Miss Barbara Stanwyck made her motion picture debut in 1927 as an uncredited dancer in a film called Broadway Nights, and she took her final bow on the small screen sixty years later, a regular cast member on Dynasty-spin-off The Colbys. By any standards in any field, sixty years is a long time, and to remain a respected performer with as many credits under her belt as Stanwyck did is a feat rarely matched in Hollywood.
Stanwyck was an early adopter of television, seeing its increasing popularity in the 1950s as a new vehicle for an actress now entering her 50s. According to the liner notes in the newly released collection, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Vol. 1, from the get-go, Stanwyck wanted to star in a Western serial. In fact, the actress' early foray into the field, the 1956 one-off "Sudden Silence" (included here as a bonus feature), was the story of a sheriff's wife fighting for the lives of her husband and son, and the full anthology series that would bear her name four years later would also have a cowboy tale of its own. Stanwyck was a smart gal. Her biggest success, of course, would be the show that would come after, Big Valley.
The Barbara Stanwyck Show ran for one season and thirty-six episodes, 1960 to 1961, garnering its star an Emmy in the process. It was part of a trend of anthology television shows starring famous film actresses, including Loretta Young, Jane Wyman, and June Allyson. Stanwyck's featured the actress in a variety of women's stories, from the thrilling to the melodramatic to the socially conscious, framed by awkward introductions featuring the star in gorgeous evening gowns. (By all reports, Stanwyck hated playing hostess, and that is certainly evident.) At one time, these shows were all thought lost, but efforts by the Archive of American Television, who have had some success with bringing older TV shows to DVD in the last year or so (read Paul Mavis' reviews of the Studio One Anthology and What Makes Sammy Run?), unearthed prints of the program, fifteen of which are included on these three discs (including one that Stanwyck did not star in, instead giving Milton Berle center stage).
All the episodes showcased here demonstrate the quality of Stanwyck's acting--her style is a kind of old-school naturalism, arch and performance-like while appearing completely unplanned at the same time--through vehicles designed to showcase strong female characters. In each half-hour program, Stanwyck comes out on top--and why not? It's her name above the title. She was also apparently just as in charge behind the camera as she was in front of it, choosing many of her co-stars and attracting big-league directors like Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past). Watch for appearances by Vic Morrow, Julie London, Yvonne Craig, Ralph Bellamy, Lee Marvin, and Anna May Wong in supporting roles.
*** Disc 1 ***
The Key to the Killer: A fugitive-on-the-run thriller with Barbara Stanwyck as the spouse of a lawman who handcuffs herself to a murderer (Vic Morrow) to keep him from escaping. Some good thrills, including some actual rough stuff between Stanwyck and Morrow.
House in Order: A creaky melodrama with Stanwyck as a woman with a possibly fatal heart condition who realizes that her relationship with her husband (Bill Mowry) and daughter (Yvonne Craig) are not as good as they should be when she goes to inform them of her impending surgery. Rather than let them know what is happening, Stanwyck decides to keep it to herself, working instead to bring her family together so they might be better prepared to get along without her.
The Miraculous Journey of Tadpole Chan: In the first of several episodes directed by Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie), Stanwyck plays Josephine Little, a dressmaker living in Hong Kong. (This will be a returning character.) After running afoul of a stuffy ambassador (Ralph Bellamy), Josephine befriends a crafty orphan named Tadpole Chan (Dick Kay Hong), and she and the politician get tangled in helping the kid find his way to America. A well-meaning piece of socially conscious work, though a little heavy-handed in its "ugly American" jingoism. The more interesting aspect of this installment is the romance that bubbles under the surface but never quite boils.
The Secret of Mrs. Randall: This Sirkian sudser casts Stanwyck as an oil widow running her husband's company despite the interference of her mother-in-law (Doris Packer) and the orchestrated reappearance of a former employee once accused of embezzlement (Bruce Gordon). Romance, buried secrets, big business--the ingredients of a steamy, if conventional, three-way.
