Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Drama, Melodrama, Pre-code Cinema, Westerns…You name it, she did it– and better than any other “dame” on the silver screen. As such, Barbara Stanwyck’s Top Movies List is a reflection of “Missy’s” incredible versatility. It would be in poor conscience to limit you to a meager Top Ten list, given the quantity of quality performances that would, as necessity, be left on the cutting room floor. Hence, the Barbara Stanwyck Top 20 movies: a list of her best films and fan favorites, all hand-picked and so voted by YOU!
Whether a long-term, die-hard devotee or a freshly seduced and determined Stanwyck connoisseur, it is incumbent upon you to see any and all movies on the following list. So, we challenge you, do yourself a favor—dive in, indulge, and delight!
Barbara Stanwyck Movies: 1-10
1. Double Indemnity (1944)
The Gold Standard of Film Noir, this movie defined the genre and, in particular, the Femme Fatale role. Double Indemnity ranks #29 in AFI’s top 100 films. One of Billy Wilder’s masterpieces and Stanwyck’s most prestigious film, the unrepentant immorality of the scheming, leading characters—embroiled in a murderous insurance scam– is as deliciously twisted as the plot. Stany is so good at being bad that you find yourself rooting for her. It is no surprise that her portrayal of the evil Phyllis Dietrichson earned her the third of her four Oscar nominations. Double Indemnity is a film that comes pretty close to perfection—a flawless script, superb direction, impeccable casting, dangerously exquisite performances, and an enthralling Miklos Rosza score. And then there’s the wig… I know this will sound controversial, but Phyllis wouldn’t be Phyllis without her wig…
2. The Lady Eve (1941)
Preston Sturges’s genius lasted all but four years, but in those four years he made some of the most iconic screwball comedies of all time. The Lady Eve is his masterwork. Stanwyck plays a member of a cards conning gang on a luxurious cruise ship whose next target is Henry Fonda. Fonda plays a naive beer millionaire who hates beer and devotes his life to studying snakes. He falls for Stany, and Stany falls for him, but when he discovers her true, snakish nature… well, then it gets too screwball to summarize! You couldn’t make a movie with such a logline today, but that’s just why we love classic movies.
Stanwyck at her finest, Fonda at his most charming, and an absolutely stunning cast of character actors make The Lady Eve a royal treat of a screwball comedy: slapstick as art. As if that isn’t enough, it also boasts THE sexiest, most hilarious seduction-scene-without-sex ever recorded on film. Tempted?
3. Stella Dallas (1937)
This film is the first melodrama on Stanwyck’s Top Films list, and another cinematic benchmark. Stany was indeed the Swiss Army Knife of the Golden Age. Stella Dallas is the ultimate self-sacrificing, mother-daughter tearjerker that breaks and heals the heart in the supremely cathartic way only well-crafted melodramas can. Stanwyck earned her first Academy Award nomination for this role, (cough, she should have won, cough), but Luise Rainer took the Oscar home for MGM’s prestige movie The Good Earth instead.
Barbara Stanwyck is so perfect in her role as an utterly uncouth but devoted mother that, in retrospect, Sam Goldwyn– who did not want her in the role and demanded a screen test before approving her—seems like the biggest goddamned fool in history. In real life, Stanwyck wasn’t exactly a poster child for motherhood, which speaks volumes about her talent. Now viewed as one of her best roles, her well-intentioned but tacky mother is both irritating and endearing; a multi-faceted and award-worthy performance. Shame on you, Oscars!
4. Ball of Fire (1941)
This one is a personal favorite! Ball of Fire belongs in Stanwyck’s Top 3 movies, but considering the stiff competition, meh… Olympic diploma isn’t so bad. A modern take on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” heavy hitters Billy Wilder (screenwriter), Howard Hawks (director), and Stanwyck and leading man Gary Cooper hit this one right out of the park.
