Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907 - 1940 Victoria Wilson

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907 - 1940. Victoria Wilson. Simon and Schuster; 2013.

Wilson's twenty-years-in-the-making 1000 pp biography of Stanwyck covers the first half of her life and career in great detail. Wilson covers her first marriage to Frank Fay with more thoroughness than previous biographers, and works hard to give the readers a sense of the various time periods and their cultural and political influences throughout the decades covered. Wilson is clearly a fan of Stanwyck's, but she doesn't admire every film or performance, and often offers astute analysis of her pictures and acting techniques. There are no great revelations in the book, however, and anecdotes are often lifted from other books [some of which are mentioned in the notes but, oddly, not in the bibliography]. Unlike some Out biographers like William Mann, Wilson is fairly coy when it comes to sexuality [with more insinuations in the captions than in the text]. Still, the book is well-written and pulls the reader along, even if some of the copious detail -- particularly when it doesn't necessarily pertain to Stanwyck -- can become wearisome at times. The five pound book is just too long.

Wilson has been an editor at Knopf for years, but apparently resisted any and all attempts at editing her own book. For instance, she gives us a mini-bio of Bette Davis for a couple of pages simply because she appeared with Stanwyck in So Big, but neglects to inform us if the two women even got along or not. Why give us a history of all of the Marx Brothers simply because Zeppo becomes her friend and manager? She continues to follow the life and career of Barbara's old friend Mae Clarke [without discussing her performance in Waterloo Bridge] long after the two women have stopped being part of one another's lives. It makes sense to give background info on some of the other people in the Stanwyck life, but not virtually everyone she encountered. Some of this is excusable for the ardent film buff, among which I'm sure Wilson can be counted. Wilson is correct in discussing the original silent Stella Dallas at the point where Stanwyck does the remake, but throughout the book one gets the sense that there was a battle between author and editor and the author won every time. [Wilson makes the mistake many beginners do -- she puts all of her research into the book.] There is also a certain choppiness to some sections as well, with paragraphs that inexplicably run only one sentence when they could easily have been added to the paragraph above, and the like. Steel-True badly needs a stronger editorial hand. It is also disappointing that some material, such as the fate of Stanwyck's adopted son Dion, will have to wait for a second volume when most of us will have forgotten what was in the first!

Verdict: Strictly for die-hard Stanwyck fans who will enjoy it; others beware. ***.

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