Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck
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Barbara Stanwyck was one of the best known and most popular movie actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age. Her long screen career of over five decades spanned the early history of screen acting, starting as a novice in the Silent era, becoming one of the major stars of the 1930's and 1940's and ending with starring roles on the successful television series 'The Big Valley' in the 1960's and 'Dynasty' in the 1980's.

She was admired and respected for her professional approach and for her acting versatility. She was able to adapt to any role and was comfortable in all genres, from melodramas such as 'Stella Dallas' in 1937, to thrillers, such as 'Double Indemnity' in 1944. She was also excellent in comedies such as 'Remember the Night' in 1940, 'The Lady Eve' the following year, and 'Christmas in Connecticut' in 1945. She also excelled in Westerns, including 'Union Pacific' in 1939.

Barbara was nominated four times for Academy Awards but, surprisingly, did not win any in competition. In 1982 she received an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Academy for her "creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting." In 1987, aged 79, she was also the recipient of an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.

Barbara Stanwyck won 3 Emmy awards and a Golden Globe for her television work and she is ranked number eleven on the American Film Institute's list of greatest female stars of all time.


She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, New York, on July 16, 1907. Her father was a builder and she had an elder brother and three elder sisters. She had an extremely unhappy and disturbed childhood, losing her mother when she was four years old and subsequently being abandoned by her grief-stricken father. She and her brother, Malcolm, were brought up in a succession of foster homes, sometimes together, sometimes apart. They had regular visits from their sister, Mildred, who was 5 years Ruby's senior. When Mildred became a chorus girl she continued to look after Ruby, teaching her to dance and allowing her to accompany her on tour and practising routines with her backstage. The two sisters were also fans of actress Pearl White whose movies were one of the major early influences on young Ruby.

Showbusiness Career

After a conspicuous lack of academic success in a succession of schools, Ruby left her last school, Erasmus Hall High School, New York City, without regrets, at the age of fourteen. She took a succession of jobs, including pattern cutter at Vogue, a typist and filing clerk but she had determined on a career in showbusiness and when she was still only 15 she became a dancer in local speakeasies. From there in 1922 she was chosen to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies, where she stayed three years, learning the business, and whilst there she met playwright and director, Willard Mack, who gave her a part in his new play, 'The Noose'. He also gave her a new name Barbara Stanwyck, from an old theater poster of English actress Jane Stanwyck in the play 'Barbara Frietchie'.

'The Noose' ran for nine months from 1926 and it helped to establish Barbara as an actress. Her next play 'Burlesque' in 1927 made her a star although the play itself fared badly with the critics, and in the same year she appeared in her first movie, the silent 'Broadway Nights'.


Barbara's stage presence and clear, strong voice stood her in good stead with the advent of sound films and after completing her stage run in 1929 she was given a role in her first Talkie, the drama 'The Locked Door', again, to good reviews. By this time married to Frank Fay, Barbara and her new husband moved to Hollywood where, in 1929, she appeared in Columbia's low-budget 'Mexicali Rose' , followed in 1930 by Frank Capra's 'Ladies of Leisure', the picture and director both combining to make her a star.

Hollywood Star

She usually made three to four pictures a year and earned a reputation as one of the hardest working women in Hollywood. She continued to appear in successful movies, making three to four pictures a year and she became one of the best known names in Hollywood with such daring pre-Code films as Capra's 'The Miracle Woman' in 1931, William Wellman's 'Night Nurse' the same year, and 'Forbidden', a major hit in 1932.

Barbara was known as one of the hardest working women in Hollywood and she developed her own unique screen image, not far removed from her real self, of a tough, no-nonsense working girl with an earthy sexiness. She confirmed it in 1932's 'Shopworn' and 'Ladies They Talk About', and in 1934 in 'Gambling Lady' and 'The Woman in Red' the following year.

Her career continued to surge and by the end of the 1930's she was one of the top Hollywood stars with great successes like 'Annie Oakley' in 1935 and 'Stella Dallas' in 1937 to her name. Her purple patch came in the early 1940's with comedies such as 'The Lady Eve' with Henry Fonda and and 'Ball of Fire' both in 1941, and films noir like the wonderful 'Double Indemnity' in 1944, 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' in 1946 and as the doomed wife in 'Sorry, Wrong Number' in 1948 which gained her her last Oscar nomination. Such was her success that in 1944, according to the IRS, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States.

