- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre gets a jump on the calendar with its centennial tribute to the late Barbara Stanwyck, who was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn on July 16, 1907.

The 12 selections in the retrospective include the quartet that put Miss Stanwyck in competition for the Academy Award as best actress: “Stella Dallas” in 1937, “Ball of Fire” in 1941, “Double Indemnity” in 1944 and “Sorry, Wrong Number” in 1948.

Renowned as a dedicated professional and straight-talker, Miss Stanwyck didn’t hesitate to question the 1937 verdict of her peers. Luise Rainer won a second consecutive Oscar (for “The Good Earth”), leaving Miss Stanwyck as a famous also-ran, along with Greta Garbo, who was in “Camille” that year.

Miss Stanwyck’s portrayal of the gauche but self-sacrificing Stella is irresistible and gave her one of the transcendent fade-out scenes in Hollywood history. Somehow, it didn’t seem unsporting of her to recall, “My life’s blood was in that picture. I should have won.”

The Motion Picture Academy made belated amends with an honorary Oscar in 1981, when the actress was 75 and hadn’t been in a major film for almost 20 years.

By that time she had also won two Emmys, for a short-lived anthology series of 1960 that was named after her and then for “The Big Valley” in 1966. In addition to playing a Western matriarch with her characteristic authority, Miss Stanwyck endeared herself as a thorn in the side of Lorne Greene, whose presence as the patriarch of “Bonanza” she seemed to enjoy mocking. During one interview she panned him as “the Loretta Young of the West.”

A third Emmy followed in 1983 for Miss Stanwyck’s scintillating performance as the emotionally starved and resentful dowager of “The Thorn Birds.” It did seem a crowning moment for an actress who excelled at projecting both destructive and vulnerable attributes.

Over the years no one seemed better qualified to embody hard cases who were beyond redemption, or hard cases who could be the best thing that ever happened to some blundering beau. The supreme examples of this contradiction are her ruthless schemer in “Double Indemnity,” Phyllis Dietrichson, and her mercifully dazzling schemer in “The Lady Eve,” Jean Harrington.

These are probably her most esteemed movie roles, and they merit the esteem. I wouldn’t hesitate to rewrite the Oscar history of 1941, which was a banner year for Miss Stanwyck with “The Lady Eve,” “Ball of Fire” and “Meet John Doe.” Inexplicably in retrospect, it became Joan Fontaine’s Oscar year for “Suspicion.”

This misjudgment defies belief two generations later, when it’s easy to wince at the ingenuous inexperience of Miss Fontaine. By contrast there is Miss Stanwyck’s Eve, the greatest wised-up romantic comedy heroine who ever drew breath and salvaged a love affair.

The future actress started as a chorus girl at the age of 15. Ruby Stevens made a precocious shift to dramatic roles in a couple of Broadway melodramas, “The Noose” and “Burlesque.” Playwright Arthur Hopkins and producer David Belasco renamed her while associated with “Burlesque.”

They consulted vintage press books and discovered a production of “Barbara Frietchie” that had starred the now-forgotten Jane Stanwyck. Perhaps it’s a shame that they discarded the Ruby, because their protegee, orphaned at the age of 4, emerged as a gem, though a diamond in the rough strictly speaking.

Miss Stanwyck was recruited for the movies during the transition from silents to talkies. She was a dramatic force to be reckoned with by the time she played a charismatic evangelist for Frank Capra in “The Miracle Woman” (1931).

Two years later she seemed an even more confident heartbreaker while cast as a high-minded but romantically susceptible missionary in Mr. Capra’s durably astonishing and haunting “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” which ought to be more of a cult classic than it seems to be.

While confined to a fraction of the subject’s 80-plus movies, the AFI Silver retrospective will begin with a strong foretaste of what Miss Stanwyck had to offer moviegoers of the early 1930s.

“Bitter Tea” will be double-billed with “Night Nurse,” a 1931 suspense thriller in which director William Wellman showcased both Clark Gable and Miss Stanwyck in memorably desperate circumstances. You’ll have eight chances to catch this provocative pairing.

Mike Mashon, curator of the Library of Congress film collection, will host a revival of his favorite recent rediscovery, “Baby Face,” a comedy-melodrama of 1933 directed by the never fashionable Alfred E. Green. Knowing and stylish in spite of that little detail, the movie celebrates the young Barbara Stanwyck as a consummate gold digger.

Redemption, while wed to George Brent, is saved for the absolute last gasp. The title character’s ruthless ascent by sexual opportunism is the movie’s preoccupation, and her outlook is summarized most trenchantly in the following exchange of dialogue: “Have you had any experience?” “Plenty.”

Frank Capra, who was also seriously infatuated with Miss Stanwyck during their initial stage of collaboration in the early 1930s, revealed that she was a quick but short-winded study on a movie set. He rearranged shooting methods to take advantage of her volcanic tendency.

“Stanwyck doesn’t act a scene,” he wrote. “She lives it. Her emotions are so genuine that they must be captured in their first expression. She gives everything she has, and its great sincerity and strength must be caught at fever heat.”

To catch the fever he used multiple cameras and kept them rolling during the earliest Stanwyck takes, even if other performers flubbed a line. It was his impression that her energy began to fade after the third take or so.

Miss Stanwyck acknowledged the trait when interviewed by Capra biographer Joseph McBride. “I think it’s theater training,” she said. “The curtain goes up … and you’d better be good. You don’t get a retake. I have worked with actors who lie back and wait to see what you’re going to do, and the fifth or sixth time they come forward. Well, that’s a bunch of [expletive] to me. You should shoot for the first time.”

SERIES: “Barbara Stanwyck: A Centennial Salute”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8630 Colesville Road in Silver Spring

WHEN: Friday, Jan. 26 through Thursday, March 1. Schedule of screenings: “Night Nurse” (1931) and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933): Jan. 26, 28, 29, 31; “Baby Face” (1933): Jan. 27; “Stella Dallas” (1937): Feb. 2, 3, 4, 7; “The Lady Eve” (1941): Feb. 2, 3, 4, 7; “Ball of Fire” (1941): Feb. 11-13; “Meet John Doe” (1941): Feb. 16, 19, 21, 22; “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946): Feb. 17, 20, 21; “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948): Feb. 24, 26,27; “Remember the Night” (1940): Feb. 18-20; “The Furies” (1950): Feb. 23, 25, 27; “Double Indemnity” (1944): Feb. 23, 24 and March 1.

ADMISSION: $9.25 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

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