Ball of Fire is a surefire mood lifter, the movie only improves with time, proving funnier with each screening. Indeed, one has to watch the film multiple times in order to catch all of the tongue and cheek wisecracks. Boasting a stunning cast of character actors, including the motley crew of lovable professors aka dwarfs, this film is a true delight, guaranteed to have you singing “Drum Boogie” in the shower and reciting “scrow, scram, scraw” to your friends. While this was released the same year Stanwyck performed in Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve, it was her performance as the sultry, conniving and intellectually romanced Sugarpuss O’Shea that earned her a second Oscar nod. Like Cooper’s lovestruck academic, you too will fall prey to her charms—and enjoy every minute of the seduction.
5. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Christmas, a screwball plot, phony identities, sleigh rides, pancake flips, S.Z. Sakall… Every December, this is a go-to movie for getting into the holiday spirit and soaking in that inexplicable Stanwyck radiance, whether viewing alone or with the whole family.
Christmas in Connecticut might not star any top names besides Stany, albeit some very welcome and familiar faces (including Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet and Una O’Connor), but this charming Christmas classic is certainly a fan favorite, and rightly so. Having grown in esteem in recent years, thanks to continued screenings on TCM, there’s little chance of this one disappearing to history– and thank goodness! Victoria Wilson, Stanwyck’s biographer, claims that her character in this movie, Elizabeth Lane, is the closest to Stanwyck’s real personality. So, if you want to get a glimpse of the real Stanwyck– as well as a little festive, yuletide fun– watch Christmas in Connecticut! A must in Stanwyck’s Top movies!
6. Meet John Doe (1941)
Another Christmas classic with a very different feel, this political drama is full of anti-fascist sentiment and idealistic Capra corn. It was to be Stanwyck’s last collaboration with Frank Capra, and while it has somewhat lost status in recent years among critics, fans still love it as much as ever– and I agree with the fans! No matter the trend of the moment, it is never out of fashion to feed one’s inner idealist, and Capra mastered that art to perfection, forever weaving tales of moral redemption together with a little romance to restore his viewers’ faith in humanity. Meet John Doe is no exception.
The second Stanwyck-Cooper collaboration of 1941, their opposite polarities continue to attract– and melt the heart– leaving no doubt that Coop and Stany were made for each other on the screen. Given the current political times, the subject of the film is more relevant than ever. Classics are classics for a reason: they’re timeless. As such, the emotional climax perpetually reappears in contemporary classics like Thelma & Louise (1991) and Titanic (1997). “If you jump, I jump…” In this crazy world, we’re all on the ledge, and we can only pull each other to safety, a lesson Capra taught best.
7. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Stanwyck’s last Oscar nomination is one of her most iconic roles. Who doesn’t remember the intense image of Stanwyck clutching the telephone, desperately pleading for her life?! Another film noir and a true thriller, Stanwyck is equally matched by a young, but already powerfully dynamic, Burt Lancaster. Stanwyck’s performance is equally complex, leaving the audience to both root for and simultaneously hate her needy but terrorized character. Building her multi-faceted performance from the inside out, she garnered another Oscar nomination, though she was fated to lose to her friend Jane Wyman that year. Never one to feel sorry for herself, she would joke with Wyman when she visited her and saw the Oscar for the first time, “This is mine!” Many would agree.
8. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
The third film noir in Stanwyck’s Top Ten films, Martha Ivers is but one of the fallen females Stanwyck mastered so well, though she injected this dame with a diabolical nuance of her own. Starring Kirk Douglas in his debut role and the always solid Van Heflin, the duo compete for Martha Ivers’ affections in one Hell of a twisted love triangle that leaves blood on the hands of the entire cast.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a moody film noir melodrama directed by Lewis Milestone, with another masterful soundtrack by Miklos Rosza. The opening scene alone will haunt you– in the best possible way– long after the final reels. At the absolute peak of her career when she made this film, Stanwyck never looked more glamorous and femme fatal-ish at once, and along with The Lady Eve and and The Other Love, Martha Ivers is one of the films in which she was the most beautiful and, in this case, the most naughty…
9. Baby Face (1933)
The provocative Pre-code Era’s most seminal film naturally had to star the period’s undisputed Queen in her most uncompromising and incendiary role yet. The story of a woman who blatantly uses her sexuality to escape from poverty and advance up the corporate ladder is nothing new… Today…. But travel back in time 80-odd years, and it is easier to understand the shocking—albeit absolutely seductive—effect it had on audiences of the time.
