Film Forum is one week into their exhaustive retrospective of Hollywood legend Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most versatile and beloved stars of the studio era. The month-long tribute to my personal favorite actress has already screened many of her all-time best performances, including a healthy dose of her early 1930s pre-Code work as tough sexual heroines. You’d do yourself a giant favor by checking out Stanwyck’s work in Night Nurse (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Ladies of Leisure (1930), The Purchase Price (1932), and perhaps the most delightfully deviant pre-Code film of all, Baby Face (1933).
Stanwyck has for whatever reason largely avoided becoming a gay icon on the level of a Davis or a Crawford, though she has done her fair share of camp classics and bitchy butch roles. Perhaps it’s because her performances have aged so much better than many of her peers. You will probably never see a drag queen take on a Stanwyck impersonation (read that as a challenge if you wish). There is something contemporary about her comic timing, her melodramatic tears, her sultry evil, her compelling warmth. If you transplanted Stanwyck from 1942 into 2013, she would have to make few adjustments to fit right in with today’s crop of actresses. Be sure to make your way down to Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) to celebrate Stanwyck, most winning in these seven classics, some rightly embraced over the years, others in sore need of audience attention today. Frankly you can never go wrong with a Stanwyck film, but these are among the cream of the crop.
- Ball of Fire (1941): Stanwyck’s second Oscar nomination was for Howard Hawks’ jazzy comic updating of “Snow White”, starring our Stany as Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer on the run from a subpoena demanding she testify against gangster Dana Andrews (rarely sexier). Along comes Gary Cooper, one of seven professors living in a giant mansion writing an encyclopedia, who is trying to get his head around 1940s street lingo. Sugarpuss finds refuge with the professors and naturally love blossoms between researcher and subject. With Hawks behind the camera, the dialogue flies fast and furious, and Stanwyck develops delicious chemistry with Cooper. One of the great screwball comedies of the 1940s. (Screens Saturday Dec. 14, check www.filmforum.org for times.
- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): The film noir edge will always go to Double Indemnity in Stanwyck’s filmography, but this is a marvelous surprise of the genre. Played as a young girl by Janis Wilson (the ugly duckling daughter in Now, Voyager), Martha Ivers finds herself involved in a murder that she keeps secret for seventeen years, going so far as to marry the only witness to the crime (Kirk Douglas in his first role) to ensure his silence. Stanwyck is bad to the core here, seducing Van Heflin away from legendary lezzie Lizabeth Scott and degrading her alcoholic hubbie every chance she gets. (Screening Sunday December 15; check www.filmforum.org for times)
- The Furies (1950): Four years before Johnny Guitar, Anthony Mann cast Stanwyck in a similar ball-busting butch western role. Fans of Crawford’s pants-wearing camp will delight in Stany’s performance as Vance (yes, Vance), a cutthroat cattle ranch heiress in an unusual relationship with her gun-toting father. If anyone could sell incest with elderly daddy Walter Huston, it’s Stanwyck. Even dashing Wendell Corey and Gilbert Roland can’t completely distract her from wild-eyed jealousy when dad’s fiancée Judith Anderson (lesbian icon ‘Mrs. Danvers’ in Rebecca) shows up with designs on taking everything away from our hardened heroine. Deliciously evil and directed with edgy panache by the always great Mann, this is one of the best westerns you’ve probably never seen. (Screening Wednesday December 18; check www.filmforum.org for times)
- Stella Dallas (1937): One of the great three-hanky “women’s pictures” of classic Hollywood, Stanwyck was nominated for her first Oscar in the title role, losing to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld. Compare the two performances and you will agree Barb was robbed. As a blowsy lower-class mother whose gaudy fashion sense and tacky vocabulary threaten to shun her daughter from the social register, Stanwyck is funny, charming, and ultimately heartbreaking in her final moments of self-sacrifice. (Screening Sunday December 22, check www.filmforum.org for times)
- The Mad Miss Manton (1938): It’s most unusual to see Stanwyck in a screwball comedy where she isn’t headstrong and crafty, but she pulls off the flighty socialite role here beautifully in a long unseen highlight of her career. Melsa Manton and her group of lady mystery buffs find themselves entangled in a real life murder in the high society set, but in their excitable desire to solve the crime, they get in the way of investigative reporter Henry Fonda. It’s great fun to see Stanwyck and Fonda together in what many could consider a test run for the next film on the list. (Screening Monday December 23; check www.filmforum.org for times)
- The Lady Eve (1941): Some fans would argue that rather than being nominated for Ball of Fire the same year, Stanwyck should have received her Oscar nod for this Preston Sturges classic. I’m one of those fans. Similar to Sugarpass O’Shea, Stanwyck’s world-wise heroine here is Jean Harrington, a seductive card shark who sets her sights on befuddled Henry Fonda, a brewery heir whose real interest is in studying reptiles and amphibians. She doesn’t count on falling in love with him, but after she calls the scam off, he discovers her identity and tosses her aside. Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman, leading to an even wilder scheme to get her hands on his millions. They simply don’t make films like this anymore, no matter how hard they try. (Screening Tuesday December 24; check www.filmforum.org for times)
- Remember the Night (1940): The perfect Christmas couples film, on par with The Shop Around the Corner from the same year but so rarely seen. Barbara plays a shoplifter caught during the Christmas shopping rush and prosecuted by Fred MacMurray (always sexy in gay director Mitchell Leisen’s films, like this one). When MacMurray learns she will spend the holidays in jail awaiting trial, he decides to bail her out and take her out west for his family Christmas celebration. Naturally the two find love along the way, so how can he go back to the big city and send her to prison? Written by the great Preston Sturges before he struck out on his own in the director’s chair, this film is almost effortlessly charming. The best way to finish up the holiday season. (Screening Wednesday December 25 through Tuesday December 31; check www.filmforum.org for times)