Friday, August 15, 2014

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940
Volume #1
by Victoria Wilson
Hardcover – 9780684831688
1,056 pages
Simon and Schuster
November 2013

Barnes and Noble

Imagine you’re on a nature walk in a historic park. If you just want fresh air and exercise, you’d walk at a brisk pace or maybe even go for a jog. If you want to take in some of the scenery, you might slow down your pace and look around a bit. However, if you want the immerse yourself in the experience, you’d explore all of the side trails, read every sign along the way, stop for every bird or wild creature you see, take photos of the various wildflowers, etc. It would take much longer but you would get everything out of the experience you could.

And that’s the kind of experience you’ll get reading The Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson. It’s not the quick walk through the life of Barbara Stanwyck nor is it a leisurely stroll. This book is an immersive experience with sidelines and context galore.

Despite its size and page count, this book is not an overwhelming read. Even though the total page count is 1,056, you’ll only be reading 860 because the backmatter (Film, Radio TV and Stage Chronologies, Notes, Selected bibliography and Index) takes up almost 200 pages.

It’s not to say that those 860 pages are a small feat. There is a vast amount of information and the author not only includes the chronology of Stanwyck’s life from her birth in 1907 up until 1940 where the book stops (right at the point when she's about to make Meet John Doe with Frank Capra) but also starts with her family before her birth and also sidelines into details about key characters in Stanwyck’s life and in the movie industry. You’ll learn more about directors, producers, authors, screenwriters, actors, actresses, even hairdressers, costume designers and agents. Political figures like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt are discussed at length. You'd think all that extraneous information would weigh down the book but for me all of that context made the absorption of new information a lot easier. Those breaks slow down the pace of the narrative but I never felt lost or overwhelmed. Instead the book progresses nicely and before you know it you’ve already taken in a couple hundred pages and look forward to reading more.

Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck

Interspersed throughout the book are black and white photographs placed wherever relevant to the corresponding text. There are many wonderful photos of Barbara Stanwyck, publicity shots, candids and family photos as well as photos of people in and out of Hollywood who were involved in Stanwyck’s life in different ways. You’ll find photos of directors, authors, other actors, etc.

Franchot Tone, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor

Barbara Stanwyck started out life as Ruby Stevens and the author refers to her as Ruby for most of the beginning. It’s only when the actress adopts the stage name Barbara Stanwyck and begins to be identified with the new moniker (and not a moment before), does the author switch to using Stanwyck. This was a little confusing to me but it was clear what the author was doing and made sense in the narrative. It also serves to demonstrate Stanwyck’s progression into adulthood and her career as a full-fledged actress.

I didn’t know much about Stanwyck’s life and although the book only covers 33 years I got a good sense of who Stanwyck was as a person and as an actress. She had a rough childhood. Her mother died when she was four years old. Her three older sisters were adults and had already left home and started lives on their own, her father abandoned her and her older brother By (Byron) Stevens. By and Ruby/Barbara were left to fend for themselves and were transferred to various foster homes and sometimes stayed with their older sisters. Such an unstable and transient childhood had a profound effect on Stanwyck.

Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck

There is a lot to learn about Stanwyck in this book. As a woman she really valued relationships. However, some of those relationships turned out to be toxic ones. The author explores Stanwyck's doomed marriage with her first husband, actor Frank Fay. By the end of their relationship, Fay was a domineering brute and a drunkard. When you read about their relationship, which progressively gets worse and the narrative goes along, you can't help but root for Stanwyck to kick him to the curb. The book also explores Stanwyck's love affair and the beginning of her marriage to fellow actor Robert Taylor. Stanwyck had a complicated relationship with her adopted son Dion that got worse over the years. Dion was very generous to author Victoria Wilson and sat down for countless interviews and proved to be a great resource for the book! Stanwyck had a close friendship and working relationship with Marion and Zeppo Marx and was best buds with Joan Crawford. I admire her devotion to her brother By, even when some of his actions frustrated her.

Barbara Stanwyck and her son Dion

I was intrigued by Stanwyck's reluctant fashion sense (she had a simple hat, hated adornment) and her lack of materialism. This is something that the author brings up throughout the book and it provides an interesting glimpse into Stanwyck's personality.