Baby Face was so racy and sexually forward that it almost single-handedly instigated the enforcement of the “production code” in Hollywood. Even in the jaded modern era, this pre-code gold standard holds up very, very well with its blunt and deliciously biting dialogue, speaking to contemporary women and enflaming a spark of female empowerment so vivid it is still threatening—and intoxicating. A fan favorite, it is a quintessential pre-code and quintessential Stanwyck movie.
10. Remember the Night (1940)
The third Christmas Classic in Stanwyck’s Top Movie List, this holiday gem has it all: family drama, endless charm, doomed romance, witty, vintage repartee, popcorn, smooching under the mistletoe, singing by the fireplace… But it ain’t no cheesy Hallmark Movie! This is the real deal.
Evoking both the loneliness and the warmhearted hope of the Christmas season, Remember the Night continues to gain steam and win over a growing audience on TCM. It is quite surprising that it wasn’t more well-known until recently, specifically because of its creative team: Mitchell Leisen (director), Preston Sturges (screenwriter), and the chemically cosmic teaming of odd couple Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Stanwyck plays her typically atypical, emblematic fallen dame who gets a second chance at life when MacMurray and family offer her a home for the holidays… And a glimpse of how wonderful a simple life in Indiana could be.
Barbara Stanwyck Movies: 11-20
Stanwyck list of top 10 films is not a surprise to most, so it is in the second tier where we’ll uncover some of Stany’s “hidden” gems. Are we missing some?
11. Titanic (1953)
Before Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio, Stanwyck and Clifton Webb brought their personal tragedies aboard the epically ill-fated ship. Believed to be one of the best black & white adaptations of the Titanic catastrophe, the film weaves together multiple storylines from a handful of intriguing characters whose lives are defined—or ended—by the literally chilling events of April 14, 1912. Brimming with emotion and intrigue, and guided by the haunting hand of fate, the drama offscreen was just as compelling: this film ignited an affair between Stanwyck and her 20-years younger co-star Robert Wagner. This is Clifton Webb’s film, but Stanwyck is as always magnificent– and very glamorous—despite the circumstances.
12. Lady of Burlesque (1943)
William Wellman was one of Stanwyck’s favorite directors, and Lady of Burlesque is one of their finest collaborations. Where other top actresses shied away from chorus girl characters and evil femme fatales, Stanwyck not only embraced them but elevated these otherwise caricatured roles to the next level, giving them dimension, sass and soul. But that’s why we love her. If her sexy wardrobe designed by Edith Head isn’t reason enough to see Lady of Burlesque, witnessing her sing, do cartwheels, and dance the jitterbug will certainly tip the scales. One imagines she was freewheeling in her own memories of her chorus girl days in New York, and it shows. It is a confoundingly lighthearted and charming murder/mystery in which the murder plays second fiddle to the delicious drama of backstage catfights. This one is the guilty pleasure that keeps on giving.
13. Golden Boy (1939)
The movie that brought together Stanwyck and her real life “Golden Boy” and enduring friend, William Holden, it also brought her back to the Studio that had made her a star seven years prior. Golden Boy is a Robert Mamoulian prestige movie adaptation of the Clifford Odets hit play of the same name.
Legend has it that the very green Holden was about to be fired from his first lead role, but Stany would have none of it: ”If he goes, I go… Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him.” She kept her promise, mentoring her handsome young pupil, taking him through his lines at the day’s end, educating him on angles, and encouraging the actor in him. This is reason enough to hold this movie in high esteem, as the story of the Holden and Stanwyck friendship (and rumor has it, something more) is one for the ages. Golden Boy feels theatrical at times, and might not have aged as well as her other pieces, but the raw performances of Stanwyck and Holden and their scenes together are reason enough to watch.
