When the mid-1920s turned the corner, “Barbara Stanwyck” the stage name had been born, but Barbara Stanwyck the legend was still in the making. However, though driven by the pulsing electricity of the jazz age and her own insatiable artistic urges, Stany’s spartan relationship with her craft had barely taken off when it was nearly derailed. Numerous hurdles would present themselves and challenge her normally rock-steady ambition, the most infamous of which were to be the king of one-liners– Frank Fay– and the one-eyed monster– the Hollywood movie camera. Of course, Barbara had faced much tougher foes. Or so she thought…
Barbara’s big break, “The Noose,” opened on Broadway on October 20, 1926. The show went on to become one of the biggest hits of the Season and ran for 197 performances on Broadway. Starring Rex Cherryman and Ann Shoemaker, the play’s dramatic plot revolved around a beautiful society girl and the young man she loves who is tragically condemned to death. Barbara gained a reputation as a scene-stealer in her role as a lovelorn chorus girl whose unreturned adoration fuels the tale’s impassioned climax:
“There is an uncommonly fine performance by Barbara Stanwyck, who not only does the Charleston steps of a dance hall girl gracefully, but knows how to act, a feature which somehow with her comely looks seems kind of superfluous. After this girl breaks and sobs out her unrequited love for the young bootlegger in that genuine scene in the last act, of course, there was nothing for the Governor to do but reprieve the boy. If he hadn’t, the weeping audience would probably have yelled at him until he did.” – New York Telegram
During the run of “The Noose,” Willard Mack continued to work with Barbara, giving her a new play to study each week. His eager pupil studied each script diligently, reviewing the scenes’ complexities and her interpretations of them with Mack three or four times a week.
Rex Cherryman and First Movie Role
It was also during this period that Stanwyck did her first screen test—which, rumor has it, included some infamous, onion-induced tears care of Ruth Chatterton—resulting in her cinematic debut in a secondary role in Broadway Nights, (yet another tragically lost film). Her personal life was equally gaining momentum as her relationship with her married (yet separated) co-star Rex Cherryman heated up:
“It was my first chance at dramatic acting and everything enchanted me. Rex was handsome and young and had great talent and humor. Ed Kennedy (her on-and off beau at the time) hadn’t quite given me up. He was jealous of Willard Mack, but he was wrong there. If he had to be jealous of someone, he should have focused on Rex. I adored him. Everything about him was so vivid, or perhaps it was because he was an actor and knew how to project.”
“The Noose” ended its Broadway run in April 1927 and went on a two-month tour in Chicago. Shortly afterward, Barbara auditioned for the lead of a new play, “Burlesque,” by Broadway extraordinaire, producer-director-playwright Arthur Hopkins.
Later, recalling Barbara’s audition for the role, co-writer George Manker Watters remembered:
“After some research for the girl, I interviewed a nightclub dancer who had scored in a small emotional part in a play that did not run. She seemed to have the quality I wanted, sort of a rough poignancy. I engaged her. She at once displayed more sensitive, easily expressed emotion than I had encountered since Pauline Lord.”
“Burlesque” opened at the Plymouth Theater on September 1, 1927. It was an overwhelming success and made Barbara a Broadway star. In it, Barbara portrayed Bonny, the wife and vaudeville partner to Skid (Hal Skelly). Through Bonny, Skid gains considerable fame on Broadway until his devotion to the bottle ruins both his career and their marriage.
Alexander Woollcott reported:
“I thought Miss Stanwyck’s performance was touching and true, and she brought much to those aching silences.”
“Barbara Stanwyck and Hal Skelly have come out of vaudeville and musical comedy to reveal unexpected powers in legitimate acting.”
Barbara Stanwyck and Hal Skelly in a Scene of Burlesque
Barbara Stanwyck and Hal Skelly in a Scene of Burlesque
Barbara Stanwyck and Hal Skelly in a Scene of Burlesque
Barbara Stanwyck Broadway promotional photo
Barbara Stanwyck Broadway promotional photo
Stanwyck on the Cover of a NY Magazine
Barbara’s characterization as the suffering wife of an alcoholic– a tragic premonition of her future reality– drew a lot of attention. When asked to explain her character for New York Review, Barbara said:
“How can you explain love anyway – you can’t. It is one of those things that you can recognize – you know it exists, but seek reason for it and you are up a tree…”
Much Ado About Love
In retrospect, one wonders: could she have been referring to Rex Cherryman… Or was this a reference to funnyman Frank Fay?
