Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Books: Barbara Stanwyck - The Miracle Woman

Ordinarily I'm not much of a biography (or autobiography) reader. While I always see biographies of people I'm interested enough in to read, it's rare that I'll want to go back and re-read them. When it comes to film/TV autobiographies, I think I have a grand total of three: the recent Carol Burnett memoir This Time Together (which I adored), and two Trek ones by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols (how can I be a Trekkie and not have one or two?). Of course, some people are more into them than others, but I tend to prefer reading about film history in general. Maybe one day I'll do a post about it.

I saw the news about the book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman while looking at the Museum of the Moving Image's schedule of upcoming movies and seeing their twin bill of The Lady Eve and Forty Guns, which screened last Sunday. Author Dan Callahan was in attendance, signing copies as well as introducing the two films. Prior to this event, however, I read a galley version of the book, downloaded from NetGalley (thanks to Clint Kimberling of the University Press of Mississippi for pointing me in this direction).

Callahan's book goes straight to the heart of Stanwyck's long and distinguished career and analyzes her films in depth, grouping them in specific categories - her noirs, her Westerns, her films with Frank Capra, etc. Some films obviously get more scrutiny than others - an entire chapter is devoted to Stella Dallas, for instance - but in each case Callahan discusses the pros and cons of each film as well as his thoughts about Stanwyck's work in each. His analysis is very thoughtful and insightful. While I naturally know more about her big hits, like Double Indemnity and Ball of Fire and Sorry, Wrong Number, I also gained a deeper insight into her earlier films like Ladies of Leisure and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which Callahan has high praise for as well.

Stany's personal life is given a minimum of discussion, though certain elements resonate throughout the rest of the book. Apparently she had an abusive first husband, which is so hard to believe when you consider all the tough-talking, no-nonsense dames she played. How could a woman like her let any man mistreat her so? But of course, the image on the screen doesn't always line up with reality. Thankfully she kicked him to the curb.

Still, you have to accept the bad with the good. I knew she was a political conservative prior to reading this book, for instance. I did not know, however, that she had an estranged relationship with her adopted son. Again, Callahan doesn't linger for very long on the personal stuff, but in discussing her roles, he often draws parallels with certain aspects of her life - her poor childhood, for instance - and how the one informed the other, and as a result, one gets a greater appreciation of what went into forming her most memorable characters.

I've admired Stanwyck for years, but now I feel like I have a better understanding of her as a woman, warts and all, so to speak. She worked on stage, screen and television, with some of the greatest actors and directors in Hollywood history, in a variety of genres, for a large chunk of the 20th century. Anyone with a love for classic film history will find much to love and appreciate about this book.

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