The astounding and legendary life and career of Barbara Stanwyck began in Brooklyn, New York. The youngest of 5 children born to common laborers, Stanwyck was originally known as ‘Ruby Stevens.’ She became orphaned by the age of 4. After her mother’s death and her father abandoned the family, Ruby was raised primarily by her older, showgirl sister. Stanwyck left school to earn a living when she was 13, became a chorus girl at 15, and danced cabaret on Broadway in “The Noose” at 18. It was on Broadway that she was introduced as ‘Barbara Stanwyck’ for the first time. At the age of 20, while performing in Ziegfeld Shows, Barbara landed the lead in the Broadway show “Burlesque”, which led to contracts with Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers.
Historical Ziegfeld Group photos of Barbara Stanwyck and Hal Skelly in “Burlesque”
While in her 20’s, Barbara acted in the films “Broadway Nights” (1927) and “The Locked Door” (1929). She almost gave up on her acting career, but decided to move to Hollywood to pursue film options. A young Frank Capra directed “Ladies of Leisure” in 1930 which was Barbara’s first considerable movie role. People that met Stanwyck described her as dedicated, modest, generous and beloved.
Barbara was also considered to be outspoken, much like some of the women she portrayed. Hitting the top of the A-list with the likes of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the role of women in film began to be redefined. Movies such as “Ladies They Talk About” in 1932 and “Annie Oakley” in 1935 paved the way for Stanwyck’s grand talent and Academy Award recognition.
Clip from the film Annie Oakley (1935)
The 1930’s and 40’s brought continued success. In a field traditionally dominated by men, Barbara held her own and became a beacon for other women to follow. Displaying determination, commitment, and tenacity, she rose above ordinary roles. One of her most famous roles was in the 1937 film, “Stella Dallas.” Starring opposite John Boles, this moving film displayed Stanwyck’s incredible acting range as class and station issues arise. In a review of the 1941 movie, “Ball of Fire,” where Barbara starred with Gary Cooper, The New Yorker said, “…[her] confidence is charming; she is like a cocky street urchin in spangles.” [The New Yorker, Dec. 2013]
From comedies and dramas to thrillers and westerns, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Barbara Stanwyck continued to portray feisty women. In “The Cattle Queen of Montana” (1954), fending off greedy land grabbers and hired killers, she stakes her claim in the cattle business. Despite the mediocre script, Barbara co-starred with Ronald Reagan and continued to be a shining star. In the 1964 movie, “Roustabout” starring Elvis Presley, Stanwyck played strong-willed, Maggie Morgan, the almost-bankrupt owner of a traveling carnival. Mae West was originally slotted for the role but Stanwyck was cast instead. Barbara’s talent was almost lost on this film, but at least one co-star was so mesmerized by her, he worked hard to live up to her level of professionalism. The only remarkable thing about making this movie, in Elvis’ opinion, was getting to work alongside Stanwyck.
Barbara transitioned into acting for television and did so with ease. Her television career included “The Jack Benny Program” (1932-1955), “Goodyear Theater” (1957-1960), “Zane Grey Theater” (1956-1961), and “The Barbara Stanwyck Show” (1960-1961). She received a Prime Time Emmy Award for “The Barbara Stanwyck Show”. She became a fast favorite in the series, “Big Valley” (1965-1969). Throughout the remainder of her career, she remained dedicated and continued to portray strong female leads. Eagerly moving into the 1970’s and 1980’s, her course continued through television with “The Thornbirds” (1983), a made-for-television miniseries, and “The Colby’s” (1985-1987), a prime time soap opera spinoff of “Dynasty”. Barbara’s role in “The Colby’s” was brief; she only stayed for the first season. She felt her character, Constance, wasn’t going any place, but Barbara was!
In a letter addressed to, “The Student Writers and Film Historians at The University of Wyoming” Barbara encouraged us to “…pay attention to dialogue… refresh our memories…and re-read a few…” of the scripts (80+) she has donated. She insisted that, “Dialogue is the foundation.”
Often referred to as “The Best Actress Who Never Won an Oscar”, Barbara Stanwyck was presented with her honorary Oscar in 1982 by John Travolta. He later commented that the experience was his ‘Supreme Oscar Moment’. Stanwyck led a fairly personal private life and never remarried after her divorce in 1951 from Robert Taylor. Generous, humble and, typical of Barbara, at the 1984 Golden Globe Ceremony, where she was awarded the award for for ‘Best Supporting Actress in a Series’, Barbara focused on Ann-Margaret, for her performance in “Who Will Love My Children”. Selfless, talented and overcoming great odds, Barbara Stanwyck’s incredible life and career spanned the majority of the 20th century. When asked about life and endurance, Barbara would say, “I want to go on until they shoot me.” Barbara’s request for no funeral services or memorials was honored and after her cremation, her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California.
A selection of materials from the Barbara Stanwyck papers will be on display in the loggia of the American Heritage Center Monday, March 5 through Saturday, March 10, 2018. The entirety of the Barbara Stanwyck papers are available for research use in the reading room of the American Heritage Center.
-Vicki Glantz, Archives Technician
Exhibit designed by Vicki Glantz & Katey Parris.