When I was a young person, before I had discovered the wonders of the golden age of movies, I knew of some golden age movie stars as boring old people appearing on television. The Bob Hope who appeared on TV specials a few times a year was a far cry from the quick wit of a few decades previous. Never having seen the genius that is “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ In The Rain,” I had no idea why I was supposed to be impressed by pudgy old Donald O’Connor as a guest passenger on “The Love Boat.”
Barbara Stanwyck was the grand matriarch of “The Big Valley,” a show that looked like it was probably boring and which my family never watched. Even as a child, I could tell it was supposed to be a copy of “Bonanza,” which would make Barbara Stanwyck the female equivalent of Lorne Greene.
Later, when I became slightly more aware of classic film, I learned that Stanwyck was the star of “Double Indemnity,” a classic film noir. I have since developed some appreciation for “Double Indemnity,” but I have to admit I’m not one of these noir fanatics, and so that didn’t really impress me either.
Then, over the past seven or eight years, and largely thanks to TCM, I’ve discovered Stanwyck the comedienne, especially in three terrific comedies I’ve blogged about here before.
“The Lady Eve,” which aired tonight on TCM, pairs Stanwyck with Henry Fonda under the direction of one of my all-time favorites, Preston Sturges. He is a brewery heir, more obsessed with science than anything else, returning from an African expedition in the company of his valet/bodyguard (William Demarest, who’s always wonderful, especially in a Sturges film), and his pet snake. She is a con artist who happens to be on board the same ocean liner and sets her sights on him. It’s funny – and it compresses what would be the normal story arc into the first half of the movie, taking an unexpected but equally funny left turn for the second half.
I missed seeing “Christmas in Connecticut” this holiday season; TCM didn’t air it, although I think it may have been on another channel and I missed it. Stanwyck plays a Martha Stewart-like magazine columnist (the real Martha Stewart was four years old at the time) who is actually a fraud. She can’t cook, and she doesn’t have the Connecticut farm, husband or baby about which she writes with such charm. Her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) doesn’t know she’s a fake, and asks her if she and her husband can host a recuperating war hero (Dennis Morgan) at the farm for the holidays. If you know anything about Hollywood, you know where this story is headed, but that doesn’t make the journey any less hysterical.
One of my brothers recently saw “Ball of Fire” for the first time after reading my previous blog posts about it. Gary Cooper and a phalanx of character actors play ivory-tower academics, living together in a big house as they work on a reference book. When they begin to talk about slang, they realize their cloistered lifestyle has left them completely ignorant of modern-day culture. By happenstance, they end up taking in a nightclub singer (Stanwyck, of course) who is in hiding due to a mob connection. Director Howard Hawks thought of the story as a sort of grown-up version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and there’s even a publicity still of the professors (other than Cooper), each one standing in front of his Disney counterpart.
Taken together, these movies show that Stanwyck was a lot funnier and more vital in her prime than the western matriarch I remember from my childhood.