Her movie career began to falter in the 1950's and she found it increasingly difficult to get good roles. She made 'The Furies' in 1950 with Anthony Mann, and then appeared opposite Marilyn Monroe in 'Clash by Night' in 1951. She was one of an all-star cast in 'Executive Suite' in 1954 with William Holden and June Allyson but after that she did not have another movie hit. She played in a string of uninspiring Westerns of which only 'Forty Guns' in 1957 made any impact.

Television Career

Television during the following decades brought her back into the limelight and from 1961-2 she hosted 'The Barbara Stanwyck Show', winning an Emmy for her work. She made brief returns to the big screen, first in 1962, playing a lesbian madam in the controversial 'Walk on the Wild Side' and then, two years later, co-starring with Elvis Presley in 'Roustabout'.

From 1965-69 Barbara enjoyed further television success as one of the stars of the popular, long-running Western series 'The Big Valley', earning another Emmy for her performance. She made a TV movie, 'The House That Would Not Die', and then appeared in two more TV movies, 1971's 'A Taste of Evil' and 1973's 'The Letters', before leaving the public eye for the remainder of the decade. She still wasn't finished and in the 1980's she had another success playing Constance Colby in 'Dynasty' and its following series 'The Colbys'. She also received another Emmy for 'The Thorn Birds' in 1983, after which she finally retired from acting.


Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most popular actresses ever to work in Hollywood. She was not a prima donna and all the film crews she worked with loved her for her warmth and caring personality. She worked hard at her profession and she never allowed her star quality to go to her head.

Barbara was married twice. Her first marriage was in 1928 to comedian Frank Fay after the sudden death of her actor boyfriend, Rex Cherryman from septic poisoning. Fay was ten years older than Barbara and was Vaudeville's highest-paid star but in 1929, after he and Barbara had moved to Hollywood, his career started to go downhill, just as Barbara's was taking off. As his career nose dived Fay became a violent drunk. He and Barbara fought often and openly in public, went through an ugly divorce and custody battle over an adopted son and finally divorced in December, 1935.

The following year Barbara fell in love with actor Robert Taylor, her co-star on 'His Brother's Wife'. When they began openly living together Louis Mayer of MGM, to head off gossip and costly bad publicity, helped them to arrange their marriage in May, 1939.

She and Taylor lived in a large ranch in the Mandeville Canyon area of Los Angeles but the marriage was soon in trouble as Taylor had a string of affairs including with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Barbara and Taylor divorced in 1951. She was devastated and became very bitter about his behaviour. Barbara never remarried and she collected a percentage of Taylor's salary in alimony until his death in 1969.

Barbara met Robert Wagner on the set of 'Titanic' in 1953 and the two had an affair for the next four years until she ended the relationship due to the age difference (Wagner was 23 years her junior.)

Barbara remained active in her retirement with charity work done completely out of the limelight but her health declined markedly after she was robbed and beaten at her Beverly Hills home in 1981.

A lifelong smoker, she suffered in her final years from emphysema, and she died on January 20, 1990, from congestive heart failure complicated by pneumonia. She was 82.

At her request, she was cremated without a funeral and her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California.

Barbara Stanwyck Academy Awards

No Wins:
Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Stella Dallas (1937)
Best Actress ... Ball of Fire (1941)
Best Actress ... Double Indemnity (1944)
Best Actress ... Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award (1982)

Barbara Stanwyck Filmography

Broadway Nights
The Locked Door
Mexicali Rose
Ladies of Leisure
Ten Cents a Dance
Night Nurse
The Miracle Woman
So Big!
The Purchase Price
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Ladies They Talk About
Baby Face
Ever in My Heart
Gambling Lady
The Secret Bride
The Woman in Red
Red Salute
Annie Oakley
A Message to Garcia
The Bride Walks Out
His Brother's Wife
Banjo on My Knee
The Plough and the Stars
You Can't Take Money
His Affair
Stella Dallas
Breakfast for Two
Always Goodbye
The Mad Miss Manton
Union Pacific
Golden Boy
Remember the Night
The Lady Eve
John Doe, Dynamite
Good Morning, Doctor
Ball of Fire
The Great Man's Lady
The Gay Sisters

Striptease Lady
Flesh and Fantasy