Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most versatile actresses to come out of the Old Hollywood era, excelling in both dramas and comedies. Her film career spanned nearly four decades and she appeared in over 80 films, where she had a leading role in all but three films. Though she left us 26 years ago, Stanwyck is still remembered today and is often referred to as one of cinema’s greatest actresses. So on the anniversary of her death, I’ll be celebrating her stellar career by highlighting one of her best years in film.
Throughout her career, Barbara Stanwyck has worked with countless leading men, several of them more than once. My favorites of her handsome co-stars are Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, and in 1941 she had the great pleasure of appearing in films with both of them, twice! She starred in four films that year, and three of them have become classics and were recognized in their time at the Academy Awards (more on that later on). So for this post, I’ll be giving an overview of each of her four films, along with some thoughts and interesting facts.
THE LADY EVE
Directed by Preston Sturges
Released on March 21st, 1941
After a year-long expedition in South America, the rich and naive Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) meets con artist Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) on his return to the United States. Though Jean is initially interested in Charles’ money, she quickly falls in love with him as the two spend more time together. But shortly thereafter Charles finds out the truth and breaks off their relationship. Still pining after him and fixated on revenge, Jean reenters Charles’ life and masquerades as a posh aristocrat named Lady Eve Sidwich.
Barbara Stanwyck started 1941 on a strong note, as this screwball comedy is her most acclaimed film after Double Indemnity. Of the four films she starred in this year, The Lady Eve is the most revered today as it’s the only one here that appears on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1994. It also appears at #26 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list and at #55 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list. Unfortunately, this was the only film she made with director Preston Sturges, but it proved to be her most successful pairing with Henry Fonda. This is my favorite of her films to come out in 1941 and my favorite of her comedies, though Ball of Fire comes very close.
MEET JOHN DOE
Directed by Frank Capra
Released on May 3rd, 1941
Upon being laid off, reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) prints a fake letter written by an unemployed “John Doe” who threatens to commit suicide in protest of society’s neglect for the little people. The paper is forced to rehire Ann after the story becomes a nationwide sensation, and in turn, they hire the homeless John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to pose as John Doe. Soon the John Doe philosophy spreads across the country and develops into a grassroots political movement.
This was the fifth and final film collaboration between Stanwyck and director Frank Capra; at the beginning of her career, she made one film a year with him from 1930 to 1933. Meet John Doe was also the first film she starred in alongside Gary Cooper. Cooper had accepted the part without reading the script for two reasons: he had enjoyed working with Capra on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and he was eager to work with Stanwyck. The film was recognized on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers list at #49, which celebrates the most inspiring films in American cinema (three other Capra films appear on this list). This is one of my favorite Capra films and both Cooper and Stanwyck were really wonderful together, and I’m glad this wasn’t the only time the actors worked together.
YOU BELONG TO ME
Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Released on October 22nd, 1941
On a ski trip, millionaire playboy Peter Kirk (Henry Fonda) literally falls for Dr. Helen Hunt (Barbara Stanwyck) as he crashes into her on a slope. He plays up his injuries so that she’ll continue to see him, and soon proposes marriage, which she accepts on the condition that she’ll continue to practice medicine. After being called away for a medical emergency on their wedding night, Peter becomes consumed with jealousy as Helen tends to her male patients, and his constant interference with her work begins to threaten their marriage.
You Belong to Me is the odd one out among Stanwyck’s 1941 films, and the plot really doesn’t stand well today. What elevates this film though is her strong-willed character and her chemistry with Fonda. This was the last film they starred in together after previously teaming up for 1938’s The Mad Miss Manton and The Lady Eve. Both actors enjoyed working together and remained friends after their film collaborations.
Stanwyck later said of Fonda, “He was delicious to work with. We made three films together, and I was sorry when each one was over. I wish we had done more movies together. I loved Hank.” Fonda also had some “delicious” words about Stanwyck saying: “Everyone who is close to me knows I’ve been in love with Barbara Stanwyck since I’ve met her. She’s a delicious woman. We’ve never had an affair. She’s never encouraged me, but dammit, my wife will verify it, my daughters and son will confirm it, and now you all can testify to the truth. Stanwyck can act the hell out of any part, and she can turn a chore into a challenge. She’s fun and I am glad I got the chance to make three movies with her.”
BALL OF FIRE
Directed by Howard Hawks
Released on December 2nd, 1941
While conducting research on modern slang vocabulary for an encyclopedia project, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) ventures into a nightclub where the savvy Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is performing. Seeing that she uses much of the day’s popular jargon, he asks for her assistance in his research. Though at first reluctant, she agrees to stay at his residence with seven other professors so she can hide from the police, who want to question her about her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).
Just as she started 1941 off strong, Stanwyck ended the year on a high note, re-teaming with Cooper for a comedy that was co-written by Billy Wilder. Cooper and director Howard Hawks had a previous success that same year with Sergeant York. Both were recognized at the following Academy Awards, where Hawks earned his only Oscar nomination for Best Director and Cooper won his first of two Oscars. As for Ball of Fire, it received four nominations though it didn’t win any. It’s another well-regarded classic today and appears at #92 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list. The film itself is a nice, modern spin on Snow White and the Seven Drawfs and is my favorite of the films Cooper and Stanwyck made together. And just as she made three films with Fonda, Stanwyck and Cooper co-starred in three films together, with the last one being 1953’s Blowing Wild.
With such a prolific year, I would’ve been shocked if Stanwyck was overlooked at the Academy Awards. Thankfully she didn’t go unnoticed, and she received her second of four Oscar nominations for her role in Ball of Fire. Incidentally, three of the five nominees for the category “Best Writing, Original Screenplay” were for films that she starred in (The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and Ball of Fire)! 1941 really was a fantastic year for her, and much of her work in this year alone is fondly remembered today among her other great roles.
I wrote this entry as a part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, where many bloggers are honoring the great actress. Click the banner below to read more posts!