Frightened of Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara_Stanwyck_Big_Valley_1965

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820I am reminded of all the strange cowboy television of my youth, of how approximately we recreate the past, and most acutely of my Barbara Stanwyck terror. It goes something like this.

At age 8 I was Stephen Hawking-like; schlumpy, collapse-faced and incommunicative, my bottom teeth jutting up crazily out of nowhere to make a mockery of my ability to see beyond time and space. In school we had begun to ‘learn’ about the Wild West, but like most school lessons in those days the teaching was delivered without panache. From Stonehenge to The Holocaust, public school had a way of turning even the most inherently mind-blowing episodes of history into bland pablum. So it was when we learned about the exploration of the Wild West.

Open Space: The Final Frontier

The opening and mapping of the Western United States was a nearly science-fictional plunge into the unknown for the Europeans who undertook the endeavor, but our classrooms and televisions painted a different picture. While the word ‘frontier’ stirred in the explorers and cowfolk of that time something like the feeling of awe and mystery the word ‘frontier’ hefts when spoken, for instance, in the hair-raising intro to the early sixties sci-fi freakout “The Outer Limits”, to Boomer kids ‘frontier’ meant buckskin with fringes, Davy Crockett, Matt Dillon and his desiccated “Gunsmoke” sidekick Festus, Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, and remote cavalry outposts whose outer defenses were long upright logs and sometimes the hapless Ken Berry. The barbarians who 1200 years before had brought down the Western Roman Empire would have walked through these Lincoln Log Forts like a hot coal through margarine.

Kids notice when the Robinsons on the way to Alpha Centauri are saying the same dumb scripted junk the Barkleys of 1874 Stockton are, and both families are walking around inside a giant fallen robot. So to speak.

So the New World was in many ways a foal on shaky legs; soon to exhibit real horsepower but in the meantime a timorous newbie whose terra incognita really screwed with the frontier imagination and scared most people witless. The westerns on TV didn’t really play this up, choosing instead to sell cereal by glamorizing gunfights, whores in huge dresses, and a bottle of whiskey that could be bought for a single largish cowboy coin, that coin always slapped noisily down on the frontier bar as if the prop man insisted his metallurgical handiwork be made obvious to the television audience. Here’s an imagined bar scene from the aforementioned Rifleman.

“Make sure Connors really slaps that coin down.”

“Shutup about it already, Carl!” Connors fires back at the vainglorious prop man.

And you never really saw soil on these shows. On Bonanza the front stoop of The Ponderosa let gently down to what looked like poured maroon concrete. Then Little Joe would get punched and fall down, and standing up would flap his hands angrily at his chaps and dust would suddenly appear as if he’d fallen in some dirt.

Yea, Though I Sprint Through the Valley of Heath

On The Big Valley, a show whose See-Spot-Run title lifts the veil on what simpletons TV consumers were in that decade (a hard-won lesson in prime-time show-naming probably learned at the expense of the bewilderingly titled Bonanza), the single indomitable Ranch Mom was played by the diminutive and doll-like and unnerving Barbara Stanwyck. No matter her frontier bravado and habit of wearing vests and guns, the dread she compelled was finally ineffable, I couldn’t quite make it cohere. But…Stanwyck! Even her last name has the Stiltskin nomenclature of a ghastly post-Grimm gnome living under a bridge and sucking the marrow from the bones of passerby. Barbara Stanwyck’s cotton candy hair and savagely diminutive body vibrated with an otherworldly demon energy. To see her standing on a little soundstage knoll, all dressed in form-fitting cowgirl black, her little black cowgirl hat tilted on her doll head – this is the psychic assault of an overly coiffed prancing gremlin in a fever dream.

My Three Sons are Packing Heat But are Otherwise Completely Unalike

On The Big Valley, Stanwyck’s Victoria Barkley and her three look-nothing-alike-and-act-nothing-alike sons and single gorgeous daughter were always getting into one scrape or another, and after a couple seasons they could have been anyone anywhere, in that Jumping the Shark way that 60s TV shows eventually didn’t care where they were set or how laboriously some poor network pitchman had, years before, made his very specific situation comedy case to the network jackanapes. Two or three seasons in and the Space Family Robinson’s spat aboard the Jupiter II is more or less indistinguishable from the Barkley melee around an evenly burning smokeless campfire in the middle of an airless set of glimpsed maroon concrete.

Kids notice when the Robinsons on the way to Alpha Centauri are saying the same dumb scripted junk the Barkleys of 1874 Stockton are, and both families are walking around inside a giant fallen robot, so to speak. Very little was lost on us. The TV worlds which to the writers and entertainment lawyers were the result of profitable toil, were to we preteen 60s couch-cripples actual, habitable ur-environments. We could see the writers’ wills flagging after a time and the dream would always become harder to sustain. We don’t care about Will Robinson’s argument with his dad. We want to see that giant Cyclops throwing boulders at the Robinsons’ 6-wheeled space chariot. Oh boy, look how those space boulders bounce!

Stanwyck Haunts

But Barbara Stanwyck was in any case unwatchable, was too like that radiation-spangled lady, the Terror from the year 5000 (a delightful 1958 C-movie classic if you haven’t seen it), hypnotizing with her sparkly fingernails and making grown men scream. Stanwyck was once upon a time a delicate but slightly freaky beauty with reptilian eyes and, yeah, a too-small body. In her late-middle period she was selected by the Big Valley’s casting director or nepotist insider to be a symbol of protean American resolve and pluck, a single 1870s mom, about 4 feet tall, raising her three vastly different sons and radiant daughter in the rough-and-tumble world of a big western city known for massive odorous cow slaughter and pistol-waving shoot-em-ups. Ms. Stanwyck, you haunt me in reruns. Too often you have your weird little paws on your hips as you squintingly appraise a bad guy or flirtatious sheriff, your damnable little cowhat rakishly askance and meant to summon outback mettle but more often quoting the hell-monkey in its little pillbox cap, pulling its lips back and screaming while the organ grinder cranks his little box. I call this my Scared-of-Barbara-Stanwyck period, though it is more simply known as Life.

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