'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.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True: 1907-1940

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 1,056 pages
Author: Victoria Wilson
Price: $40.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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