The Barbara Stanwyck Show

Volume 1

by Michael Barrett

14 December 2009

In most cases, the story stars herself as one tough broad. Frequently she doesn't get through the episode without shooting someone.
cover art

The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Volume 1

US DVD: 27 Oct 2009

Barbara Stanwyck hosts this anthology series by posing in a different glamorous gown each week in order to introduce this week’s story. In most cases, the story stars herself as one tough broad. Frequently she doesn’t get through the episode without shooting someone.

This one-season wonder aired on NBC in 1961-62. It seems to be modeled on the long-running Loretta Young Show, though as a vehicle for Stanwyck’s more hardboiled persona. The series won Stanwyck an Emmy (and she’d win again for The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds) but it wasn’t renewed. It seems odd that while we’re still waiting for episodes of The Loretta Young Show, Robert Montgomery Presents, Desilu Playhouse, Climax, Startime, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Suspense and other popular, significant anthologies of the day to turn up on DVD, here comes a collection of the first half of Stanwyck’s forgotten show, presented by the Archive of American Television. Well, we’ll take it.

This is a sometimes refreshing case study of how Hollywood handled or mishandled that troublesome creature, the strong-willed, independent, self-reliant woman. In film after film, successful career-women are invariably shown as single and lonely—successful in the boardroom but not in the bedroom, as the cliché runs. In the end, their romantic happiness is usually presented as a trade-off for retiring from the public sphere. They’re ready to settle down and be “a real woman” now. This is the plot of countless women’s pictures, including musicals like Lady in the Dark and comedies like All About Eve.

This show adopts the same theme in a couple of episodes, but skilfully reverses itself by the final act, revealing that the supposedly neglected husband or boyfriend wasn’t worth it, and in at least one case openly arguing that the overworked, egocentric businesswoman finds her redemption in her work, although she must learn to trust and delegate. This seems certifiably subversive.

Some episodes are set in the Old West, including the unaired pilot episode about a sheriff’s wife who pressures her husband to stay home with their sick child instead of pursuing his duty with a dangerous polecat. In this case, the husband’s “desertion” to his job means she must rely on herself, and the old lady next door tells her to stop whining. Even the ending of this is somewhat subversive (if implausible), as a woman’s values of motherhood and reconciliation win the day over what a man’s gotta do.

This pilot was scripted by Larry Marcus, directed by Lewis Allen, and produced by Jack Denove, none of whom were involved in the series. The series producer was Louis F. Edelman, who later co-created The Big Valley for Stanwyck. She had long wanted to star in a western series and kept edging this anthology in that direction.

Another western tale concerns Stanwyck’s status as a mail-order bride who needs a strong, taciturn man to help raise her wayward son. Margaret Fitts wrote the script, and it’s one of several shows directed by Jacques Tourneur, a veteran of horror and film noir classics. Another story is set on the old-time Barbary Coast as Stanwyck runs a saloon.

Three episodes (two of which are included here) cast Stanwyck as Josephine Little, who runs an import-export business in Hong Kong. James Hong plays her secretary, Sam Wong. These were pilots for a potential series that would have been about Little’s status as a resourceful wheeler-dealer in the “exotic” East. This was the idea behind several series around the same time. For example, Hong Kong with Robert Taylor aired the same season, and Dan Duryea had been Singapore’s two-fisted China Smith in the ‘50s.

Indeed, the first detective series to star a woman was The Gallery of Madame Lui-Tsong with Anna May Wong as an art dealer involved in intrigue, and Wong appears as Stanwyck’s assistant in one of these episodes. (The other episode uses Beulah Quo, who had been Mrs. Charlie Chan.) Both Little episodes involve anti-Communist plot points, and the program notes say that Stanwyck’s ad-libbed speech about how the free world of hot dogs and baseball isn’t going to let the Commies take over was read into the Congressional record.

Several of the episodes are suspenseful. “Night Visitor”, written by Bob & Wanda Duncan (who later did a lot of work for Irwin Allen’s science fiction shows) and directed by Don Medford (a pioneer of live TV, which this show wasn’t), features the wealthy Stanwyck held hostage by Michael Ansara and a snaky Julie London. The “moral” here is that Stanwyck rethinks her selfish plans of getting a divorce. In “The Key to the Killer”, written by Leonard Praskins and directed by Richard Whorf, Stanwyck is again a sheriff’s wife (and a qualified deputy) who, acting in her husband’s carefully explained absence, spends the show handcuffed to baby-faced killer Vic Morrow.

One of the best episodes is Tourneur’s “Confession”. Ellis St. Joseph scripted from a story co-written by novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Gavin Lambert. In the intro, Stanwyck makes a point of calling out the superficial similiarity to her film Double Indemnity. It’s difficult to notice any visual style in these faded and thick-sounding prints, but Hal Mohr’s shadow-laden photography is strong enough to call attention to itself as Stanwyck carries on a casually adulterous affair with Lee Marvin.

Most episodes were photographed by Hollywood vet Maury Gertsman, but noir master Nick Musuraca (who shot Tourneur’s Out of the Past as well as three Stanwyck films) dropped by sometimes. An example is “Shock”, written by Hawaii Five-O creator Leonard Freeman. It’s an unusual episode in which Stanwyck plays an atomic physicist who suffers a breakdown and doesn’t move or speak for most of the story. This is one of several directed by Robert Florey, another redoubtable veteran of B films who found refuge on TV. He’d directed Stanwyck in an early Warner Brothers programmer, The Woman in Red.

Catherine Turney, who wrote no less than three of Stanwyck’s features, co-scripted “House in Order” with Robert Blees, who wrote two other Stanwyck features. Ironically, this is one of the sappier episodes, as Stanwyck plays a rich matron who realizes she’s been a poor wife and mother because she’s just too busy with her social life. She finds redemption by restoring the social order between hubby Shepperd Strudwick and daughter Yvonne Craig. This is one of several directed by David Lowell Rich.

One of the set’s best episodes is the only one that doesn’t star Stanwyck. “Dear Charlie”, scripted by Blanche Hanalis and directed by Tourneur, is a cozy comedy of domestic murder that would have fit perfectly into Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It stars Milton Berle (!) as a larcenous cad who inveigles himself into the household of spinsters Katherine Squire and Lurene Tuttle.

Other actors who appear include Ralph Bellamy, Charles Bickford, Jeff Morrow, Mary Jackson, J. Pat O’Malley, Victor Sen Yung, Philip Ahn, Ellen Drew, Michael Rennie, Gene Raymond, Amanda Randolph, Robert Armstrong, and Eduard Franz. Other writers were Albert Beich, Jerome Gruskin, James Komack, Graham Ferguson and John Hawkins. Earle Hagen wrote the lush theme music.

As mentioned, these prints aren’t in brilliant shape visually or audially. They’re watchable. Stanwyck’s 1961 Emmy acceptance speech is included as an extra. The overall experience is of rediscovering an era towards the end of TV’s anthology shows that coincided with the middle of Stanwyck’s long career. This series is uneven, sometimes histrionic, occasionally effective, and always interesting for those fascinated by Stanwyck’s persona and the lost art of the half-hour drama.

The Archive of American Television has also released the superb Studio One Anthology and What Makes Sammy Run, and they’ve got their work cut out for them if they intend to keep putting out tantalizing bits of TV history. There’s only about a thousand more to choose from. We wish them a long run.

The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Volume 1


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