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27 min

The Seven Wonders of Miss Barbara Stanwyck

TIFF showcases the life and films of a silver-screen goddess

Actor Barbara Stanwyck played some of the 20th century’s “best quick dames, dark femme fatales, and volatile provocatrices.” So says TIFF’s promo material, and I couldn’t agree with them more.

TIFF presents Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck, featuring 19 of her best films, including Stella DallasBall of FireDouble IndemnityMeet John Doe and The Lady Eve. Sounds like a lot of fun!

Now, I could go on and on about Stanwyck (and I will), but here’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s TCM tribute, which will give you a good solid Coles Notes overview of Missy’s extraordinary film work:

Now here are my top seven “Missy” (her nickname, don’t ya know) things you need to see before you die:

1. The ending of 1937’s Stella Dallas.

This truly is one of the greatest sad (yet lovely) endings in the movies. In a nutshell, Stanwyck plays Stella Martin, a ballsy mom who gives up her beloved snotty daughter Laurel to a wealthy family. A mother’s great sacrifice — never see your daughter again ’cuz she’s now rich and you’re still poor. Ughh. But Stanwyck makes this ridiculousness work.

This scene is the ending of the movie (you’ve been warned). As her daughter marries a boy named Richard in front of a window in a warmly lit mansion, Stella watches teary eyed, unnoticed from the dark city street (in the rain no less). When she starts to suck on the finger of one of her gloves, it seems a very odd thing to do, yet it’s totally perfect and real for the character and truly unforgettable.

There is no film clip of this scene online, but some guy filmed the scene as he watched it on TV in his red living room. He even coughs a few times and declares it “one of the saddest movies ever made.”

He’s right!

2. “I think you’re rotten. I think you’re swell.”

Double Indemnity is a 1944 black-and-white film-noir classic directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard), co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler and starring Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Stanwyck is so fun in this, with her platinum blonde wig, “honey of an anklet” and determined heels. She’s an unsympathetic, cold-hearted killer, and you love her for it.

3. & 4. “Missy” Christmas, everyone!

In Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Stanwyck plays food writer Elizabeth Lane (think Martha Stewart facade), who has lied about being the perfect housewife and tries to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to “her home” for a traditional family Christmas. It’s awfully hilarious, and Dennis Morgan — as war hero Jefferson Jones — is very easy on the eyes.

Remember the Night (1940) is my favourite Christmas movie. It’s very much overlooked, but I really think it’s something special. Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a woman caught shoplifting. Prosecutor John Sergeant (Fred MacMurray) postpones her Christmas Eve trial. He feels sorry for her, bails her out and takes her home to meet his mother (Beulah Bondi) and family for Christmas. Things get all warm and fuzzy. She bakes him biscuits. They fall in love — then things get dark. So good!

5. “Yum Yum” (Kisses)

Oh gosh, Ball of Fire (1941) is such an amusing piece of filmmaking. Screwball comedy at its finest! Co-screenwriter Billy Wilder based it on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

A group of old fuddy-duddy bachelor lexicographers (super-hot Gary Cooper plays the youngest) are labouring to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. They need to hear how “real people” talk and enlist a sassy nightclub performer, “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Stanwyck), to help them out. The police and the mob become involved; hilarity ensues.

6. Okay, guilty pleasure here.

I think I’m the only person on the planet whose fave angel from TV’s Charlie’s Angels was Tiffany Welles (played by Shelley Hack). She was all smiles and glorious bed-head. Loved her. During Hack’s only season, Stanwyck showed up as Antonia Blake in an episode called “Toni’s Boys.”

She basically played a visible “Charlie,” with her own three attractive-ish male angels: Matt, Bob and Cotton. Obviously, a spinoff was in the works, but, sadly, nothing happened with this. Stanwyck looked like she had a hoot doing it, even though it was a pretty sexist episode where the guys keep saving the usually self-reliant Tiffany, Chris and Kelly. Enjoy this great fake ‘Toni’s Boys’ opening-credit montage by pop culture blogger Hilly Blue.

7. Two scenes from The Thorn Birds.

In 1987, Stanwyck returned to television as Constance Colby in the flop Dynasty spinoff The Colbys. It was her last acting gig, and sadly, she really didn’t get to show off her acting chops in that awful thing.

But a few years before, in the mega-popular 1983 mini-series The Thorn Birds, 75-year-old Stanwyck showed she still had it — big time! Stanwyck played wealthy farm owner Mary Carson.

There are two unforgettable scenes in the series, one with Stanwyck admiring Father Ralph’s rain-soaked naked body and declaring, “You are the most beautiful man I have ever seen, Ralph de Bricassart.”

Missy even cops a feel! Goddess love her.

And in this devastating scene, watch Missy declare her love to Father Ralph (played by gay actor Richard Chamberlain). So many emotions wrapped up in this scene. She just nails it. She won a well-deserved Emmy for this performance.

Stanwyck once said of acting, “Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr Capra taught me that. Sure, it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting — watch the eyes!”

(Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck runs Saturday, Feb 7-Sat, April 4, 2015
TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St W
tiff.net)

(Main story image Courtesy of Film Reference Library)