A “Golden Age” Actress Worth Two Volumes

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

By Victoria Wilson

HAt nearly one thousand pages, you might think this sufficient to encompass nearly any life. Yet, this is only volume one of two volumes on the great Hollywood actress (volume two yet to be published), Barbara Stanwyck. Why so long, and will the time to read it be worth it to you? Well, it depends … depends not only on your interest in Barbara Stanwyck but also in early twentieth century theater and filmmaking in the “golden age of Hollywood,” or “classical Hollywood cinema.” If you have a strong interest in both, as well as the process of acting, and the like, you’ll devour Victoria Wilson’s piling on of detail. Take that literally, as Wilson delineates the development and creation of every film Barbara made, as well as others, down to set gossip and salaries.

First, yes, it reveals pretty much every aspect of Barbara’s life, from abandonment in childhood, to pregnancy and an abortion (that left her unable to have children) at fifteen, to her early career as a dancer, her ill-fated and abusive marriage to Frank Fay, her adoption of Dion, ending with her marriage to Robert Taylor, as well as her friendships with other actors and actresses, her homes and their furnishing. In short, nearly everything you would want to know about the life of among the finest stars of American film.

Second, it provides insight into how Barbara approached her work. And while acting may look like play, it is hard work, especially in the “golden age,” when contract players, of which she was one early in her career, and filmmakers labored dawn to dark and on weekends to churn out movies for the double-bills (some of you may remember those). Always professional, she showed up on time and fully prepared, knowing not only her own lines but those of the other characters in a film. But beyond her work ethic, why, when she could, she chose characters and how she molded either herself or the character to fit her provide insight into the performer’s mind. Wilson’s discussions of a movie’s inception, deal making, casting, preparation, filming, and promotion, always fascinating, comprise a book onto itself. These comprehensive explorations of filmmaking and the movie business account for the massive page count.

And, third, writing a biography requires writing about other people, as few people live in a vacuum, and certainly not anybody in the performing arts. Thus, you’ll find pages devoted to those close to Barbara: her family, friends, and lovers; actors, actresses, directors, makeup artists, and the like, she knew, socialized with, liked and disliked, worked with, and declined to work with. This “golden age” was a colorful time of big personalities, not just now famous performers, but the men who ran the studios and the old studio system. Some behavior will strike you as offensive and high-handed, for certain. None of it will surprise you but will definitely produce numerous groans. You’ll also understand why professional unions won out in what was a decidedly conservative Hollywood of the time.

Wilson draws on much primary research. She provides an extensive bibliography covering the various topics within the book. Also well indexed so you can check on your favorites the moment you get the book. w/c


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