara Falls”. Stanwyck: (pausing and giving in temporarily to his fantasies),”…….but darling we’re already there.”

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      Sounds like a good one. I’ll have to add that to my list of must-watch movies!

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