“The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck: Twenty-Six Essays on a Working Star,” Catherine Russell’s new book on the classic film star, impresses with its comprehensiveness. White it includes essays on better-known great films like “Double Indemnity” and “Stella Dallas,” Russell also includes writing on Stanwyck’s “lesser known films and some real clunkers.” While there isn’t an individual essay for each film that Stanwyck ever starred in, through the collection’s abecedary structure, an essay for each letter of the alphabet, Russell is able to cover a wide index of Stanwyck’s film and television work. The structure also allows Russell to cover topics adjacent to the work itself, such as Stanwyck’s fashion or her brief but important time being represented by agent Zeppo Marx.
This structure provides a timeless shape to the collection. Eschewing the rising/falling arc a chronological view of her career might provide, our scope is widened so we can see career-wide patterns, particularly patterns of contradiction. Even at the height of her glamour, Stanwyck was deeply associated with the working class, due to her humble origins as well as the characters she embodied. But Stanwyck was also a standard-bearer for a virulent anti-red conservatism. Similarly, due to the number of characters rebelling against gender norms that Stanwyck played, she’s a figure that modern viewers try to imagine into a Western-themed queer icon, but Russell cites counterexamples of heterosexuality and homophobia. And while Russell also demonstrates Stanwyck’s uncharacteristic power in shaping her career, being a freelancer during the era of exclusivity contracts, a common refrain is the “persistent tension or paradox between the achievements of the star and entrenched misogyny of the industry”.
Nowhere is the tension more pronounced than in Russell’s essay about the critically beloved “the Lady Eve,” a screwball comedy about a con woman taking an alias to swindle the man who broke her heart. While Russell doesn’t argue against its stature in the film canon, she finds a melancholy in its swerve toward a happy ending. In an extended simile, Russell conjures Sophocles’ Antigone, buried alive for her vocal rebellion, and argues that Jean/Eve’s chosen fate, marriage to a man too dull to ever see the real her, as its own entombment. Throughout the collection, Russell has no shortage of similar examples, including fiercely independent gunslingers, journalists, executives and doctors, who by the time the credits roll have sacrificed autonomy for marriage to a bland dude, often played by someone beneath Stanwyck’s billing. In roles big and small, escaping heteronormativity’s enforcement seems impossible.
In its mission to be comprehensive, “The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck” makes the choice to refuse to simplify Stanwyck’s career. It underscores Stanwyck’s importance, but it doesn’t pretend like she, the films, or the era that created them are something they’re not. As a result, Russell has put together an unflinching work of criticism that must be acknowledged as the definitive work on the subject. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in Stanwyck or the era of film she headlined.
“The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck: Twenty-Six Essays on a Working Star”
By Catherine Russell
University of Illinois Press, 368 pages, $125 (Hardcover)/$29.99 (Paperback)