Jun 3, 2014

Read the Movie - A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940 (Review)

Victoria Wilson
Published: November, 2013
Simon & Schuster / 1056 Pages
Available in Hardcover and Kindle Editions (Hardcover edition reviewed)

As big as the star it chronicles, Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 - Volume 1 of what is to be a 2 Volume set - is as comprehensive as a biography can get. Ms. Wilson has every angle covered here which not only includes Barbara Stanwyck's life and career, but historical aspects of Hollywood, the nation at large, the political climate, the depression and intimate details about the figures - directors, actors, etc. - whose paths crosses with Ms. Stanwyck's. While overall engaging, the book also has a tendency to seem detached with a large number of off-topic tangents that steer the book away from the main subject which may frustrate readers looking for a straight-forward entertainment biography. For those looking for something more and willing to make the effort, they won't be disappointed.

Ms. Wilson starts where one would expect, covering the genealogy, birth and upbringing of Barbara Stanwyck - born Ruby Stevens - who embarks on a career as a dancer, heading to the stage where she meets her husband Frank Fay. Eventually makes it to Hollywood in the late 1920s where she slowly becomes a star - thanks in part to Frank Fay demanding she be given a chance - while her husband's fame slowly wanes, degenerating into heavy drinking and eventually into sometimes crazy and violent behavior.  This may sound like all standard biography material, but as mentioned above, this book takes a more in-depth approach acting as more of a comprehensive historical reference of a time and place rather than a mere chronicling of a celebrity's life.  For every movie role Ms. Stanwyck engaged in, we are treated to the full details of the development of the film, including full mini-bios of the directors and stars involved. Ms. Stanwyck's personal life is also on full display, including her disdain for Hollywood, a lifestyle she really wanted no part of, and never fell into the celebrity trappings. Her marriage to Frank Fay reads like the plot to A Star is Born which (for the uninitiated) features a husband and wife entertainment couple where the wife's star blossoms while the husband's falls completely apart. Later it is revealed that their relationship was indeed one of the inspirations of the first filmed version of that story (the 1937 one starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. It was remade twice in 1954 and 1976, and has been on the verge of being remade yet again for the past decade).

In life, Ms. Stanwyck is almost exactly as you see her on film. She's practical, stays focused on her work and is adamant in turning down roles that she deems unworthy of her talents. She spends a large majority of the time suspended by various studios which in many cases hurts her career and finances. She's loyal to a fault - her dedication to her  rapidly deteriorating husband almost does her in - no-nonsense and above all down-to-earth. All throughout it's hard to not imagine her tough characters like from the film Crime of Passion where she boldly and intelligently shows-up then tells-off a newspaper editor who tries to diminish her column and abilities because she is a woman (the film, released in 1957, is not covered in this book and will presumably be mentioned in the next volume).  She is fiercely protective of those around her, first off Frank Fay who struggles to stay relevant while overcome with alcohol and violence, and later of her child when she and Fay finally part ways and Fay plots to use the child as leverage to "win" Barbara back.  Ms. Stanwyck had that screen persona of a person you wouldn't want to mess with, and always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else - and that's how she comes off in this book.

She had her weaknesses though - mainly in sticking with husband Frank Fay so long even as his antics were not only hurting his and her careers, but their financial and emotional states as well - as does this book.  What is one of the main selling points - the intricate and full details of just about everything - also is one of the book's main stumbling blocks. There are times Ms. Wilson gets so caught up in the details of events and others that the focus on Ms. Stanwyck gets lost. This is especially true once actor Robert Taylor, who eventually enters into a romantic relationship with Barbara when she finally moves on from Frank Fay, enters the picture. There are times when A Life of Barbara Stanwyck could almost have an asterisked subtitle of "*and Robert Taylor too" as we are treated to in-depth  details on his life as well. Not that those diversions are not welcome as we discover how big of a star Mr. Taylor was at the time, often mobbed by screaming fans - mostly adoring women - during public events. There are also several instances when things become overly repetitive, such as Barbara's aversion to celebrity and Hollywood life which is mentioned often.  It often feels as though instances like this are brought up to keep the narrative from steering completely away from the fact that this is primarily a biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and not a historical reference volume.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck Steel-True 1907-1940 could frustrate the casual reader given its intricate and sometimes cold and impersonal attention to detail.  It's not the easiest of reads and often feels like a  detached chronicling of events rather than a telling the story of a life which often verges on serious critical study that you would find in a textbook rather than a book intended for a consumer audience. It also ends very abruptly on the eve of World War II, which is somewhat jarring.  However, for anyone obsessed with or interested in the History of Hollywood - especially the transition from silents to sound, black-and-white to technicolor, through the depression - this volume provides an intricate look at a period in Motion Picture history that is the most fascinating, made even more so by the the larger-than-life subject of Ms. Stanwyck a movie star whose rise is meteoric, and her standing as a strong-willed, independent woman who was unwilling to compromise in a male-dominated industry, and was often punished for daring to be so. 

Bring on Volume 2!