The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck, Catherine Russell

The ABCs of Barbara Stanwyck

The “ABC” structure and diverse archival material in The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck make it among the most interesting texts released in 2023.

The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck: Twenty-Six Short Essays on a Working Star
Catherine Russell
University of Illinois Press
May 2023

Like many classical Hollywood enthusiasts, the first Barbara Stanwyck film I ever saw was King Vidor’s 1937 adaptation of Stella Dallas. Watching this film when I was a teenager, I lacked knowledge of its production contexts and of the mechanics of adaptation that I would later gain, but I nevertheless recognized that Stanwyck was electric, special in her ability to perform female desire. Stella Dallas has remained central to critical and scholarly conversations about Stanwyck’s career and the politics of female spectatorship. In this regard, Stanwyck’s performance in the maternal melodrama has never, and perhaps will never be, put to rest, therefore perpetually floating in the back of the minds of those devoted to feminist film history. 

It wasn’t until some years later when I picked up a dogeared copy of Victoria Wilson’s doorstop biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940, from a library book sale, that I began to better appreciate the work, both personal and professional, that led up to the Academy Award-nominated performance that had so gripped me. The second volume of Wilson’s epic biography of Stanwyck remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Catherine Russell’s latest book, The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck: Twenty-Six Short Essays on a Working Star, opens up the current state of “Barbara Stanwyck Studies”. Russell seeks to unpack the star’s “archival presence”, including not only the fresh interpretive possibilities of a performance archive that is becoming increasingly available in digital form but also the “fantasies of [her] fans” that she argues “need to be recognized as real elements of the imaginative worlds that Stanwyck still inhabits.” What Russell, therefore, primes us to do is better understand Stanwyck’s archive as “a vast imaginary space, an archive full of potential” that is “open to absorb new memories and able to produce new histories.”

Thanks to its unique structure and reliance on diverse archival material, Russell’s collection of essays on Stanwyck is one of the most interesting texts, generically speaking, that foregrounds the lives and creative labor of Hollywood stars released within the last year. To be certain, Russell did not invent the “abecedary”, a method in which chapters and their titles are presented alphabetically around select keywords. Unlike a traditional biography or retrospective account of an actor’s oeuvre that proceeds chronologically, Russell’s study volleys readers back and forth in time, beginning in the first chapter with her performances in Douglas Sirk’s “darkly ironic, revisionist take” on the genre of woman’s films in All I Desire (1953) and There’s Always Tomorrow(1955) and ending with a discussion of Stanwyck’s collaboration with agent Zeppo Marx in the 1930s that further defined her comedic talents. Such oscillation may disorient some readers who are new to Stanwyck’s body of work. But this nonlinear organizational schema ultimately offers the option of a “choose your own adventure” approach to engage with Stanwyck’s work and her films, networks, and the genres in which she worked. 

Chapters such as “Paranoia, Abjection, and Gaslighting” can (and should) be savored individually so that readers can best appreciate Russell’s unpacking of roles that both capitalize on and undermine Stanwyck’s confident star image. “The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Everyday Melodrama” and “Kate Crawley: Cross-Dressing in the Archive” shift the focus to the actor’s TV archive; the latter chapter addresses the frequent rumors about Stanwyck’s sexuality, considering how her “star image definitely provides a space for lesbian fantasy.” And though Stanwyck is, obviously, at the center of The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck, some chapters offer brief but nuanced explorations of collaborations with the leading lady’s colleagues, ranging from renowned designer Edith Head to William Holden, the much younger costar she mentored while facing public speculation about the sexual nature of their relationship.

One of the most promising chapters for inspiring further scholarship is “Theresa Harris: Black Double” which “propose[s] a speculative history of Harris,” a Black actor whose thirty-year career spanned both film and television, “based on the fictions that she appeared in and the characters she created.” Building on the work of Sadiya Hartman, Russell argues that moving Black actors from the periphery to the center sometimes requires speculation; for when the archive is “sketchy,” Russell argues, it must be overhauled “in order to better understand the role of a Black woman in an industry in which she was sidelined and largely uncredited.”

My advice? Read The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck slowly to let your newfound knowledge of Stanwyck’s Hollywood simmer and for avenues for further research to percolate. Even if you do not possess much interest in Stanwyck, at the very least, there are lessons to be learned from the book’s methodology and approach to life writing. After all, “there is something magical and poetic about Stanwyck’s persona as an actor that challenges scholarly writing and that the ABC method may be able to capture.” And capture it does.

RATING 7 / 10