A late-comer to the golden age of television anthology was Barbara Stanwyck, whose film career had been on the downswing since the early 1950s. She was eager to do her own television show, but she had no interest in presenting herself as a glamorous film star, or in playing the sort of noble, wise and pure roles that Loretta Young was performing every week. In fact, what she really wanted to do was a western.
Ultimately, she did (The Big Valley, 1965-1969), but first came her own anthology program. The Barbara Stanwyck Show debuted in September 1960 on NBC. Produced by longtime friend Louis Edelman, the program was tailored just for her. Now in her mid-50s, she didn’t try to play girlish roles, and she didn’t darken her rapidly greying hair. As in her most memorable films, she played women who were resourceful, smart, and strong, which is not to say that her characters were necessarily invincible, wise or law-abiding. She played everything from reporter Nellie Bly to a nuclear physicist to an embezzler to a Barbary Coast saloon-keeper to a corporate executive, throwing the same energy and fire into these roles that she’d displayed in her Warner Bros. Pre-Codes. The stories themselves are just as varied: suspense, crime, romance, and even a western or two.
The show enlisted some notable Hollywood talent. Many episodes were shot by Hal Mohr or Nick Musuraca; among its directors were Robert Florey and Jacques Tourneur. Sharing the co-starring duties were stars like Lew Ayres, Dana Andrews, Joseph Cotten, Joan Blondell, Charles Bickford and Ralph Bellamy. The next generation was represented too, by the likes of Lee Marvin, Vic Morrow, Yvonne Craig and (in the season opener, which now seems to be lost) Jack Nicholson.
Thirty minutes an episode, the show ran on NBC, Monday nights at 10:00. That evening’s line-up was pretty weak at the time, offering only token competition to a CBS juggernaut that was led by Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith. Stanwyck’s lead-in was the lackluster Dante, with Jackpot Bowling on after her. The Barbara Stanwyck Show lasted for a full three dozen episodes, but it was not renewed— in fact, NBC replaced its entire Monday night line-up the following season.
Sponsorship issues might also have shortened the show’s lifespan. Alberto VO-5 was the sponsor for a while, whereas in other episodes Stanwyck introduces the program as “your Gas Company Playhouse.” Then again, maybe audiences were just tiring of anthology shows, or turning apprehensive about those offering a whiff of serious drama (as Richard Boone was soon to discover). Science fiction and fantasy anthologies tended to do better at this point, but not even The Twilight Zone was really a ratings hit.
Cancellation must have been a terrible disappointment for Stanwyck, though she put a brave face on it. Watching the available episodes now, you can easily see that she’s giving every role 100%, and she’d worked extremely hard throughout the show’s run, personally starring in all but four episodes. “She arrived on the set before anybody else,” recalled Edelman’s daughter Kate, “and knew everyone’s lines so she could fully support her co-workers. She knew every crew member and their families by name.” The effort paid off. She’s dynamic, elevating a lot of episodes that would otherwise have been mundane anthology stories.
Stanwyck was awarded the Emmy for Best Actress in 1961. (The awards ceremony saw one final moment of drama, when she rose from her chair to discover that the train of her gown was caught on producer Edelman’s cufflink!) She was soon back to work, with a plum role in the controversial 1962 film Walk on the Wild Side, while the greatest popular success of her television career still lay ahead, in The Big Valley.
Anyway, back to The Barbara Stanwyck Show. 28 of the original 36 episodes have been released on DVD, along with a 1956 pilot for a Stanwyck western that wasn’t picked up. These are all available in two volumes (sold separately) by E1 Entertainment, available from Amazon and all the usual suspects.
Each set is handsomely packaged. But the original 35mm elements seem to be long gone, and what we have here are sharp but occasionally worn 16mm originals. I wouldn’t recommend these to the fussbudget home theater folks who demand absolute utterly flawless perfection. But everyone else can relax: the transfers are very good, and assuming you can put up with an occasional emulsion scratch, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s a solid show, intelligent and entertaining.
I haven’t watched all of these episodes yet, but I like what I’ve seen. My favorites so far are “High Tension” (March 27, 1961), in which Stanwyck is among the passengers on a bus that becomes an electrified death trap after it plows into a utility pole on a rainy night, and “Confession” (February 20, 1961), in which she frames her husband for murder with Lee Marvin’s help. It’s a return to the cynical film noir territory of her film Double Indemnity (Stanwyck even says so in her introduction!). Great stuff.