A gutsy, versatile actress who starred in a wide variety of genres, Barbara Stanwyck used her striking good looks and undeniable talent to rise to stardom in the 1930s. By 1944, Stanwyck was a major star, the highest paid woman in the United States, and a favorite of directors like Frank Capra and Billy Wilder. Though her film career fell off in the 1950s and gave way to television soon after, Stanwyck had already earned her place as one of classic Hollywood's greatest stars.
While she already had several box office hits under her belt, Barbara Stanwyck earned the first of four career Academy Award nominations for her leading performance in King Vidor’s weepy melodrama. Stanwyck was the titular Stella, a rude, crude factory mill worker who marries a wealthy husband (John Boles), only to watch him move to New York as she stays behind, knowing that she will never fit into high society. It’s only through her deepening friendship with an old boyfriend (Alan Hale) and growing maternal bond with her daughter that Stella learns the true meaning of sacrifice. Stanwyck was perfectly cast as the energetic Stella and elevated herself to an Oscar-caliber performer.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Union Pacific joined John Ford’s Stagecoach from that same year to help revitalize a Western genre previously relegated to B-movie status. Set during the 1860s during the construction of the intercontinental railroad, the film saw Stanwyck top billed as Mollie Monahan, an Irish postmistress who becomes the object of desire of a railroad overseer (Joel McCrea) and his best friend (Robert Preston) from the war. While McCrea fights to see the railroad built, Preston works with a crooked gambler (Brian Donlevy) set on destroying the Union Pacific. While not her most memorable performance, Stanwyck maintained her presence as a box office star and paved the way for the most successful years of her career.
A classic screwball comedy directed by the master Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve featured Stanwyck at her sultry best in this rapid-fire battle of the sexes. Stanwyck shined as Jean, the daughter of a con artist who targets woman-shy snake specialist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) in a scam that takes the poor sap for $32,000 while aboard an ocean liner bound for new York City. In the course of using her feminine wiles to set up her mark, Jean actually falls for Charles, which has the effect of turning her against her father and his partner (Melville Cooper). As Charles spurns her genuine advances, Jean realizes that she needs to use her skills at deception to make him fall in love with her again. Stanwyck exuded sensuality as the sultry Jean, a precursor to the more venomous femme fatales she played later in her career.
The first of two films where she starred opposite Gary Cooper, Meet John Doe featured Stanwyck as a reporter fired from her job whose swan song column is an imaginary John Doe letter declaring the fictional author’s intention to jump off City Hall on Christmas Eve. Of course, the letter causes a public outcry that leads her paper to find a real down-and-out John Doe in order to stave off accusations that the letter was a fraud, leading to the discovery of an ex-ball player turned hobo (Cooper), who agrees to help with the deception. Added to the mix is Stanwyck’s publisher, who wants to use Cooper to propel his ambitions toward the White House while turning him into a national hero preaching the Golden Rule. Directed independently by Frank Capra, Meet John Doe allowed Stanwyck to sink her teeth into a meatier role that might not have been created under the studio system.
Reuniting with Cooper, Stanwyck earned her second of four Academy Award nominations for her performance in Howard Hawks’ adult rendering of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Stanwyck played a striptease artist who finds herself hiding from her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) in the home of a bookish professor (Cooper), the youngest of eight professors working together on an encyclopedia. As he helps keep her safe and eventually falls in love, she helps open their hearts while also rediscovering her inherent decency. A broadly comic farce featuring exceptional performances throughout, Ball of Fire allowed a luminescent Stanwyck to deliver one of the finest performances of her career.
An classic film noir that set the precedent for all others to follow, Double Indemnity sizzled with sexuality as Stanwyck practically melted celluloid with her performance. Directed by Billy Wilder, the film starred Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff a gullible insurance salesman who becomes infatuated with Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife (Stanwyck) of one of his clients. After a double-entendre filled first meeting, Neff falls prey to desire and helps Phyllis murder her husband while making it look like an accident in order for the insurance company to pay double. While the murder goes as plan, both find their passions cooled leading one suspecting the other’s motivations. Of course, the situation ends badly for both as Neff and Phyllis lead each other to their eventual downfalls. Cynical and unrelenting, Double Indemnity thrives on the exceptional chemistry between the two leads and Stanwyck went on to earn a third Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Though she continued to perform for many years after, Double Indemnity was without a doubt the high point of her career.