Back with another edition of Old Hollywood Book Reviews: Knocking them back two books at a time (I doubt this will last long). It should be interesting to see if the lovely Natalie of In the Mood reads this as she is a huge fan of the actress in question today. Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman refers to itself as a biography of the star but really it’s just analysis of her movies in question. It’s not a mark against the book, if you know going in that this is what it is (and considering it’s in the similar vein of Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young I expected it this time). While not giving you any biography aside from what’s necessary, Miracle Woman gave me a lot of films to check out and broaden my Stanwyck education.
Author Dan Callahan loves and reveres Stanwyck so he gives some loving tribute to the actress in question, particularly in the final chapters as Stanwyck ages. It’s both a good and bad tribute because despite loving the actress Callahan seems to have a problem with her films, complaining about each and every one until he finds another one he dislikes and the previous film is “better.” I’m all for an author cutting a film down from its pedestal but at times I asked “does this guy like anything she’s done?”
Really though, as I mentioned above, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, isn’t a biography. There’s a few mentions of her life and blink and you’ll miss them mentions of her two marriages and child. If you don’t know anything about Stanwyck outside her big films, like me, you’ll be completely lost. This book doesn’t give any information, new or otherwise but really focuses on analyzing the films so plan accordingly.
With all that said, I did find myself mesmerized by the stories discussed here. Callahan has definitely watched Stanwyck’s filmography several times and gives in-depth discussion about her life in relation to her films. Now taking into account this isn’t a bio you do have to ask how he knows what Stanwyck would be thinking at certain points, but his main thesis seems to be that the roles Stanwyck took always correlated to her personal life and that thesis sticks throughout the book’s 272 pages (the great thing about these books is they don’t waste page space). I’ve discovered that the few Stanwyck films I’ve watched don’t scratch the surface of the dynamic work of the actress, and I have a lot of movies to watch if I truly want to see Stanwyck at her best. The book is handy in that it’s broken up into specific themes of Stanwyck’s work from her television, to her pre-Codes and Frank Capra films, her famous films (Double Indemnity), even her Douglas Sirk roles of which I knew nothing. Miracle Woman is a book where you can easily read a section devoted to the films you love and/or want to seek out.
While not a biography Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman is an encyclopedia of Stanwyck’s work perfect for any long-term or newly discovered fans. Callahan may try to assert his points by putting himself in Stanwyck’s mind but he never shies away from proving her films were deeply personal and once she aged, her true sadness was not being able to make more movies. A sweet document of an actress who we won’t be seeing around these parts again. It’s available at any bookstore or through the University of Mississippi Press or the handy Amazon link below. Thanks go out to University of Mississippi Press for sending me a review copy.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.