Gif from Baby Face showing Stanwyck pouring coffee on a man's hand
From “Baby Face”
From “The Big Valley”

“And starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.” When I was growing up I would see this special announcement at the end of the opening credits for the television show, “The Big Valley.” I wondered why she was “Miss” and what the big deal was about having her on the show. But as my love for classic films grew, I started seeing Stanwyck in roles like “Baby Face” and “The Lady Eve.” It became clear that “The Big Valley” producers had landed one of the greatest actresses of all time to give their show some credibility. The gamble paid off and Stanwyck earned an Emmy for her work on the show.

Long before gracing the small screen, she was hailed by many as one of the greatest actresses. Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille said she was his favorite actress, director Billy Wilder said “she was the best,” and another director, Frank Capra, said, “Stanwyck doesn’t act a scene, she lives it.”

“When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was terrific.”

Film Critic Richard Corliss

We’ve put together a film series that tries to capture the essence of this person who beat the odds. Orphaned at age four, raised in a series of foster homes, and a “Ziegfeld girl” at 16, Stanwyck first became a Broadway star and then translated that success in over 80 movies. From there she went to television and won three Emmy awards. Selecting just four films proved to be a challenge, but we think we hit a good mix.

Stella Dallas, from 1937, opens on Nov. 25 and is simply too powerful to miss. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Dallas, a working-class woman who cannot navigate the wealthy world comes to a head when she has to decide what is best for her daughter. The final scene is one of the great moments in cinema. Her acting skills are on full display in this melodrama as she plays against the beauty that could have defined her career. Her performance also earned her an Academy Award nomination.

After this early dramatic role, we jump forward a few years to the 1941 screwball comedy, Ball of Fire on Dec. 2. With a wink toward Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Stanwyck teams up here with Gary Cooper. Heading up a secluded group of nerdy professors who share a house, Cooper brings nightclub entertainer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Stanwyck) into their lives as he researches her use of slang. Loaded with some great character actors, the film shows both sides learning from one another. And it is filled with great lines: ” I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!” The audience loved the film and Stanwyck was again nominated for an Academy Award. Watch the trailer and learn what the slang “yum yum” means.

From comedy to one of the greatest film-noir movies of all time, we next see Stanwyck in the 1944 classic, Double Indemnity on Dec. 9. Here Stanwyck plays an ice-cold wife looking to collect insurance on her husband, who is inconveniently alive. Pulled into the mix is Fred MacMurray, who if you only know him from “My Three Sons,” will shock you. MacMurray, who often played less than stellar figures in film, trades lines fast and furiously with Stanwyck that drip with innuendo as they play cat and mouse with one another. Watch the trailer and find out the “murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.”

And from this, we go to an all-out sweet Christmas romantic-comedy that even Hallmark can’t touch with Christmas in Connecticut on Dec. 16. The 1945 film shows Stanwyck trying to cover for the fact that she writes about cooking, being a mother, and living on a farm even though she lives in an NYC apartment by herself and has food delivered since she doesn’t cook. When the owner of her magazine wants to feature her welcoming a WWII hero into her home, she has to pull off some fast work. Before long she finds herself welcoming the handsome hero. On a farm. With a husband and child. Cooking in the kitchen. Yep — she is in a mess. And if I could ever create a film series featuring my favorite character actors, Sidney Greenstreet and S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, both in this film, would be on my list. A strong cast, a hilarious movie, and a Christmas love story to boot — what more could you ask for? Well, we are making this one free! Merry Christmas early. Watch the trailer for some happiness overload.

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas

Watch all the films and you may just wonder, who is Stanwyck? A dramatic lead, a comedian, a femme fatale, or just “Mrs. Barkley.” Maybe we should just listen to the real-life Stanwyck. “I’m a tough old broad from Brooklyn,” she said. “Don’t try and make me into something I’m not.”

Derek Emerson
Hope College Director of Public Affairs and Events

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