Barbara Stanwyck at 100: July Marks this Sultry, Salty Icon's Centennial

It remains the best phrase ever written about the crass and classy Barbara Stanwyck, penned by another high-end, tough broad: the witty and defiant Pauline Kael.

Put less poetically, the sultry, salty Miss S. was common class, a Brooklyn-born Venus. As such, she could put her grip on a man or an audience or a line with a force matched only by the great Bette Davis.

Davis, of course, in both life and on the screen, could get along very well without the man; the heartache was great but it was worth it. Stanwyck, however – again, in both modes – was almost always forced to concede; in the end, she'd rather get down on her knees than hold her head high.

If that has cost Ms. Stanwyck a bit of status in this post-feminist age, it has in no way diminished her star in the eyes of true Classic Film buffs – who this month, celebrate her centennial (Stanwyck died in 1990.)

Stanwyck's prolific film career includes some good – Annie Oakley, Union Pacific, Golden Boy – some great – The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire – and some awful – The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Roustabout, The Night Walker.

To her, though, it was probably all the same; she learned at an early age, after being orphaned at age four, that her only value to the world was as workhorse. So work she did, even after the decline of her film career in the sixties, appearing in series television as late as the 1980s.

Perhaps her most sincere performance – the one that cut through the breathy bon mots and the tried-and-true teardrops – was in 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number, an adaptation of the acclaimed radio drama about a chatty invalid who overhears the engineering of a murder. It's an awkwardly padded translation (there are even flashbacks inside flashbacks!) but in it, Stanwyck does the best dramatic acting of her career. She goes beyond her melodramatic instincts to reach deep within herself and pull out genuine terror and brink-of-life despair.

Reflections on her later period – after her wane at the box office – bring to mind 1954's Executive Suite, a man-on-the-floor v. pencil pusher tug of war for the stewardship of a furniture company. Babs has a small but important role as the lead stockholder and estranged, suicidal lover of the recently deceased head honcho. She starts off in first gear – her pat, self-pitying mode – but ends up showing her all in an emotional tete-a-tete with star William Holden.

In the "Oh, How The Mighty Have Fallen" category (and sadly, almost every film icon keeps one), there's 1965's The Night Walker, her last theatrical release. It's a typical William Castle property: full of improbable plot twists, large, nondescript sets, and every horror movie trick in the book. But Stanwyck, the old hand, withstands it all valiantly – and proves besides that she can scream with the best of 'em!

Happy one hundredth, Barbara – though I know that rather than our fondest wishes, you'd rather one of us gave you a job.

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