During this period, Barbara was still in an on-again, off-again relationship with Ed Kennedy, though she had long since relegated him to what is popularly referred to as “the friend zone.” Then, her lover, Rex Cherryman, died prematurely of septic poisoning while traveling to Europe, where he had ironically been headed for rest and rehabilitation. Some historians romanticize their affair. Going through a divorce when they met, Rex was handsome, mature and an incredibly talented actor, and his effect on Ruby was certainly a powerful one. But was her co-star little more than a transitory fling, or was he, as some claim, the love of her life? If the latter, Barbara must have considered his death yet another sucker punch from the bastard called “Life.” This consequently made the sudden entrance of notorious funny man Frank Fay impeccable, if nothing else. But then, comics are known for their timing…
FRANK FAY, MASTER OF CEREMONIES
A brilliant comedian and impresario, Frank Fay was quick as a whip and a true original. Having built his reputation serving as a Ring Master and Master of Ceremonies for countless shows, his style was natural, unrehearsed, and essentially improvised. Professional icons including Bob Hope and Jack Benny would later credit him with the birth of stand-up comedy.
Fay introduced now classic routines, poked fun at the audience and his co-stars, and charmingly and extemporaneously weaved little jokes, jests, quips and conundrums into his monologues. He was the toast of Broadway and one of the most successful performers that Barbara had ever seen. Fay too had noticed Barbara, Broadway’s newest sensation, and their mutual attraction was fueled as much by their amorous desire as their equally ambitious need to divide and conquer the entertainment world. This battle of egos would prove fatal for them later on, but in this early hour, the more youthful and more vulnerable Barbara was Frank’s for the taking. For the most part…
Love and Other Gags
The two played a ridiculous game of hide and seek during their early anti-courtship. Frank asked to be introduced to Barbara by a common friend, Oscar Levant (who was a cast member in Burlesque), only to cavalierly take off with another girl in a seeming power play. Not to be outdone, Barbara would show up places where she knew Frank would be and brazenly flaunt another beau under his nose. Neither wanted to be bested nor were the hard-heads willing to be the first to expose his or her heart to the other.
Eventually, the desperate and annoyed Oscar Levant forced them to cut the baloney, come clean, and admit their feelings. At long last, they did. Levant recalled in his memoirs:
“Barbara Stanwyck fell madly in love with Fay… She went for Fay in such a complete way – I never saw anything to equal it.”
As a performer, Barbara admired Fay’s talent and, never having had a strong and supportive man in her life, she happily took shelter in his often over-powering shadow. Despite her early addiction to his deceptive sturdiness, her worshipful demeanor toward him did not diminish her own creative thirst. After years of struggle, her own career was not put aside, though it could be said it initially took a backseat to Fay’s own during the early “honeymoon phase” of their relationship.
Funny Man with a Troubled Past
Walda Mansfield, Barbara’s chorus girl friend and former roommate, would recall the early days of their romance to biographer Victoria Wilson:
“We would meet at Reuben’s each night after our shows, the three of us. Barbara and I loved to listen to [Fay’s] stories. We thought he was grand; he was so graceful with his hands, those beautiful gestures that only actors can use and get away with. Barbara was mad about him. Frank was crazy about her too, but he didn’t show it as much. He wasn’t demonstrative.”
Barbara had heard about Frank’s troubled past– his alcoholic binges, his recklessness, his three previous marriages, his arrogance… But she was in the fog of love. Essentially, the red flags didn’t register through her rose-colored glasses.
“He was the joy in our lives,” Walda continued. “We thought he was the funniest man we ever saw. But Frank became possessive. He wanted Barbara all to himself. I thought it was awful but she put up with it, she didn’t mind.”
Barbara’s instinct for self-preservation and self-control faltered. Frank did not like green, she wouldn’t wear green; Frank said he didn’t like make-up, she’d only wear a touch of lipstick; if Frank didn’t like someone, that someone was unanimously cut off from their lives; Frank was a Catholic, so Barbara converted from Protestantism.
