If I had to choose the five major American screen actresses of all time, the list would be: Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, and Barbara Stanwyck. Gish is a given: She laid the cornerstone for movie actors, even if her films themselves and some aspects of her acting style place her firmly in the distant past. Davis and Hepburn are institutions who cannot be ignored, but they’re so extreme and outsized that they will always remain controversial figures, inspiring imitation, adulation, and derision in equal measure. Streep has reached the institution stage fairly recently, and she too is a controversial figure, disliked by many because of her reliance on technique and her distanced displays of emotion.
Which brings us to Barbara Stanwyck, the ultimate American screen actress who seamlessly blended technique and feeling. While Davis and Hepburn were winning the awards, garnering publicity and posing theatrically, Stanwyck was creating an awesome body of comparatively naturalistic work that has not dated. Unlike her contemporaries, she also worked with almost all of the great American film directors. On the eve of her centenary last summer, some writers composed lengthy tributes to her, emphasizing her sex appeal and trying to define her position as a tough, vulnerable, street-smart woman in a man’s world. But a magazine-length piece on Stanwyck just won’t cut it. This is an artist whose painstakingly detailed, always deeply felt work demands to be analyzed more fully. Unfortunately, this first Stanwyck-themed DVD box set does not remotely represent her work and doesn’t provide much of a platform for any but the most cursory analysis of her style.
It’s tough to put together a set like this for Stanwyck; along with Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and Charles Boyer, she was one of the few stars who didn’t sign long-term contracts with studios. And like Grant, Dunne, and Boyer, this is part of the reason that she never won an Oscar for any of her performances: no studio was pushing for her. Four of the entries here are late MGM movies, when that company had lost all its energy. Stanwyck can do nothing to enliven a dull, cheated-on wife in the extremely dull society drama East Side, West Side. To Please a Lady is a helplessly middle-aged formula movie with a tired Clark Gable, while Executive Suite is a square, conventional boardroom drama, done Grand Hotel-style with a large cast. Stanwyck gets to have a flashy breakdown after being confronted by William Holden, but she’s barely in the film. Jeopardy is a bread-and-butter actioner that probably took a week to shoot and isn’t worth anyone’s time. Stanwyck is miscast as a timid widow in the smooth Warner Bros. soap opera My Reputation, which plays like a tentative rehearsal for Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. By comparison with these dim items, George Stevens’s Annie Oakley looks like a charming, picturesque bit of lackadaisical Americana, even if it focuses too much on a love triangle.
Meanwhile, there are many great Stanwyck films that await DVD release: Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night, with its tricky Preston Sturges script and switches in tone; Anthony Mann’s Freudian western The Furies, where Stanwyck makes unforgettable use of a handy pair of scissors; her two moving dramas for Douglas Sirk, All I Desire and There’s Always Tomorrow; and a slew of minor delights, like Andre de Toth’s The Other Love and Hugo Fregonese’s Blowing Wild. Surely there could also be a whole set released of her early Frank Capra Columbia films, which made her career. Like the centenary pieces, this set means well, but it doesn’t begin to do Stanwyck justice.
All six films look and sound better than they ever have; it’s especially nice to actually be able to see the detail of Curtis Bernhardt’s lighting choices in My Reputation.
Some cartoons and trailers, a few radio adaptations, and a truly weird "I’m just pulling this out of my ass" commentary for Executive Suite by Oliver Stone.
An unrepresentative, dud Stanwyck set.