14. My Reputation (1946)
A personal favorite, this was actually one of Stanwyck’s personal favorites as well. My Reputation is a change of pace for Stany, as she does not play a fallen female. (Pause for shock). Facing widowhood at a very young age in upper crust Chicago society, good girl Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck) meets naughty boy Major Scott Landis (George Brent). Yes, you read that right, Stanwyck plays a good girl, but one who wants to go “bad” and break away from polite society’s expectations. She naturally gets a little encouragement from her eager leading man… No one can resist an innocent and vulnerable Stanwyck coming into her own in this film, especially against Max Steiner’s evocative soundtrack. Written by female screenwriter Catherine Turner, My Reputation is a forgotten treasure in Barbara Stanwyck filmography that is watchable over, and over, and over.
15. Clash by Night (1952)
Stanwyck’s most passionate love story of the Top 20 films, her scenes with Robert Ryan are hot, hot, hot, and then some… An erotically charged film about adultery, Clifford Odets adapted his play for the screen himself. Directed by another master, Fritz Lang, the love triangle between Stany, Ryan and Paul Douglas is perhaps on par with, if not above, the one in Martha Ivers. Here, the characters are so much richer and more complex.
Clash by Night is also noteworthy for the appearance of a young Marilyn Monroe, who was on the brink of becoming a major star, there was plenty of drama offscreen as well. On Monroe, the always incisive Stanwyck had this to say:
“She couldn’t get out of her own way. She wasn’t disciplined, and she was often late, but she didn’t do it viciously, and there was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once. Her phobias, or whatever they were, came later; she seemed just a carefree kid, and she owned the world.”
But this movie is the most memorable for introducing some of the best, most jaded one-liners ever: “Home is where you go when you run out of places…” How can anyone pass on a movie like that?!
16. Night Nurse (1931)
Barbara Stanwyck’s second Pre-code movie in her Top 20 list, this one hits all the buttons of pre-code-ness. (Sure, it’s a word). Stany and her real-life friend Joan Blondell draw plenty of appreciative audience attention as their characters constantly dress and undress from their nurse uniforms. In between, they succumb to outlandish pranks (one involving a skeleton in their bed), and try to foil the plans of a manipulative and abusive chauffeur—Clark Gable in a breakout role—who jeopardizes a pair of sick children for his own selfish means. Tawdry and tasty, the film weaves a sadistic road to morality, corrupting its willing audience along the way. Gable slaps Stany, Stany slaps a fresh partygoer, Joan makes wise cracks, their employer is drunk, the doctor’s a drug addict… And the audience? Enamored.
17. The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Some call this movie a poor man’s Suspicion, but any movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck could never be a poor man’s anything. Fine, it’s not Hitchcock– it was directed by Stany’s good friend Peter Godfrey– but it is certainly a fan favorite and a totally acceptable guilty pleasure movie. Stanwyck, in another welcome change, does not play a fallen female but, rather, a clueless one. In denial or total ignorance about her husband’s dirty deeds, she totally wins us over again in a sympathetic turn as a devoted wife headed straight for a deadly end. A mysterious and titillating puzzle for a film, it has Bogie’s simmer and Stany’s emotional sophistication…with a little murder on top.
18. Annie Oakley (1935)
Stanwyck’s first Western makes it into the top 20! It would be 7 years until she made another Western, and 20 years more until she effectively became The Queen of Western. Ergo, yet another genre that she mastered. Annie Oakley was also her first and only collaboration with the always on point George Stevens. In this biopic, straight shooter (literally and figuratively) Annie (Stanwyck) makes it to the top of a male dominated profession, and she does it seamlessly, reminiscent of Barbara herself.
Making the delightfully engaging film even more compelling is the backstory… Stanwyck’s marriage to first husband Frank Fay was simultaneously disintegrating during filming. As the abusive relationship hit its boiling point, fearing for her physical safety, she had to literally escape from her home and leave Frank Fay forever. Her broken heart never appears onscreen, however, and the charismatic, feisty, and determined Annie she left on the screen is the ultimate testament to both her professionalism and her impeccable talent.
