5 for the Day: Barbara Stanwyck

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5 for the Day: Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck needed only a look to inform you of her less than noble intentions. With a raised eyebrow, a lowered eyelid or a bit lower lip, Stanwyck filled the screen with the promise of sex, a promise even the Hays Office couldn't censor. The come-hither look was perfected by Stanwyck, and when I saw her onscreen, I knew the men she cast that gaze upon would toss better judgment and common sense to the wind to accept its invitation.

Men fantasized about Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Rita Hayworth, and while they were beautiful, they were the masculine idea of distant sexiness; a beauty that, even in their wildest dreams, was just out of reach of their horny, desperate grasp. Barbara Stanwyck was the opposite, a feminist idea of earthly hotness. She was sexy because she was attainable; not only was she within reach of your grasp, she'd grab you herself, slam you down on the bed and screw you unconscious. And then she would take your wallet.

Stanwyck played roles where you had to believe that no man, even the most devout, upstanding citizen, could resist doing her bidding. She had to be smart enough to get you to surrender body and soul. Once you slept with Monroe, you could carve that notch into your bedpost and move on; Stanwyck was a mindfuck that stayed with you long after the post-coital cigarette.

I could say that today's “5 for the Day” is a celebration of the versatility of Ms. Stanwyck, but that would be a lie. It was merely an excuse to spend time in the glow of her gaze, imagining what would happen if I could jump into the screen and answer it.

1. Baby Face (1931): Baby Face tells the story of Lily Powers (Stanwyck), a woman who sleeps her way to the top, leaving the destroyed lives of the men she seduces by the wayside. The screenplay blames Nietzsche for her actions, but Stanwyck was just following the adage made famous years later by James Brown: A woman got to use what she got to get just what she wants. This pre-Hays Code movie has plot points that would have killed the censor; Stanwyck was prostituted by her father from the age of 14, and more than one man puts his hands someplace they weren't allowed to on Kate Hepburn. Highlights include Stanwyck giving the come hither look to the luckiest heavy-set accountant in the world, and the scene where Stanwyck answers a man grabbing her breasts by smashing a beer bottle over his head. The nonchalant way she continues enjoying her beer afterwards is priceless.

2. Double Indemnity (1944): In Burt Prelutsky's 1996 interview with Billy Wilder, Prelutsky asks Wilder if Stanwyck has sex with Fred MacMurray when she first visits his apartment. “Of course,” says Wilder, “and very good sex, or how could she persuade such a man to kill her husband?” For MacMurray, that sex was the highlight of his relationship with Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson, but for Phyllis, the orgasm occurs as she watches MacMurray strangle her husband. Watch for Wilder's close-up of Stanwyck's face while the murder is occurring—it is simultaneously sexy and terrifying. Very good sex indeed.

3. The Lady Eve (1941): Stanwyck has a “dual” role here, both as con artist Jean Harrington (note that last name…then see All About Eve) and Harrington's creation, the titular Lady Eve. Henry Fonda's Charlie is the object of both their affections, and he's a dead man walking. Preston Sturges, as he would with The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek a little later, gives the finger to the censor, most notably in two scenes showing Jean working her magic on poor Charlie. In one, she puts her stocking-clad leg damn close to Fonda's face, and in the other, she gets her body even damn closer to Charlie in the film's famous chaise lounge seduction scene, a 4-minute unbroken shot that zeroes in on Henry Fonda's paralyzed face and body—he's the visual interpretation of a boner. Sturges' in-jokes and visual cues about snakes add to the movie's phallic undercurrent: Watch how the cartoon snake goes through the O in Preston Sturges' name in the credits.

4. Forty Guns (1957): “She's a high-ridin' woman with a whip,” sings Jidge Carroll about Stanwyck's Jessica Drummond, the rich rancher who controls the county in Sam Fuller's brutal western classic. Stanwyck's entrance in the film is thrilling; dressed in black atop a white horse, leading her “forty gun” posse, she speeds past a coach carrying marshall/love interest Barry Sullivan, scaring his horses and making her presence known. Though middle-aged by this time, Stanwyck proved she still had the gaze. When Sullivan interrupts dinnertime at her ranch in order to issue a warrant to her brother, Stanwyck bites her lip, lowers her eyes and mutters an amused “Hmmph.” My knees went weak. Later in the film, 50-year old Stanwyck performs a spectacular stunt on a horse, and even takes a bullet like John Wayne. Fuller's camera lingers on these sequences; he refuses to disrespect his lead actress because she's a little older than Hollywood allows. Even her dialogue sounds like vintage Stanwyck: “I need a strong man to carry out my orders,” she tells Sullivan. “And a weak man to take them,” he replies. He knows the score.

5. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): Just for variety, here's a picture where Stanwyck isn't in control. She spends most of the film in bed, a victim of a psychosomatic (or fake?) illness, while trying to figure out who the victim is in the murder plot she overheard on the phone. As she slowly pieces together that it might be her, she goes all Susan Hayward on us (though better than Hayward ever could). It's in the flashback sequence, where we discover how she snared hubby Burt Lancaster, that we see the hot Stanwyck of old; she literally snatches Lancaster from another woman. The “Sorry, wrong number” ending must have been a shocker in 1948, breaking the Hays Office rule that killers must be punished. Like I said, not even the censor could control Barbara Stanwyck.