Ironbark's Bride: Stanwyck fulfills her desire to be in a Western with this second Tourneur-helmed episode. Playing yet another widow, she goes to a new town for an arranged marriage with the crusty businessman nicknamed Ironbark (Charles Bickford). The woman hopes to give her son Jared (David Kent) a new life. He doesn't know his father (Gerald Mohr) was an outlaw with no sense of order, something Ironbark brings in large amounts...much to Jared's chagrin. Of course, a story like this needs a dramatic twist, giving it an explosive third act.
*** Disc 2 ***
Out of the Shadows: Jerome Gruskin provides a script that flirts with psychological drama but ends up taking some easy ways out. Stanwyck is Dr. Susan Bryce, a psychiatrist who specializes in kids and criminals, and who becomes the object of obsession for the creepy, trumpet-playing Victor Brackett (William Stephens in a weird yet effective method-style performance). Susan's colleagues don't believe her when she says Victor is stalking her, chalking it up to a hysterical woman reliving a traumatic experience from her past. There are some good chills, but it all kind of falls apart in the last few minutes.
Night Visitor: Another tight, constrained thriller, this time staged with one set-piece and three players. The stand-out is singer Julie London, relishing the role as the greedy crook who shows up one-night to fleece an in-the-process divorcee (Stanwyck) by pretending to be her husband's mistress. When that falls apart, she turns to gunplay and emotional abuse, and a battle of wits develops between the two women. (The third man, played by Michael Ansara, is largely ineffective, though he does add some class distinction, the connecter between the upper and lower.) One of my favorite shows on the set, I could have just as easily seen this on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Size 10: Stanwyck plays Maggie Wenley, a successful clothes designer and workaholic whose business is threatened when a competitor steals the design for the main piece in her new line. Her efforts to root out the culprit instead lead to Maggie alienating her employees and forcing her to face what she cares about, who she cares about, and why. This is a fast-moving drama, and though pieces fall into place fairly conveniently, the quality suggests that as the show moved into 1961, it was hitting its stride.
Dear Charlie: Stanwyck takes to the bench here, giving her show to Milton Berle to play con man Charlie Zane, who moves in on two spinsters (Katherine Squire and Lurene Tuttle) looking to replace their recently deceased father by finding another old man to take care of. Once again lead by Tourneur, this shift into comedy is another that would have been just fine with the Master of Suspense. "Deart Charlie" takes a macabre turn when Uncle Milty smells old-maid money and he uses his masculine wiles to get it.
Dragon By the Tail: Stanwyck and Tourneur revisit her Josephine Little character from "Tadpole Chan" in this Albert Beich-scripted espionage story. Josephine, still suffering from money troubles, gets recruited by the CIA to do a little spying and a little persuading. It's all very silly, with overly convenient turns, and one grandstanding speech in the final act that even Stanwyck can't make believable. I was also disappointed to see Anna May Wong relegated to the "inscrutable Asian assistant" role.
*** Disc 3 ***
The Sisters: Oof. This is the one designed to sell tissues to teary-eyed housewives. A rickety soap opera involving an older sister (Stanwyck), her younger sibling (Ellen Drew), and li'l sis' ex-husband (Jonathan Morris). The big sister, Janet, is trying to reconnect Kate with Max after eight years of estrangement so that he can learn about the ailing son he never knew he had. Tangled in this mess is the fact that Janet's dead husband was originally Kate's boyfriend, and so Kate thinks Janet is trying to steal her man yet again. The script here is pretty contrived and the presentation painfully arch. Super serious means super boring!
Big Career: One stinker follows another. Stanwyck plays Harriet, a business woman who allegedly has valued career over happiness, and may be the reason her philandering alcoholic husband Roy (Frank Overton) philanders and drinks. When Roy is unexpectedly run over by a car, Harriet's boss Phil (Gene Raymond) tries to convince her that they were always meant to be together, but until the previously hateful mother-in-law (Elizabeth Patterson) intervenes, Harriet won't believe it. There are no surprises here. Aging romance past its sell-by date.
