Scared of Barbara Stanwyck


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 it wasn’t sufficiently impressed upon us just how unknown and unknowable the frontier was, how the word ‘frontier’ stirred in those people something like the feeling of awe and mystery the word ‘frontier’ hefts when spoken in a show like The Outer Limits. To Boomer kids ‘frontier’ meant buckskin with fringes, Daniel Boone, Ed Ames (a terrific singer and recording artist, here dressed up like an Indian and throwing a tomahawk at a tree which splits obligingly to the delight of the sponsors), and remote military outposts whose tall outer defenses were long upright logs and sometimes Ken Berry. The barbarians who 1200 years before had brought down the Western Roman Empire would walk through these Lincoln Logs like a hot coal through margarine. 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. The westerns on t.v. 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 prop-room coin, that coin always slapped noisily down on the frontier bar as if the prop man insisted his metallurgical handiwork be made known through the airwaves.

‘Make sure Connors really slaps that coin down!’

‘Shutup about it already, Carl!’ Connors fires back.

You never 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. On The Big Valley, a show whose See-Spot-Run title lifts the veil on what simpletons t.v. consumers were in that decade (a hard-won lesson in prime-time show titling probably learned at the feet 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 fear she radiated 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. Stanwyck’s cotton candy hair and savagely diminutive body vibrated with an otherworldly demon energy. To see her standing on a little sound stage knoll, all dressed in form-fitting cowgirl black, and 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.

Victoria Barkley and her three look-nothing-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 t.v. 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 Barkley’s 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 t.v. 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.

But Barbara Stanwyck was in any case unwatchable, was too like that radiation-spangled lady, the Terror from the year 5000, 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 radiantly edible daughter in the rough-and-tumble world of a big western city known for massive odorous cow slaughter and pistol-waving shoot-em-ups. Stanwyck, too often you had your weird little paws on your hips as you squintingly appraised 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. That’s the way I felt during my Scared-of-Barbara-Stanwyck period. That’s the way I feel today.

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