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Barbara Stanwyck; Beyond The Big Valley

Updated on April 29, 2014

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred Mackmurray

Barbara Stanwyck: Stella Dallas - The Big Valley

Hardly anyone has been better regarded by their fellow-workers in the movie industry than Barbara Stanwyck, a consummate professional if ever there was one. She was always word-perfect, always on time, never grumbled, never lied about her age and always considered those behind the camera to be her equals rather than inferiors.

She was born on July 16, 1907, with the christened name of Ruby Catherine Stevens, the last of five children. The family, of scots-Irish stock lived in the Brooklyn slums and Ruby-orphaned at age of four, spent her childhood in no less than 14 foster homes and attended as many schools. At 13 she went to work in a series of menial jobs but practiced dancing routines with her sisters and took dancing lessons. At 15, she was riding an elephant for Ziegfeld, and at 16 she was touring with the Follies. Ruby was a minor success as a show girl, keeping busy from the mid teens to the mid 1920s when she graduated to stage plays.

Barbara Stanwyck the Stage Actress

At 18 she got a bit part in a major production due to the stage manager deciding that the part of a show girl be played by a real one. Barbara was up to the challenge.

Stanwyck opened to rave reviews and played a 9 month run during which she had a serious affair with the play's star Rex Cherryman and the two became engaged. Barbara was quickly a full fledged Broadway star when Cherryman became weak and sick. His doctor advised that he take a vacation preferably at sea. Barbara traveled to Paris on business and the two decided that Cherryman would sail to take a rest and at the same time take him to Paris to be with Barbara. Cherryman did not survive the trip and succumbed to septic poisoning at the age of 31. The sudden death of Cherryman in 1928 distressed her greatly and it was perhaps on the rebound that she married vaudeville star frank Fay.

In 1929 Stanwyck accompanied her husband to Hollywood. After two low budget movies and a failed sccreen test for Warners, she was spotted by frank Capra who turned her fortunes around in Ladies of Leisure in 1930, which led to several good pre-code films of the early 30s. Such as Night Nurse, Baby Face, and The Purchase Price.

Warners upped her rate to $50,000 per picture.

Columbia picked her up and matched Warner Brothers rate. Stanwyck was always a shrewd judge of her own worth. She went freelance in 1935 because she knew she could win more favorable terms.

Meanwhile, Frank Fay's career had slumped and, seeking solace in alcohol and spite, he became impossible to live with. Stanwyck finally sued for divorce, but the settlement took years with Fay disputing custody of their adopted sic year old son, Dion.

"I want my son to be happy," she told reporters. "I want him to have that sure sense of security in his home that I missed so much in my own childhood." Although she prevailed, Dion, years later, had different ideas.

Stanwyck went into the business of breeding thoroughbred horses, at Northridge in the San Fernando Valley soon afterwards the handsome and very eligable young MGM star Robert Taylor became her neighbor and "Overnight, observed a gossip columnist wryly, "he turned int a country squire."

The couple did little to hide their involvement, and MGM ever ready to exploit private happiness cast them together in His Brother's Wife in 1936. She made one of her all time classics in 1937, Stella Dallas. It was originally a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty that was made into a silent movie in 1925 with tremendous success.

In 1939 that she and Tayor married, sold their ranches and settled in Beverly Hills. Stanwyck's peak years were from 1935-to 1944. 1944 was the year she made the superb Double Indemnity.

Her fourth Oscar nomination was for Sorry Wrong Number in 1948.

Thereafter she worked regularly, although her career was on a lower level. Her marriage was in trouble by 1947 and divorce come in 1952. But she and Taylor remained on good terms and years after their divorce they even made another movie together The Night Walker in 1965. Stanwyck then found a regular and lucrative home in televison where, she says, "you work a little harder and faster." She had tremendous and memorable successes in the 1960s The Big Valley, and in the 1980s melodrama The Thorn Birds and as Frank Capra wrote, "In a Hollywood popularity contest, she would win first prize hands down."

Fire and Robbery

Her relationship with her adopted son was shaky in the 40's. The boy kept running away and getting into trouble. Stanwyck sent him to military school and he eventually joined the army against Brarbara's wishes. The last they saw of each other was 1952.

At the age of 77 in June of 1985, Stanwyck's home in the Trousdale Estates was burned in a California brush fire. She escaped injury, but was devastated by the loss of her home.

Her retirement years were quite active in television and doing charity work. She became rather reclusive following a robbery in her home while she was home. The robbers hit Stanwyck and pushed her into a closet, but there were no serious physical injuries.

She died at age 82 of congestive heart disease in her home in Santa Monica, California in 1990.

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    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorite old school actresses. I only learned of her work when I took a film noir class in college but she is one of a kind. I like how she didn't sugarcoat herself to fit a mold but still got the roles and work she deserved. Great tribute hub!