Confession: This one makes the mistake of invoking the name of Double Indemnity in the intro. Not even close to the same league. Lee Marvin guests as a lawyer who helps Stanwyck get out of a bad marriage by setting up a frame job where it looks like she is murdered and her husband goes down for it. As the plot largely requires her to hide out in a two-room apartment, this love affair lacks any sizzle.
Along the Barbary Coast: San Francisco, 1899, is the setting for this story of a love triangle between a criminal (Richard Eastham), a returning war hero (Jerome Thor), and the madame at a saloon (Stanwyck). The hero, Pete, had been a cop before he left for war, and he was thought dead before he returned, so "Barbary Coast" involves him trying to get his wife back and take down the man who stole her. Of course, Pete doesn't know all that went down while he was away...but he'll learn.
Shock: In the final episode here, Barbara Stanwyck is a mother and a scientist who on the same day she makes an amazing scientific breakthrough on her home chalkboard loses her daughter to a freak accident. Having erased the formula for the shield that will protect all humankind from nuclear war, her brain is the only place that has the info, and the trauma of losing her child has locked her up. No, I'm not kidding. Eduard Franz plays the doctor who tries to break through her psychological barriers in this highly ridiculous story.
So, that's a lot of TV. How does it all stack up?
The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Vol. 1, in all honesty, is an unearthed treasure in terms of seeing a great actress in largely forgotten roles, but in terms of writing, these things have been forgotten for a reason. Though not terrible, these TV episodes do come off as rather antiquated. The short running time doesn't give a lot of room for development, and the scripts are regularly underdone. Take Barbara Stanwyck out of these shows, and we wouldn't even be talking about the series today. This is B-television, with a handful of shining moments. Not great, not horrible, worth a look by the fans of the actress but no great shakes as a stand-alone product.
The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Vol. 1 spreads 15 half-hour shows across 3 discs, presenting them in their original full-frame, black-and-white format. These were long thought lost, and so some of the elements show the wear and tear of a program produced in 1960 and then left for dead. That said, the Archive of American Television did a pretty impressive job of getting the shows dressed for DVD. While there are scratches and some surface noise (the worst are the first couple of episodes on the third disc), the basic image is crisp and ported over to disc with care. I am sure a full-scale restoration would have been a Herculean effort, and the preservation work for this set is admirable even if it's not perfect. Really, it's likely as close to perfect as it's possible to get without spending money that would be disproportionate to the size of the audience for the collection.
The very basic audio mix is actually more impressive than the video presentation, as the soundtracks are surprisingly clean. They have very little hiss or extraneous noise, no real glitches, and the overall clarity is very good. The only major problem I heard was on Disc 3 during "Confession," when the sound dropped out and went hollow for about a minute.
Subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also available.
The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Vol. 1 is nicely packaged in a foldable cardboard "book" and an outer slipcover. The book has plastic trays for the three discs and a pocket for the 20-page booklet--which features photographs, detailed episode guides, and liner notes by Karen L. Herman, the director of the Archive of American Television, and historian Robert Osborne
DVD 1 has two extra features on the disc. One is a full-length program, billed as an "Unaired Pilot Episode" from 1956. This Lewis Allen-directed western is actually the teleplay "Sudden Silence" from The Ford Television Theatre, and it was previously available as a bonus feature on the DVD for the Barbara Stanwyck/William Holden picture Golden Boy.
The second extra is a video of Stanwyck accepting her Emmy for The Barbara Stanwyck Show, a prize that came after the series had already been inexplicably cancelled by NBC.
Rent It. While I love that stuff like The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Vol. 1 is coming back into circulation and applaud the efforts of the Archive of American Television, this 3-disc set is for Barbara Stanwyck fans only. These rare performances from the legendary actress have been out of circulation for nearly half a century, and her followers will want to give it a look; most others will likely want to pass.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.