Posted by Susan Doll on October 15, 2012
From Baby Face to The Lady Eve to Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck thrived during the 1930s and 1940s as the hardscrabble, working class dame who was accustomed to staying one step ahead of men. Her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery suited her tough-talking screen persona. During the 1950s, Stanwyck appeared in a number of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series included Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, and Forty Guns. Oddly, this period in Stanwyck’s career is either brushed off as a time when the aging star was trying to re-establish her position in Hollywood, or simply presented as a decline in her career. After Forty Guns was released in 1957, she did not make another film until the colorfully flamboyant Walk on the Wild Side, released in 1962. Biographies then note the resurrection of her stardom on the small screen, first as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.
While researching Stanwyck’s latter-day career, I found this spin on her 1950s output to be typical, but I am not wholly in agreement. Biographers and critics are basing their assessment on the aesthetic value of these movies as determined by some mainstream interpretation of “quality” that is as vague as it is elitist. While films such as Trooper Hook, an independent production released through United Artists, and The Maverick Queen, which was directed by Poverty Row favorite Joe Kane and released by Republic Pictures in 1956, are undistinguished westerns that can’t compete with genre classics like Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve, they were respectable productions with great location photography. But, more important than the quality of the films are the characters played by Stanwyck. How fitting that two of the 1950s westerns use “queen” in the title, because the word not only suits Stanwyck’s persona but also indicates the authority her characters wielded in several of these films.
Female characters were conventionally of two types in classic westerns: They were either the school marm/settler’s wife who represents the civilized values of marriage, family, and education in the untamed wilderness; or they were the rough and rowdy saloon girls and “half-breeds” who belonged to the wilderness. Neither archetype conventionally represented power or authority, which is signified in westerns by mastery over weapons and horses. Stanwyck’s series from the 1950s not only stands out in the western genre because her characters could match any man with a gun or on a horse but are also notable because they reject the gender politics of the 1950s. During World War II, women had worked at male-dominated jobs and positions while the men were at war, but in the postwar era, they were pressured to give up those jobs to returning soldiers. Reflecting this change in cultural attitudes, Hollywood genre films of the 1950s, especially melodramas and romantic dramas, worked hard to return women to traditional roles. But, Stanwyck’s westerns seemed to do the opposite—even considering that her characters softened or died at the ends of these movies.
Stanwyck was 50 when she starred in Forty Guns, which makes the opening scene of this cult favorite downright awe-inspiring. Dressed in black, she charges across the prairie on a white horse in full gallop, leading a pack of 40 hard-riding men. In the first half of the film, she spits out her dialogue with authority and power, whether barking orders to her men or dressing down her no-good brother. Sometimes the dialogue drips with entendre as when she asks her love interest, Griff, if she can touch his gun. “Uh-uh,” he says, “It might go off in your face.” Of course, she is willing to take that chance. And, did I mention, she carries a whip?
A political conservative, Stanwyck did not take on these roles to make a point about her gender, and she would likely be uninterested in a feminist interpretation of them. Apparently, the Old West fascinated her, and she once referred to the era’s gunfighters, pioneers, and outlaws as “our royalty, our aristocracy” in an interview. After Stanwyck’s divorce from Robert Taylor was finalized in 1951, she kept their ranch and continued to ride the horses. She was in prime riding shape for the westerns she made during the 1950s, and she was inclined to perform her own stunts. Forty Guns includes a dangerous scene in which her foot is caught in a stirrup, and she is dragged across the prairie, a stunt she did herself when the stuntwoman refused. In The Maverick Queen, her character is chased across the wilderness and forced down a rocky incline, a treacherous maneuver for horses. The stunt required sure hands and a steady seat, but Stanwyck had no trouble pulling it off. I just can’t see this period as one in which an “aging” Stanwyck is floundering for roles; her characters are just too rich for that.
Despite living in a post-feminist age, today’s actresses struggle through careers that are erratic and short-lived. They lack an understanding of how a star image works and what it can represent to audiences, especially female viewers. They are subject to the whims of studio execs more interested in the teenage male demographic than in women viewers, who make up 51% of the audience. By comparison, Stanwyck experienced a career that lasted from the early talkie era to the 1980s. Like Hepburn, Rogers, Bergman, Garbo, Dietrich, Blondell, Davis, Crawford, and others, Stanwyck dazzled on the big screen because she was more photogenic than beautiful, more charismatic than trained. Though at the mercy of a studio system that constructed their star images and bound them to long-term contracts, female stars of the Golden Age nonetheless learned their strengths and played to them. They knew who they were and what they represented. These women exuded presence, commanded respect, and radiated power despite the demands of the era’s narrative conventions and the restrictions of the Production Code. Their wattage has not dimmed over time.
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