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Barbara Stanwyck Movies on TCM: 1 of Cinema’s Greatest Stars

Barbara StanwyckBarbara Stanwyck ca. early 1930s: Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” series will be paying tribute to the four-time Best Actress Academy Award nominee.
  • TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” schedule – Aug. 20: Turner Classic Movies will be airing 14 titles starring Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest names of the studio era.
  • This Barbara Stanwyck article includes a brief overview of three of her TCM films: Night Nurse, Clash by Night, and Ball of Fire.

TCM’s ‘Summer Under the Stars’ schedule on Aug. 20: Tribute to one Hollywood’s greatest performers, Barbara Stanwyck

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” schedule – Aug. 20: TCM will be presenting 14 titles starring Barbara Stanwyck, one of cinema’s most capable and most commanding performers of the last century.

TCM’s daylong tribute covers Stanwyck’s career from her no-nonsense Pre-Code phase (e.g., Illicit, Night Nurse, The Purchase Price) to her hardened broad phase (e.g., To Please a Lady, Clash by Night, Executive Suite), including several star vehicles in which she displays her frightful-yet-compelling black widow streak (e.g., Double Indemnity, The Man with a Cloak, The Violent Men).

Hopefully, one of these days TCM (or The Criterion Channel) will present (good prints of) Stanwyck’s lesser-known Paramount movies (e.g., The Great Man’s Lady, California, The Bride Wore Boots), in addition to her made-for-television features: The House That Wouldn’t Die, A Taste of Evil, and the all-star The Letters (also featuring Stanwyck’s fellow veterans Ida Lupino and Jane Powell).

Below is a brief overview of three Barbara Stanwyck movies: Night Nurse, Clash by Night, and Ball of Fire. (See TCM’s Barbara Stanwyck “Summer Under the Stars” schedule further below. Most titles will remain available for a while on the Watch TCM app.)

Night Nurse (1931)

By 1931, her third straight year* in movies, Barbara Stanwyck was already a star with her name above the title. In William A. Wellman’s Pre-Code drama Night Nurse (Warner Bros), she plays the title character – a high-school grad who becomes a nurse back in the day when that was apparently okay. That is, as long as you were a woman with shapely legs and a good-looking face.

Swishing up and down hospital corridors, (TCM honoree) Joan Blondell is Stanwyck’s peppy fellow night nurse (don’t bet on her having a college degree), who freely hands out bits of wisdom like the importance – for, ahem, professional advancement – of patients with money (especially appendicitis cases).

Besides showing audiences the horrors of human birth – babies are traumatized for life after suffering one indignity after another – Night Nurse also provides a showy role for relative newcomer Clark Gable. As the nasty heavy – “I’m Nick! The chauffeur!” he barks in his intro – Gable gets to knock Stanwyck down in a scene reminiscent of both A Free Soul (Gable shoving around Norma Shearer) and The Public Enemy/Lady Killer (James Cagney grapefruit-smashing/shoving around Mae Clarke).

Because of its infuriatingly inane final half hour, Night Nurse is far from being a great movie. It’s not even a good one. Yet its cast and Pre-Code sensibility make it a must-see.

Stanwyck would have some more hospital entanglements in Alfred Santell’s mid-level 1937 drama Internes Can’t Take Money, a Paramount release costarring Joel McCrea as Dr. James Kildare. (Two years later, Lew Ayres would land the role of Dr. Kildare in MGM’s film series.)

* Barbara Stanwyck is supposed to have made her film debut in an uncredited bit in the 1927 silent Broadway Nights. Her big-screen career began in earnest with The Locked Door and Mexicali Rose at the dawn of the sound era in 1929.

Clash by Night (1952)

Directed by Fritz Lang, Clash by Night stars Barbara Stanwyck as a seasoned middle-aged dame who, after finding disenchantment on the East Coast, returns to the northern California fishing town of Monterey, where she finds instead sibling resentment, a lowbrow husband, and lustful passion with another man.

Clash by Night is a cinematic case of “what might have been” – had filmmaker Lang and screenwriter Alfred Hayes handled the proceedings with a less melodramatic, more hard-hitting touch. In fact, even Stanwyck feels a tad actressy in some of her more intense moments, while most of the rest of the cast (Robert Ryan as the lover, Paul Douglas as the husband, J. Carrol Naish as Douglas’ uncle) either overacts or looks ridiculously out of place.