19. No Man of her Own (1950)
No Man of Her Own is another obscure treat in Stany’s filmography and another personal favorite. Mitchel Leisen directed this film noir/drama about mistaken identities and wrong decisions– that come back to bite. Leisen was not known for film Noir, but he passed the test with flying colors…Having the Queen of Film Noir as lead makes things easier. No Man of Her Own was their second and last collaboration after Remember the Night. It is truly sad that they did not make more movies together, because both of their collaborative films are incredibly entertaining and beautifully stylized. The beginning of the film hooks the viewer from the get-go, and after that, Stany’s 39th delicious flavor of fallen female, a surprising love story and a distorted road to redemption continue to captivate and compel.
20. The Miracle Woman (1931)
Pre-code film #3 in Stanwyck’s Top 20 Movies, and one of Stanwyck’s most romantic movies, in the classical sense, and also one of the first fallen women she ever portrayed. Her Florence Fallon is a fake evangelist who falls for a blind man, whom in turn, she unknowingly and indirectly saved from suicide– he heard one of her uplifting speeches on the radio and had a reawakening. If General Yen is one of the most prestigious pre-code Stanwyck-Capra collaborations, The Miracle Woman is perhaps the preferred fan favorite.
The Miracle Woman might not be Frank Capra’s best film, but Barbara Stanwyck is great in it, and that in itself is reason enough to watch. The range of emotion, guilt, sadness, and despair that she so nakedly displays is astounding. Capra’s tutoring of his muse paid off: “It’s the eyes…Everything in the eyes,” he told her. As such, watch Stany’s eyes in this one. You can witness where her unpolished, raw emotion starts to fuse with artistic technique.
Barbara Stanwyck Top 20 Movies: HONORABLE MENTIONS
Because the next two films absolutely need to be in any Top Barbara Stanwyck Movies List!
21. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
General Yen is Frank Capra’s most Von Stroheim-ish offering and equally one of the most artistic and controversial films of the time. Why? In an era when miscegenation was a no-no onscreen, it involved interracial love. It is difficult to visualize the director of the quintessential American common man making a film about an American Missionary (Stany) resisting the temptations of and then falling in love with her captive Chinese warlord (Nils Asther)… Of course, Asther was a Swede, which allowed the provocative film to slip past the censors… This atypical, pre-code Capra is refreshingly dark, enduringly controversial and endlessly fascinating. Of the four Stanwyck-Capra pre-code collaborations, General Yen is definitely the most unique and prestigious, making it a definitive “must-see.”
22. The Furies (1950)
This film could, and perhaps should, be higher on the list, but as you can see, Stanwyck made so many great films, it’s hard for even a quintessential film to break into her Top 20! If you love Freudian father-daughter stories, this is one for the ages; if you love Westerns, this is an utterly engrossing one; love twisted love stories? This is the one. This Anthony Mann minor masterpiece should be more well known and from this humble outlet, we encourage all to watch and judge for yourselves.
Stany plays a spoiled but very capable cattle heiress who clashes with her tyrannical father (Walter Huston)– whom she adores– and her father’s scheming new fiance (Judith Anderson)– whom she loathes. Did I mention it was a ‘twisted’ love triangle? Three seasoned acting powerhouses in a psycho-philosophical Western by a legendary western director, the poetic black and white photography of Victor Miler, and Franz Waxman’s darkest score… Good luck catching your breath. This one has it all, and it’s #22!!!
Barbara Stanwyck Movies:
TOP 20 MOVIE CHALLENGE
As you can see, making it into Stanwyck’s Top 20 Movies is no easy feat. This is a testament to Barbara Stanwyck’s remarkable filmography. As such, some pretty noteworthy movies did not make the cut. Which one did you miss most? Any particular movie should be higher up or down? Which does not belong?
Here’s a challenge for you, if you made it to the end of this post, dear avid reader, we challenge you to watch the whole list, at your own pace, and when you are done, leave us a comment with your thoughts. How long did it take you to complete the challenge? What Stanwyck films surprised you the most, which ones disappointed, which ones are still as good as ever?