‘A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True’ Has Moments of Energy and Verve

The long-awaited first volume of an encyclopedic biography of Barbara Stanwyck’s life and career arrives on shelves with plenty of flaws for the second installment to correct.

The numbers 1907-1940 on the cover of a Barbara Stanwyck biography prompt a double-take without so much of a glance between its pages. Only up to 1940? cries the eager Stanwyck fan? That just misses Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, which came out the very next year! She won’t even get to read her reviews for Meet John Doe! And we have to wait another ten years for part two before reading about Double Indemnity?

Worry not, dear reader. Author Victoria Wilson decided to cut off her narrative at the cusp of Stanwyck’s major stardom with consideration of the mountains of research conducted for this biography, which builds a world around the actress born Ruby Stevens that proves far more fascinating than any heretofore unknown tidbits about Billy Wilder’s conduct onset. Indeed, Wilson does not even refer to the actress by her stage name until a major role gives her opportunity to change it, and reflects a constant identity crisis by switching back and forth between “Ruby” and “Barbara” for many pages.

For the appeal of Stanwyck — a performer for whom Wilson demonstrates the sort of fervent admiration necessary to sustain a project like this over more than a decade — lies in her consummate professionalism and devotion to each part, allowing her to fit smoothly into the anguished melodramas of William A. Wellman as well as the rich comedies of Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen. The sort of discipline Stanwyck displayed over her rightly-heralded career on stage and screen is no one’s birthright, and the early chapters, depicting a young Ruby Stevens flitting between odd jobs before eking out a living as a dancer and eventually a stage actress in the New York City of the ’20s, provide the necessary perspective to sympathize with the mercurial and enigmatic character she remained throughout her life in Hollywood.

There are multiple possibilities, though, as to why Stanwyck becomes more elusive after having followed her rise to success onscreen. One is that Stanwyck, as Wilson reminds the reader throughout, never fully acclimated to the life of a movie star, developing a touchy relationship with the press as they endlessly predicted the failure of her first marriage to the brilliant but unstable Broadway comedian Frank Fay. As well, the records of Stanwyck’s public actions find her full of contradictions, alternately fighting tenaciously to keep the son she fought to adopt out of Fay’s hands after the divorce and later sending the boy off to military school at the age of six.

But the third and most significant factor in Stanwyck’s opacity throughout the biography is its lack of a clear organizing principle; Wilson has published a book which apparently no one bothered to read before printing. Her scrupulous, just-the-facts approach does necessarily and admirably eschew the sort of conventional dramatic arc that so many celebrity biographers have resorted to in order to humanize their subjects. Yet Wilson should not be praised simply for a high quantity of fact-finding, as good published research demands quality of structure and presentation, as well.

The book’s lack of editing reveals itself awkwardly with the repetition of certain anecdotes; one involving a chance encounter with Irving Thalberg crops up twice as if told by a forgetful relative. Moreover, Wilson’s commitment to sketching out the broader history of Hollywood in the late ‘20s and ‘30s never quite rivals her vivid portrait of New York in Ruby’s childhood, which adheres to a limited perspective and has the seedy rush of all the best show-biz narratives despite forgoing the usual conventions.

Much later, a brief history of the formation of the Screen Actors’ Guild unfolds as an aside over several pages, culminating in one sentence relating that Stanwyck wasn’t a member until years later. This is hardly the sloppiest or most miscalculated of Wilson’s info-dumps; one might go for a dozen pages at a time before suddenly jerking their head up and thinking “wait, where’s Barbara during all this?” A page or so telling that Stanwyck’s next film would be Stella Dallas leads into a brief overview of the source material’s author, novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, then her dissatisfaction with the stage play, then six pages summarizing the plot of the 1925 silent film adaptation, four pages on its production by director Henry King (who never worked with Stanwyck), and another seven pages on the tribulations of director King Vidor in mounting the 1937 remake with the interference of producer Samuel Goldwyn. Got all that?

To complain of too much detail in a biography of almost a thousand pages would be foolhardy, but Wilson’s affinity for packing each page with as much information as possible about the birth, life, and career of every single side character gets pretty exhausting, especially without any consistent throughline. The Stella Dallas chapter, fortunately, sees Wilson briefly swept up in her enthusiasm for Stanwyck’s performance, in which the actress ages decades onscreen. These bursts of passion for the book’s subject, scattered and infrequent as they are, elevate the tangled strands of surrounding trivia into something that can appear for brief passages to be a coherent whole.

Wilson’s book is alternately a fleet and shambling thing, one which struggles to inject some drama into monotonous episodes of Fay and Stanwyck’s home life but later manages to summon the full relief and delight of the actress’s subsequent relationship with Hollywood then-newcomer, Robert Taylor. Moments of real energy and verve arrive whenever Wilson allows herself a minute’s indulgence in the power of Stanwyck’s story, her immense talent and her struggles to exist happily in the place that allowed its fullest expression.

Why are these moments so scattershot? The Stella Dallas chapter illustrates rather well what gets in the way of a full portrait of Stanwyck: Wilson is so invested in the ideal of her intense research, of digging up all the facts about every significant figure of interest in each individual Stanwyck production, that it becomes impossible to relate all of them back to the story of a particular person, or even a time, place or medium. What is the Stella Dallas chapter about? Is it about turn-of-the-century literature? The perils of adaptations? The distance between silent and sound-era Hollywood? The difficulty of directorial expression underneath the yoke of heavily regulated studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer? By retaining such a vast scholarly remove and transitioning awkwardly (with line breaks and section markers) between disparate subjects, Wilson leaves the reader struggling to make out what that blurry picture in the distance is supposed to be, let alone what they should take away from it. It’s a guided tour through a forest that takes the time to list every available fact about the trees, one by one.

Another volume is on the horizon, and the closing quotation of volume one is a speech from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, which urges at the outbreak of World War II that Americans are “the only lights left in the world”. This is something like a mission statement, or at least as close as Wilson gets to one, for act two: an intent to show just how crucial Stanwyck is to the beacon that America and its culture were to a pivotal point in world history. Here’s hoping for perhaps a shorter book, and a fuller story.

RATING 6 / 10
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