As is, Clash by Night is worth checking out simply because anything starring Barbara Stanwyck is a must. As a plus, you can catch a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe as one of the rare townspeople who embrace Monterey’s prodigal daughter.

Now, although Clash by Night may seem like something out of a John Steinbeck novel, the movie is actually an adaptation of Clifford Odets’ 1941 play set in Staten Island, directed by Lee Strasberg, and starring Tallulah Bankhead, Lee J. Cobb, Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola, 1937), and a youthful Robert Ryan (as Bankhead’s younger brother; Keith Andes in the 1952 movie). It’s a cultural tragedy that Broadway plays weren’t filmed (or taped) back in those days.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, a 1957 Playhouse 90 production starred Kim Stanley, E.G. Marshall, and Lloyd Bridges.

Barbara Stanwyck Ball of Fire Gary Cooper S.Z. SakallBarbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, with Gary Cooper, S.Z. Sakall, et al. At its core, Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss O’Shea is akin to her The Lady Eve and Meet John Doe characters: The shady woman who develops a mix of romantic and motherly feelings for an attractive man-child.

Ball of Fire (1941)

Barbara Stanwyck arguably reached the peak of her Hollywood career in 1941, when she was seen in four releases, all of which directed by major filmmakers and costarring big-name actors: Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, Wesley Ruggles’ You Belong to Me, Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, and Howard HawksBall of Fire. In the first two, she was paired with Henry Fonda; in the last two with Gary Cooper.

With so many Stanwyck portrayals to choose from and considering the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ absurd preferential voting system (which, logically, should be used for voters to select the winners, not the nominees), it’s a bit surprising that enough members of the Academy’s Actors Branch and the Screen Actors Guild (which back then could also take part in the Oscar nomination process) succeeded in naming her one of the year’s Best Actress contenders.

The selected performance was Stanwyck’s star turn as nightclub dancer, gun moll, and nerd seducer Sugarpuss O’Shea in independent mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s RKO-distributed romantic comedy Ball of Fire, a late-year release notable as the last movie (co-)written but not directed by Billy Wilder.

So, is Barbara Stanwyck that good in Ball of Fire?

Wooden former Ziegfeld chorine

Well, though briskly amusing, Sugarpuss is neither as funny as con woman Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve nor as poignant as newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell in Meet John Doe.

Here’s why: Only seldom does Ball of Fire give Stanwyck the chance to elicit laughter, leaving her mostly stuck with unwieldy lines like “You don’t think we could sort of begin the beguine right now?” and “[my throat] is as red as The Daily Worker – and just as sore.” As for her dramatic scenes later in the film, they come across as disconcertingly spiritless.

There’s more: Despite the fact that Stanwyck looks fantastic in a glittering, appropriately “immodest” gown, the former Ziegfeld Follies chorine fails to convince as a sexy nightclub entertainer. Throughout her sassy dance number, her hips remain unshakable, as she makes no effort to accompany the rhythmic frenzy of Gene Krupa’s band during the catchy “Drum Boogie” number. (Martha Tilton provided Stanwyck’s singing voice.) In that regard, original choice Ginger Rogers (who would land a similar role the following year in Roxie Hart) would have been a far better fit for the character.

In all, Ball of Fire is a Barbara Stanwyck cinematic rarity: A movie in which her leading man is the one who, infantile fisticuffs or no, delivers the most effective performance. Indeed, to Gary Cooper belongs the funniest and most minimalist line in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s otherwise overbaked screenplay: “Boogie!”

‘Spark of inspiration’ missing

According to Todd McCarthy’s Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Barbara Stanwyck was less than thrilled with Ball of Fire – a longer and slower-paced romp than the director’s Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday – confiding “that while she thought Hawks did a competent job, she felt the picture lacked a certain spark of inspiration, and she secretly regretted that Billy Wilder, present at all times on the set, hadn’t directed it instead.”

Less than three years after Ball of Fire came out, Stanwyck and by then director/co-screenwriter Wilder would join forces on another TCM presentation, the classic film noir Double Indemnity, which earned them both Oscar nominations.