A Father Figure
According to Victoria Wilson, what was observed by others as possessiveness in Fay’s behavior, Barbara would interpret as an expression of his love, which appeared to her as part romantic and part paternal. Having never experienced true devotion from another person, the signals got crossed. As long as “she and Fay were together, everything would be alright.”
It seemed that after years of struggle, pain and what must have been mental exhaustion, Barbara was tempted by the peace and solace that Fay could offer, even if it came at the price of her heretofore notoriously fierce independence. Not unexpectedly, this vacation from her true self wouldn’t last. While love’s intoxicating fires generally kept her warm, when the couple’s tempers flared the old “Ruby from the block” would come roaring back with a vengeance.
When the duo argued, they argued– tooth and nail and hammer… It was during one of their many pointless but explosive arguments that they temporarily broke-up. Fay took a train to St Louis on a two-month engagement, and Barbara devoted herself to “Burlesque,” evaded friends, and became a near ghost. “Burlesque” would end its Broadway run as a total triumph on July 14th— but not before Fay would fake a breakdown just to drag Barbara to his feigned bedside and pop the question. It was a desperately strategic move, but one he deemed necessary to obtain the unobtainable sphinx who had so mystified him.
Mrs. Frank Fay
In any event, the gamble paid off. On August 25th of 1928, 36-year-old Fay wed the 21-year-old Stanwyck in St Louis. Despite the antics, the duo seemed like a pretty good team with their mutually independent and fulfilling lives. While the highly sought-after Barbara looked for her next Broadway star vehicle, she performed with her husband in night club scenes for the prestigious elite. While she took pride in supporting her husband at The Palace, she was stuck playing the ungratifying role of “straight-man” to his comic genius. Despite this, she turned down offers from the likes of Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer of MGM, who tried to woo her to Hollywood, all because she did not want to leave Fay in New York. Of course, she didn’t see much use in Hollywood anyway. She was born to “tread the boards” of Broadway.
Barbara Stanwyck Fay
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Fay
The loyalty only seemed to go one way, however, for as soon as Fay got offers from the West coast, the pair were suddenly migrating to California. Considering the whole thing an experiment at best and a lark at worst, they packed their bags and sallied forth to Tinsel Town. The world didn’t know what it was in for.
THE FAYS GO TO HOLLYWOOD
In the Fall of 1929, Barbara and Fay boarded the 20th Century with Joseph Schenck and headed West. They were received with high honors: “In New York, he might have been another night-club guest… But he must have been something pretty celestial out here. Two-thirds of Hollywood was there to meet him.” was Stanwyck remark to this Hollywood welcome to the United Artist Mogul.
Those ‘two-thirds’ were none other than Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Irving Thalberg.
Frank, Barbara, Joseph Schenck and Irving Berlin
Meanwhile, Barbara’s old roommates, Mae and Wanda, were also now living in L.A. While they were happy to see their old chum, the reunion proved to be all too temporary. Something had been broken in their relationship with the interruption of Frank Fay, who continued to take possession of Barbara and all corners of her life.
Signing One-Picture Contract with United Artists
Stanwyck devotion to Frank in one picture
First Contract in Hollywood
A New Yorker in LA
Barbara became further isolated after her initial induction into the Hollywood whirlpool proved to be less than encouraging. After signing to a one-picture deal for The Locked Door with United Artists’ Joe Schenck, she suffered her first blow when director George Fitzmaurice told her she was “unattractive to the point of being unphotographable.” The Locked Door was also his first talkie and he made no secret of hating every moment of it. (One could easily evoke images of the crazy director in Singing in the Rain as a comparison). With a disinterested director and a devastated actress, it was no surprise when The Locked Door (1929) bombed. As Barbara herself would later say:
“I was even worse than the picture… They should have never unlocked the damned thing.”
Unfortunately for Barbara, her next film, this time at Columbia, Mexicali Rose (1929), fared no better:
“Beyond any question of doubt, it was the worst picture ever made. The all-time low.”
Conversely, Frank Fay was being primed for stardom at Warner Brothers in the vehicle The Show of Shows. He used the opportunity to coax Barbara into the only role she suddenly seemed suited for—the domestic one. The actress had never felt more alone, but if her opinion of filmmaking was bad, her opinion of Hollywoodland was worse. She loathed the pretension of posh parties, and she hated the sleazy culture. She spent months walking from studio to studio, testing for dozens of roles, which she consequently never got. One of the tests was even a scene from her smash play “The Noose” with a then unknown Alexander Korda at Warner Brothers… Shockingly, the production manager said of the test:
“Neither the director nor the girl had anything to offer for motion pictures.”
