Friday, August 12, 2011

Stanwyck on TV: The Big Valley

This is Barbara Stan-week! All this week we'll celebrate the life and career of my favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, covering different eras of her long and distinguished journey through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Barbara Stanwyck had a tremendous film career, but her television career was equally prolific. She won three Emmy Awards over the course of her twenty-plus years on the small screen, endearing her to a new generation of fans. The Barbara Stanwyck Show was a dramatic anthology series which attracted an all-star lineup of guest stars. It only lasted a single season, but earned Stanwyck her first Emmy. She made guest appearances on a wide variety of TV shows, such as Dynasty and The Colbys in the 80s, and starred in several TV movies, including the mini-series The Thorn Birds, which was another Emmy-winner for her.

Possibly her best known television role, though, was in the ABC Western The Big Valley. Lasting four seasons from 1965-69, Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the matriarch of a 19th-century family living on a California ranch. The show also starred Richard Long, Peter Breck, Lee Majors, and future Dynasty co-star Linda Evans. Valley was a unique Western in having a woman as its big star, distinguishing it from other TV Westerns such as Bonanza, and Stanwyck would win an Emmy for this show as well. Unfortunately, Westerns in general were waning, and as a result Valley was cancelled despite its popularity, but it's still fondly remembered today.

My father loved Westerns. I mean he LOVED Westerns. Couldn't get enough of them. As a kid, I never found much appeal in them, but I think Bonanza might have been my first exposure to them because I remember liking the theme song. Anyway, I thought of him as I watched some episodes of Valley this week, and once again, regretted that I couldn't talk to him about this show, because I would've liked to have included his observations.

I must've watched the wrong episodes, because most of the ones I saw didn't feature Stanwyck as prominently as I had hoped. I understand that the younger stars carried the bulk of the show, particularly Long and Breck, but I guess I thought it'd be more of an ensemble. Still, what I did see I liked. It must have been expensive to make, what with the location shooting, the period costuming, the staging, props, even the live animals. In one episode I saw, Breck's character gets assaulted by a wildcat, and it was kinda shocking to see him (or his stunt double) tussling with an actual wildcat!

Stanwyck is billed as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck." Victoria, from what I saw of her, acts as the stable, steady head of the family, not unlike Bonanza's Ben Cartwright, and occasionally, she gets into the action along with her children. In another episode I saw, they're on a stagecoach that gets jacked and they're stuck in the middle of the desert without water. You'd think that she, as an old woman, would be particularly vulnerable, but she's able to survive as long as the men-folk, and it's the younger woman that's also part of the group that's passing out all over the place (she is four months pregnant, but still).

Stanwyck found new life on television when it was still a very young medium and made it work for her, and as a result, she added more memorable performances to her repertoire - only one more reason why hers is one of the great legacies in Hollywood history.


Previously in Barbara Stan-week:
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About
Golden Boy
Sorry, Wrong Number


  1. What a fun feature. I binged on Stanwyck myself recently after stumbling across a veritable treasure trove of Pre-Codes (and later films I haven't gotten around to covering yet) on YouTube. The more I see of her, the more I'm convinced she was the greatest actress this country ever produced. I went into this in more detail in my Baby Face review, but she has such utter control of her body language, you can actually track nerves firing down her body to the part she wants to barely alter to incredible effect. Her double-take sexuality, a delayed response that, to me, is even more powerful than the full-on "hey now" of Monroe or Russell.

    I still need to check out her TV work, though. She certainly wasn't the first celebrity to move to TV, but she really changed things up and got herself on multiple programs instead of just looking for a star vehicle. Truly a remarkable actress in every way.

  2. There's one moment in 'Sorry Wrong Number' where she realizes that she's the target of the assassins and she's in close-up. The level of shock on her face is terrifying and feels palpably real.

    Glad you liked my theme week.


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