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January 11, 2006

There is something about Barbara Stanwyck's ankles - The Barbara Stanwyck Collection

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Barbara Stanwyck Collection
certificate PG, 2005
Universal Pictures

Double Indemnity (1944)
The Lady Eve (1941)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
The Miracle Woman (1931)
All I Desire (1953)
Golden Boy (1939)

When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was terrific.
That's how Richard Corliss, a film critic, described Barbara Stanwyck - hardboiled, seen-it-all-before, but touchingly sincere - one of Hollywood's greatest leading ladies. I first saw her in a late-night showing of The Lady Eve (a Preston Sturges screwball comedy from 1941), and I was as mesmerised by her as her co-star, a coltish Henry Fonda, was. I have since done my homework. The film itself is often named by aficionados (Terry Gilliam, for example) as one of the best comedies Hollywood has produced. The main reason is its leading lady. Consummately casual, her husky voice delivers barbs and razors with a dazzling speed and lightness. She deceives and weaves, she turns duplicity into an exquisite art form. David Thomson, film biographer, calls her:
a truly and creatively two-faced woman.
Never is this more evident than in Sturges' film.

Strange, then, that she has not endured on the same legendary terms as her contemporaries. She was, some would argue, far more entertaining than heavy-of-heart Joan Crawford, more rapier-like than witty Bette Davis and, respectively sexier and more intriguing than Dietrich or Garbo. What's more, she had ankles to die for.

In Fred MacMurray's case, he literally does die for her ankles. Her sinuous legs are his and our first glimpse of her as she comes snaking down a staircase making her entrance in Double Indemnity (1944). Her co-star is mesmerised (that word again) by the gold ankle bracelet biting into her skin. It even becomes the subject of their conversation though he's trying to sell motor insurance to her husband. Animal magnetism was her forte and, as MacMurray soon finds out, she snapped shut like an alligator on wandering hands.

Stanwyck's Hollywood career began in 1927 when she played a dancer in Broadway Nights. It peaked with one of the greatest weepies of all time, Stella Dallas, in 1937, and finally petered out in the Sixties which found her doing her usual thing: running rings around her male co-star, in this case Elvis Presley, in Roustabout (1964). Stanwyck lived for her work. Hollywood may have given up on her steely blue eyes and by-now silver hair but The Thorn Birds saw her rise again on the small screen, as a matriarch (of course) slyly lusting after Richard Chamberlain's he-man priest.

The six DVDs included in the Barbara Stanwyck Collection from Universal Pictures reveal the full range of this unpretentious screen goddess. Stanywyck's vibrancy and versatility were underpinned and inspired by social reality. We can see that here in the four telling melodramas (all obscure apart from The Bitter Tea of General Yen) that accompany The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity. This collection is invaluable - despite the less-than-obvious choice of films - for giving us a series of films that show a woman making it in a man's world. And as such, Stanwyck could play it all ways. She could be a woman of the world, a put-upon doormat, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, a femme fatale. She was wise-cracking whatever she did and crackled with energy when she was tackling her favourite dilemma: sliding up and down social scales.

Stanwyck's story is classic Hollywood. She referred to herself as:

a tough old dame from Brooklyn.
Born in 1907 as Ruby Stevens, the youngest of five children, she lost her mother when she was two, and her father, a bricklayer, deserted the family two years later. She was fostered five times before she was 10, with her sister Mildred, a show girl, looking after her between tours. Mildred's boyfriend, vaudeville star James "Buck" Mack, taught her how to dance. By 13, eluding truant officers and lying about her age, she was dancing at the Strand. She rode an elephant in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies, and received some invaluable advice:
Go to the zoo and watch how the animals move.
She had had a tough life but adaptability was germane to her and opportunities were there to be seized. Ruby studied the panther.

The Stanwyck walk - smooth, subtly swaying and assured - would become her greatest weapon.

It is used to scintillating effect in The Lady Eve, where Henry Fonda's helpless clumsiness is served up in delicious contrast. In three beautifully choreographed slapstick scenes, he literally and figuratively falls for her. One of the pratfalls inevitably involves Stanwyck tripping the poor sap up with a well-placed, outstretched ankle. Minutes later, he almost faints when she cajoles him into clasping the buckle of her strappy stiletto-heeled sandal. Sturges showcases her gift for manipulation and deception casting her as a cardsharp. She is the ultimate schemer, hypnotising her prey with the lightest of touches here, but in Double Indemnity, with deadly intent. She is the light and dark side of duplicitous woman.

Frank Capra, who directed Barbara in five films starting with her first movie hit, Ladies of Leisure, was also struck by her duplicity, her fight for survival:

It's this gift of hers to communicate the truth of a role which has made Barbara the great actress she is. She's played them all - big-city dames and cattle queens, adulterous wives and dewy-eyed ingénues. Her many faces are all different, and all dazzling.
Stanwyck, perhaps, was too savvy to go the way of Garbo and Dietrich. She was too pragmatic on screen and off, and her sexiness only really got going when she talked. She wasn't a silent smoulderer.

Furthermore, she kept her panther-like feet on the ground. A website entitled Babs' Foot Fetish is devoted to this:

peculiar erotic pattern in her work.
The site claims:
Men who stooped to take her foot in hand found themselves on their knees before a passionate woman, not an unapproachable goddess - and they fell, instantly and irrevocably, under her spell.
Gary Cooper is cited as another victim of this allure.

She cast spells but she was earthy. She shattered pretensions. She was streetwise and she lived by her wits. She was always in control without ever being arrogant. She worked at it. And she made men see the real woman with passions and desires of her own. Not for her the mask of a Garbo. Perhaps this is why she does not luxuriate in that Hollywood pantheon – her deep purr of a voice spoke directly to her audience about sex, work and the struggle for the good life.

When Fred MacMurray - playing the doomed, sexually up-for-it insurance salesman - is manoeuvred into exchanging lightning-quick doubles entendres with her, she finishes him off with:

I wonder if I know what you mean.
He can only rejoin:
I wonder if you wonder.
Like her bedazzled audience, she lets him have the last word because it's more of a question. She's got us wrapped round her slinky fingers and she knows we'll be back for more.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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