Then, when all else seemed lost, Frank Capra appeared… The director had quickly risen in the Columbia ranks and was getting ready for his latest film, Ladies of Leisure. He had an actress in mind for the lead role, but Harry Cohn (Columbia’s “White Fang” mogul) asked him to consider Stanwyck. By this time, Barbara was an emotional wreck who had given up on film acting, and when Capra interviewed her and asked her if she would do a test, it was like he had waved a red cape at a bull:
“Oh hell, you don’t want any part of me!”
She stormed out in tears leaving Capra to infamously tell Cohn:
”Forget Stanwyck. She is not an actress, she is a porcupine! “
FROM PORCUPINE TO MOVIE STAR
Fay surprisingly went to bat for his wife. When he saw Barbara returning from the Capra interview in tears, he called the director:
“Listen, she’s young and shy, she’s been kicked around. I’m coming over with a test she did for Warners.”
Fay delivered Barbara’s “The Noose” screen test to Capra personally. What had defensively frozen in Barbara during their in-person interview melted before his eyes. Capra perceived a woman of passion, guts and sensuality. He was thunderstruck. He would quickly reverse his initial opinion about the struggling film performer. As he would recall:
“Nothing in the world was going to make me like [the test]. Thirty seconds into the film, I was hooked. I got a lump in my throat as big as an egg. Never had I seen or heard such emotional sincerity. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes. I was stunned.”
Ladies of Leisure
Barbara, having completed major roles in but two unsuccessful films, was cast as the lead in Ladies of Leisure and consequently ushered into one of the most important creative relationships of her life. What she had lost on the train ride between the East and West coasts was reclaimed by Capra, who offered her the proper support to fully blossom and unleash her inner beast. Simmering beneath the surface of her fear, frustration and self-protection was a provocative panther– the animal she often said inspired her slinky, assertive walk. Capra fostered her needs, giving her the space and instruction needed to perform with absolute confidence.
With this newfound faith, Barbara impressed her new colleagues by always nailing the first take. As such, while everyone else rehearsed together, she did her own preparation in private until she was called to set, keeping her delivery fresh and authentic. What developed between actress and director was a 180-degree turn from animosity to mutual trust, respect and– at least on Capra’s side– infatuation. Capra was smitten by the mysterious hellcat and her undiluted honesty. How far their relationship escalated remains unknown, though it is often accepted that they indulged in an affair. If this was not true in the literal sense, it certainly was in the figurative.
Ladies of Leisure opened in April of 1930 country-wide and catapulted Stanwyck to stardom, much as Pretty Woman would later do for Julia Roberts. In both films, the actresses portray the token “hooker with a heart of gold” who falls in love with the millionaire who hires her and, accidentally or not, empowers her through love.
“Stanwyck Triumphs!” – New York Times
“It is a really fine picture because of the astonishing performance of a little tap-dancing beauty who has in her the spirit of a great artist. Her name is Barbara Stanwyck. Go and be amazed by this Barbara girl”- Photoplay Magazine.
A Star is Born
A Scene in Ladies of Leisure
Many miles away in Hoboken, NJ, Frank Sinatra’s future father-in-law saw Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure. His daughter, the future Nancy Sinatra Sr– later Stanwyck’s closest friend– said:
“My father fell in love with Barbara after he saw her in Ladies of Leisure. He loved to go to the opera and to the movies, and the only star he talked about was Barbara Stanwyck.”
On Fay’s advice, Barbara shrewdly signed non-exclusive contracts with Columbia and Warner’s. For his part, Fay’s first two films were successes, and he was in high demand as Master of Ceremonies in L.A. Everything was finally falling into place. They were making a home in Malibu, spending long afternoons swimming in the ocean and walking on the beach, and they were invited to all the important parties with A-listers. The Fays had officially arrived.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, especially in Hollywood. One moment on top of the world, the next in the gutter, it takes a certain kind of mettle to make it in the City of Angels. In typical dramatic fashion, the world was about to find out which one of the Fays was made of stronger stuff…
Above, the Fays attending the premiere of Hell’s Angels…The Calm before the Storm…