Arts Review, Movies

Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck

Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck featured image

TIFF Cinematheque retrospective runs until April 4
For more info visit

Films starring Stanwyck include: Babyface, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, The Bitter Tears of General Yen, The Furies, Sorry, Wrong Number


TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective of Barbara Stanwyck’s work has come at an excellent time. She appeared in so many Hollywood classics that the series can’t help but be entertaining and historically valid. It also gives us an opportunity to assess Stanwyck’s worth as an actress and as one of film’s legends. To put it bluntly, how high does she rate?

Although film historians and the general public from the ‘30s through to the ‘70s always acclaimed Barbara Stanwyck’s work as an actress, she never truly rose to the iconic status of her contemporaries Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford nor did she challenge the exceedingly different charms of ‘50s mythmakers Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Stanwyck may have been a better performer than any of them and that could be her biggest problem.

A legend has one indelible persona: Audrey Hepburn was a pixie princess; Monroe a gorgeous blonde trying to understand her appeal; Davis a near hysterical diva; Crawford, a larger than life character whether as a mother or an adventurer and Katharine Hepburn was the glamorous rich girl who needed to be taken down a peg.

Who was Stanwyck? She could be convincing in any part and mastered genres from screwball comedies (The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire) to westerns (The Furies, Forty Guns and on TV, The Big Valley) to film noir (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Double Indemnity). Stanwyck played superbly with directors as diverse as the quipster/playboy Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve), the cynical Austrian Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), the B movie/tough guy journalist Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns) and the brilliant all-American all-arounder Howard Hawks (Ball of Fire). Her leading men are a who’s who of the best: Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster and Fred MacMurray.

Stanwyck could do it all. She could be a femme fatale (Double Indemnity), a social climber (Babyface), a socialite (Martha Ivers), a self-sacrificing mother (Stella Dallas), a thief (Remember the Night, The Lady Eve) and a gangster’s moll (Ball of Fire).

The TIFF retrospective is both an excellent argument for the depth and diversity of Stanwyck’s performances and a great case for those who believe that she’ll never rise to the status of the Hepburns and Crawfords. She may be too accomplished to become an icon—but that doesn’t stop her films from being amazingly good and Stanwyck’s retrospective one of the best reasons for leaving the house in a chilly Toronto winter.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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