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Smart, Tough and Sassy: A Woman Ahead of Her Time
by Jon Schuller

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In one form or another we have been seeing the evolution of the modern woman for many years. There are more women today in the government than ever before. There are more women involved in business, with many in positions of power and leadership.Women got the vote (in the United States) in 1920 but there were many examples of women having a profound influence on events here and around the world before that event. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 and this anti-slavery novel had a profound effect on its readers and the course of American history: it brought the slavery issue into the lives and homes of the entire country. Some historians believe it was one of the main causes of the Civil War. Throughout our history women have had an intense effect on lives and issues in every aspect of American life. Like so many things in our country the rise to power and influence for women has been a slow process. With the advent of movies as a social medium, women were thrust into the spotlight almost instantly, with a speed and power not seen before. Like books and newspapers before them, films entered the country's consciousness and made important changes in habits and beliefs. The static role of women as housewives and mothers soon saw them as politicians, writers, tastemakers and of course, movie stars. One of these women was Barbara Stanwyck.

Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Stanwyck's early life was
a series of small tragedies, with the early death of her mother and the disappearance of her father. Raised by her older sister, until the sister went into show business, Ruby was shunted around foster homes with her brother. Eventually she went to work and found herself drawn to show business, copying her sister's dance routines. After failing at several jobs she auditioned (and got) a chorus part in the Ziegfeld Follies around 1923. She played in various clubs for the next three years and in 1926 was introduced to a producer about to cast a play on Broadway. Ruby fit the bill and although the play failed, she was noticed. One of her friends during this period was the famous pianist and entertainer, Oscar Levant. By this time she had changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck. She was cast in the 1927 Broadway play, Burlesque. The play was a success and Stanwyck became a star. She didn't remain on Broadway for long as offers from Hollywood had started pouring in. She left for California in 1928.

For almost 40 years Barbara Stanwyck appeared in 85 movies before going to television where she was also successful. She received an Emmy Award for The Big Valley which was on from 1965 through 1969. But I want to concentrate on her wide-ranging talents for the Big Screen. In my opinion Barbara Stanwyck paved the way for many other female actors in the ever- expanding Hollywood world of movies. Naturally, many parts were automatic as the real-world roles of
women followed generations-old stereotypes of where and how women fitted into society. The difference was that this evolutionary process was uniquely American as many other stereotypes and labels were being dramatically altered. What were at one time acceptable models for behavior and mores were being changed on-screen and off-. Stanwyck started in silent films but soon was being cast in larger parts in talking pictures, like The Locked Door and Mexicali Rose (1929). Every movie saw her in an expanded role with different views of women; but her persona was a strong-willed, fearless and tough person who stood up for her principles in the face of a (mostly) male-dominated world.
Night Nurse 1931
Shopworn 1932
Baby Face 1933
Stella Dallas 1937(with John Boles)
Union Pacific 1939 (with Joel McCrae)
The Lady Eve 1941 (with Henry Fonda)
Ball of Fire 1941(with Gary Cooper)
Double Indemnity 1944(with Fred McMurray)
Christmas in Connecticut 1945(with Dennis Morgan)
Sorry, Wrong Number 1948(with Burt Lancaster)

In these famous films and many more Stanwyck showed her male co-stars (and the audience) how a smart woman could make her own way and eventually triumph against the prejudices and old-fashioned ideas she encountered.
How she could influence a man's thinking and come to dominate him. Stanwyck instinctively knew where the camera was and her movements were all perfectly timed and natural. She used all her charms and all her intelligence to create characters that were at once tough but vulnerable. She could fall in love as quickly as she could hurt the men in her life. In the 1930s and '40s, along with Kathrine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh and Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck set the bar higher for women with every new film released. Stanwyck received four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, won two Emmys and a Golden Globe in her career. She earned her place on Hollywood's honor roll but I think she also helped women in general, raising the country's consciousness about inequalities and stereotypes. With the start of World War II American women took their places in factories and the services to help run the country and fight the war. The famous poster of Rosie the Riveter was a new image for women that has only gotten stronger over the years.

Today it's commonplace for the movies (and the real world) to have smart, tough and sassy women in starring roles. The list grows bigger every year and I will probably present a future column on our modern cinematic heroines and real-life women who all have a profound influence on everyone, everywhere. We must face and solve our problems slowly but inexorably in America, together, both men and women.

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Jan 17, 2013 7:28 PM
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She was one of the best! She was noted to be among one of the kindest and most generous people in Hollywood! And few could do screwball comedy like Miss Stanwick! A lovely rememberamce! Thanks!
Jan 17, 2013 11:20 PM
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Thank you Meg. She was so versatile and looked comfortable in any role handed her. I think i should have included Susan Hayward as a contemporary.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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