Barbara Stanwyck was probably the most versatile actress in Hollywood history. She could do it all—comedy, drama, you name it—and Stanwyck aced it. Plus, unlike most of her contemporaries, Stanwyck's career went full blast from the '30s to practically the end of her life. When she was older and good movie roles dried up, Stanwyck turned to television.
And because of her success as the matriarch on The Big Valley, a whole new generation of fans followed her career. Famed director Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, It's A Wonderful Life) directed Barbara Stanwyck in six films. She was his favorite actress, and he later stated, "She was the most interesting and the hardest to define. She's the easiest to direct. She was the greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known."
A mammoth biography by Victoria Wilson, The Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel - True 1907-1940, was released this week. The book clocks in at 860 pages plus appendices, and the biography stops at 1940. A second volume covering Stanwyck's great years is promised in the future. This book is beautifully written and exhaustively researched. The only problem is that if this volume does not sell well there might not be a follow-up book. There was a great biography of Bing Crosby a few years ago that also ended in 1940. As this rapturously reviewed book did not sell well, there was no second volume covering Crosby's greatest years.
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907. Her early life and first marriage to comedian Frank Fay were pretty dismal. But she was lucky enough to have Frank Capra direct three of her earlier films, and each one was remarkable. Barbara Stanwyck was also one of the few major stars not tied down to a long studio contract. She freelanced and worked at all the majors during her golden years.