Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2012 May 23 • Wednesday

One of the nicest things about living in Park Slope is the quantity and quality of free books left on sidewalks and stoops. I've scored quite a few things: Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, a couple dozen Diabolik fumetti, a James Ellroy novel a friend had recommended to me just hours before I found it. And I was pretty happy to find this.

I love Barbara Stanwyck and this book is really for people who are already fans. Author Dan Callahan offers only the most essential biographical information and concentrates his attention on Stanwyck's work, treating her as the great and important artist she was, often (like many artists) superior to the films in which she appeared.

This focus allows Callahan to avoid gossip and myth-making but also proves once again the power of understatement. The little you read here of Stanywck's personal life is more than enough and, isolated from the usual recitation of Hollywood mischief- and merry-making, might haunt you for the rest of your life.

Barbara Stanwyck was born in Brooklyn, not far from where I write these words, in 1907. Her mother died two and a half years later, pregnant with a sixth child when she was knocked off a street car by a drunk passenger. Stanwyck's father, manual laborer, left the family two weeks after his wife's funeral to go work on the Panama Canal. He never came back. Stanwyck and her brother passed through a series of foster homes.

But she wasn't Barbara Stanwyck then. Her name was Ruby Stevens and she grew up tough. She became a chorus girl, then an actress, then went to Hollywood and became a movie star, one of the greatest of all time. (The strengths of Callahan's book are his persuasive and articulate advocacy of her ability and intelligence and articulate and convincing analysis of her performances.) By the time Stevens became Stanwyck and ended up in California she had burns on her chest from when somebody had put cigarettes out on her.

Dan Callahan really knows his stuff and while his writing occasionally slips into a loose, conversational style, this never grates but provides a nice balance to his detailed examinations of Stanywck's technique. His grasp on the movies and the people who made them is so assured that I wonder if it was a confused copyeditor who misspelled the title of The File on Thelma Jordon every time it appeared.

Of course it's exciting to read about films I haven't seen that Callahan insists contain some of Stanwyck's greates work, but it's perhaps even more exciting to learn new things about those movies I already know and love. Writing about No Man of Her Own (not to be confused with the 1932 Clark Gable/Carole Lombard movie of the same name), Callahan has this fascinating detail about the production.

Trying on Patrice's wedding ring, Helen [Stanwyck's character] looks into a mirror, and no sooner has Patrice insisted, "I couldn't have bad luck," then the mirror shatters (upsettingly, given the consistent relationship between on screen between Stanwyck and her mirrors), and the train flips all the way over.

The restroom set where Stanwyck played this scene with [Phyllis] Thaxter was built inside a steel wheel. [Director Mitchell] Leisen suspended a camera from a catwalk, and when the train was supposed to be hit, he rotated the wheel all the war around with both actresses inside doing their own stunts. The effect is unnervingly realistic in its violence.

This probably wasn't even a big deal for Barbara Stanwyck. Shooting a movie in 1931, she was thrown off her horse, which then fell on her and "kicked her in the spine, dislocating her coccyx. … Stanwyck insisted they finish the shot before her lefs stiffened. For two weeks, she worked during the day on Forbidden, then went to the hospital to spend the night in traction. In 1984, her terse comment on this accident was, 'It hurt. It still hurts.'"