Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

Barbara Stanwyck Show

Discovering a Lost Classic

By David Luhrssen
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Barbara Stanwyck was a scrappy young thing in 1930s Hollywood and a femme fatale in the ‘40s. But by 1960, she was a grand old dame of movies, already over 50 and finding few good roles (a problem for actresses even today). She turned to television, eventually finding success with a late ‘60s western called “The Big Valley.” Her first venture onto the small screen, “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” ran for only one season (1960-61) on NBC, but she won an Emmy for her efforts. Fifteen episodes are collected on the DVD set, “The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Volume 1.”

Film historian and TCM host Robert Osborne offers no explanation in his accompanying essay booklet for why the series fell into such obscurity. It was never syndicated and the tapes were thought to be lost. Osborne’s praise for Stanwyck’s role in the show is born out by the quality of the half-hour episodes. She was hands-on and aside from a few compromises for television at the dawn of the ‘60s, she did the program her way. Stanwyck assembled a rotating crew of solid directors (including Cat People’s Jacques Tourneur) along with casts that included Julie London, Ralph Bellamy and Vic Morrow, who channeled Marlon Brando as a leather jacketed killer with an unhappy past.

The scripts were well written and the stories bold for TV in those days with their intimations of class conflict and dysfunctional families. Stanwyck starred in most episodes, not as a Hollywood leading lady in need of a man’s assistance but as a strong, independent woman able to make her way in a man’s world. For 1960s television, that may have been the boldest stroke of all. Volume 2 of “The Barbara Stanwyck Show” is in the works, pending the unearthing of more missing episodes.

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