Her childhood has been called Dickensian and the rags-to-riches trajectory of her life could easily have provided material for one of her films…
- She was the youngest of a hard-drinking Irish American bricklayer’s five children
- She lost her mother at age three when the woman was pushed, while pregnant, from a streetcar
- Her father abandoned his children (for the second time) and went to sea
- She lived in a series of foster homes
- She began working at age 13
Ruby Catherine Stevens, born in 1907 in Brooklyn, New York, grew up fast – and tough. There was one bright spot in an otherwise dreary life - her older sister Mildred was a dancer and, during the summer months, Mildred took Ruby on the road with her. Ruby loved to dance and began learning steps, determined to be a dancer herself. While still in her early teens she got a job as a chorus girl at the Strand Theater on New York’s Times Square, moved on to the “Keep Kool” Revue and before long was in the Ziegfeld chorus.
Ruby’s big break came in 1926 when a friend introduced her to Willard Mack who was casting “The Noose,” a play headed for Broadway. Mack was impressed with her but felt that she needed a name that implied class and distinction. He found the right name on a playbill: “Barbara Frietchie” with Joan Stanwyck.
Stanwyck’s personal life remained rocky. Her romance with Broadway actor Rex Cherryman had been cut short when he died suddenly in 1928 at age 30. Her marriage to Fay collapsed in the mid-‘30s as her star rose and his fell. The pair had adopted a baby boy, but Stanwyck and the child developed a strained and then estranged relationship that never healed. She began living with Hollywood heartthrob Robert Taylor in the late ‘30s and her studio, wary of potential scandal, insisted that they marry in 1939.
In 1937 Stanwyck starred in Stella Dallas, a memorable melodrama for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. In 1938 she starred in Golden Boy with young William Holden, who years later declared he owed his career to her.
Stanwyck proved that she was a capable comedienne with two hit 1941 comedies, Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve and Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire. That same year she co-starred in the Capra classic Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper and earned her second Best Actress Oscar nomination.
The 1940s would be the apex of Barbara Stanwyck’s movie career and included her crowning performance, femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s film noir supreme, Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck garnered her third Best Actress nod for the role.
The decade contained several more popular Stanwyck films: Christmas in Connecticut (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), B.F.’s Daughter (1948) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), for which she received her final Best Actress nomination.
It was at around this time that Stanwyck's marriage to Robert Taylor began to fall apart. Taylor had been dallying with some of the celebrated beauties of the time, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, along with others of less stature, such as the bit actress on Quo Vadis (1951) who created a scandal when she went public with their affair. When Stanwyck gave Taylor an ultimatum he resisted and the pair soon divorced.
Stanwyck never remarried but continued, as she always had, to work hard. She went on to make several more popular films and starred on television in series and mini-series into the mid-1980s. She was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1982 for her career achievements.
Barbara Stanwyck died in 1990.
San Francisco’s Noir City 9 will screen three Stanwyck films at this year’s festival:
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Lady Gambles (1949) on Mon. Jan. 24
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) on Thurs. Jan. 27
Also of note, The High Wall (1947) starring Robert Taylor (with Audrey Totter) will be shown on opening night, Fri. Jan. 21