The Samuel Goldwyn-Howard Hawks combo would remake Ball of Fire – with the addition of music and Technicolor – as A Song Is Born, a 1948 critical and commercial disappointment starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. Though less of an actress, the latter was more of a dancer than Stanwyck.

For the record, the Best Actress Academy Award winner of 1941 was Joan Fontaine for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Gary Cooper was the Best Actor winner, but for another Howard Hawks effort, the puerile World War I blockbuster Sergeant York.

Note: As mentioned above, Billy Wilder co-wrote Ball of Fire with frequent partner Charles Brackett. The screenplay is based on Wilder and Thomas Monroe’s short story “From A to Z.”

Immediately below is TCM’s Barbara Stanwyck movie schedule.

TCM’s ‘Summer Under the Stars’ schedule: Barbara Stanwyck

Aug. 20, EDT

6:00 AM The Purchase Price (1932)
1h 8m | Drama
Director: William A. Wellman.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Lyle Talbot, Hardie Albright, David Landau, Murray Kinnell, Leila Bennett.

7:15 AM Illicit (1931)
1h 21m | Drama
Director: Archie Mayo.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, James Rennie, Ricardo Cortez, Charles Butterworth, Natalie Moorhead, Joan Blondell, Claude Gillingwater.

8:45 AM The Woman in Red (1935)
1h 8m | Romance
Director: Robert Florey.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Raymond, Genevieve Tobin, John Eldredge, Phillip Reed, Dorothy Tree, Russell Hicks, Nella Walker, Claude Gillingwater, Doris Lloyd.

10:00 AM To Please a Lady (1950)
1h 31m | Romance
Director: Clarence Brown.
Cast: Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Will Geer, Roland Winters, Lela Bliss, Emory Parnell.

12:00 PM Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
1h 41m | Comedy
Director: Peter Godfrey.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner, S.Z. Sakall, Robert Shayne, Una O’Connor, Frank Jenks, Joyce Compton.

2:00 PM Ball of Fire (1942)
1h 51m | Comedy
Director: Howard Hawks.
Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews, Oskar Homolka, S.Z. Sakall, Richard Haydn, Dan Duryea, Leonid Kinskey, Tully Marshall, Kathleen Howard, Aubrey Mather.

4:00 PM Double Indemnity (1944)
1h 46m | Crime
Director: Billy Wilder.
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova.

6:00 PM The Violent Men (1955)
1h 35m | Western
Director: Rudolph Maté.
Cast: Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Dianne Foster, Brian Keith, May Wynn, Warner Anderson, Basil Ruysdael, Lita Milan, Richard Jaeckel, Jack Kelly.

8:00 PM Baby Face (1933)
1h 16m | Drama
Director: Alfred E. Green.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Alphonse Ethier, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay, Arthur Hohl, John Wayne, Robert Barrat, Douglass Dumbrille, Theresa Harris.

9:30 PM Executive Suite (1954)
1h 44m | Drama
Director: Robert Wise.
Cast: William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch, Tim Considine.

11:30 PM Clash by Night (1952)
1h 44m | Drama
Director: Fritz Lang.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Keith Andes, Marilyn Monroe, J. Carrol Naish, Silvio Minciotti.

1:30 AM Night Nurse (1931)
1h 12m | Drama
Director: William A. Wellman.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable, Blanche Friderici, Charles Winninger, Charlotte Merriam, Vera Lewis. Uncredited: Marcia Mae Jones, Allan Lane.

3:00 AM The Man with a Cloak (1951)
1h 21m | Suspense/Mystery
Director: Fletcher Markle.
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Calhern, Leslie Caron, Joe De Santis, Jim Backus, Margaret Wycherly.

4:30 AM Cry Wolf (1947)
1h 23m | Suspense/Mystery
Director: Peter Godfrey.
Cast: Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Brooks, Richard Basehart, Jerome Cowan, John Ridgely, Patricia Barry (as Patricia White), Rory Mallinson, Helene Thimig.

“Barbara Stanwyck Movies on TCM: 1 of Cinema’s Greatest Stars” notes

Barbara Stanwyck “Summer Under the Stars” schedule via Turner Classic Movies.

Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, S.Z. Sakall, et al. Ball of Fire movie image: Samuel Goldwyn | RKO Pictures.

“Barbara Stanwyck Movies on TCM: 1 of Cinema’s Greatest Stars” last updated in August 2023.

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