Each and every film Stanwyck made before 1940 is explored. Certain films are given more attention; Stella Dallas (1937) gets its own chapter. Stanwyck was well-read, appreciated a good script, had a strong work ethic to the point of sometimes being a workaholic and she often a victim of a harsh studio system.

The author sometimes shows bias towards her favorite Stanwyck's films. For example, Remember the Night (1940), a film I don't particularly care for but has a cult following thanks to TCM, is given additional attention and praise in the book. I always appreciate some sort of positive bias in a biography because it demonstrates how passionate the author is about the subject they are writing about. This book is frank about much of Stanwyck's life but there is a clear affection for the subject.

Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas

The book isn't without faults. There are some points where the author repeats herself. After so many pages devoted to the marriage of Stanwyck and Fay, later in the book she recaps Fay's background as though we hadn't heard of it before. I thought that was odd. Plot descriptions sometimes were broken up with asides and I found a couple instances where a plot point was repeated. There are a few errors in the book too (a couple I noticed but didn't jot down and one someone else pointed out to me). I think perhaps another pass is needed to fix any minor errors and weed out some repetition. Otherwise, I thought this was a well-written and very organized book and author Victoria Wilson's 15 years of research, interviews, writing and editing pays off handsomely.

Are you a Barbara Stanwyck fan? Then this book is required reading for you. It's long, and there is more coming, but it's well worth your time.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy.

Watch the video below to hear the author speak about the book and find out what "Steel-True" refers to!

This was my second review for my Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

God Speed Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

When I heard the news about Lauren Bacall's death, I didn't want to believe it. One of the things I always admired about Bacall was her resiliency. Surely she could survive death rumors! Alas, it was then confirmed by the Bogart estate that Bacall passed away yesterday.

Lauren Bacall was absolutely stunning. She was a talented actress who was as effective at being sultry as she was being serious or silly. She had wonderful range and I admire her for embracing old age when many other actresses were terrified of it.

Her love affair and marriage to Humphrey Bogart is the greatest love story to come out of Hollywood. When you hear "Bogie and Bacall" you immediately think of a relationship of passion, devotion and mutual respect. I'm sure it wasn't a perfect marriage but they were perfect for each other.

I even honored Bogie and Bacall at my own wedding. Table number four was dedicated to them and featured a framed photo of them on their wedding day.

Check out this video clip from 1954. Edward R. Murrow gets a virtual tour of the Bogart home by Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Little Stephen and Leslie Bogart also make an appearance! It's a charming little tribute to their family.

If you want to pay your respects to the Bogart family, consider leaving a message on Twitter, include @BogartEstate in your tweet, or on Facebook on the estate's official page.

Monday, August 4, 2014

2014 Summer Reading Challenge - First Round-Up

Woah. Hey there, Summer. Why don't you slow down a bit? The days of June and July felt like they were on fast forward. Next thing I noticed it was already August and I only have 1 out of 6 books reviewed. Yikes! I have to catch up. Right now I'm finishing a 1,000 page biography on Barbara Stanwyck (and it's only volume 1!). I've been chipping away at it all July and it's been a great read. I'm glad I threw in a few shorter books into my challenge list so I can balance things out.

I'm also way overdue on sharing the first round-up of reviews by all the participants in the challenge so I'm sharing them below. These are some fine pieces on a varied collection of classic film related books. I encourage you to stop by these blogs and read their challenge submissions. You never know. You might find your next favorite classic film book!

If I missed one of your reviews, let me know and I'll add it below.

BG of Classic Reel Girl
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner
Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door by David Kaufman

Emily of The Vintage Cameo 

Cinematic Canines: Dogs and Their Work in the Fiction Film by Adrienne L. McLean

KC of A Classic Movie Blog
The Wizard of Oz FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Life According to Oz by David J. Hogan 
Sharon Tate: Recollection by Debra Tate
Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspence: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett edited by John Charles Bennett
Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa
Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios

Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings
John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman
Still Memories: An Autobiography in Photography by John Mills
Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios

Raquel of Out of the Past 
Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios

Rich of Wide Screen World

Three Fingers by Rich Koslowsky
Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Robby of Dear Old Hollywood

Welcome, Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees by Ben Ohmart
Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars – Chateau Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten

Good job everyone!

One participant will win this set of Vintage Movie Classics!

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