Barbara Stanwyck's 'Fire & Desire'


July 15, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

A whole television-reared generation likely remembers actress Barbara Stanwyck only as Victoria Barkley, the iron-handed rancher of "The Big Valley" (on ABC from 1965-69). But a new documentary portrait premiering on cable tonight leaves no doubt that, as host Sally Field observes, Stanwyck assembled "an astonishing body of work" in a 60-year career.

"Barbara Stanwyck: Fire & Desire" can be seen at 8 on the TNT basic cable service, followed by a screening of one of her mid-career films, "My Reputation" from 1946. (The documentary/movie pairing also repeats at 11 p.m.)

Although the script and Field's over-awed narration tend toward the hyperbolic -- this is a movie actress being talked about, after all, not Eleanor Roosevelt -- Stanwyck's personal and film lives do make a fascinating study.

Raised in foster homes after being orphaned at age 4, the Brooklyn-born Ruby Stevens was dancing in chorus lines in dubious night clubs by the age of 15. Landing a role in the Broadway play "The Noose," in 1926, she took her new show name, and in 1927 did her first movie part, as a dancer in "Broadway Nights."

Marriage to comedian Frank Fay, an early star of talking movies, brought Stanwyck to Hollywood, where director Frank Capra ultimately starred her in his 1930 "Ladies of Leisure." Capra is quoted as saying the actress had "the ability to grab your heart and tear it to pieces."

As with others in a series of TNT film biographies, "Fire & Desire" is rich with clips from Stanwyck's career, opposite such leading men as Gary Cooper, William Holden, John Wayne and Robert Taylor. There is off-screen still and movie footage covering her private life, too, including a bitter divorce from Fay and marriage to Taylor.

For a time, says Field, Stanwyck was "the most dangerous woman in movies" because of a series of roles as a ruthless killer. The documentary also asserts that the actress' consummate professionalism brought a private loneliness which lingered until her death in early 1990.


TAKE A DIVE -- "The authentic, unsullied elements are central to the idea of paradise," says English adventurer Christina Dodwell, who narrates a lush edition of the PBS series "Adventure" premiering at 9 tonight on Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67).

The contrast between human imperfection and nature's purity, suggests Dodwell, is why she undertook her search for "The Black Pearls of Polynesia." The well-photographed quest takes viewers with her to the South Seas.

And just as she notes that the Pacific Ocean alone is vaster than all of Earth's land masses put together, meaning "most of our planet and its treasures are still underwater," much of the show is down in the cool depths, as well.

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