In the silent era, one of the great binary relationships on the silver screen was between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Two of the biggest stars of all time, their personas — and films — both mirrored and contradicted each other. Between the two, you can argue, can be found everything great in comedic acting.
I’ve always loved was Mae West, though I never thought of her having a rivaling counterpart in conveying the sexuality and strength of that era. She is certainly the most iconic character of that period (though Betty Boop holds symbolic status). However, Barbera Stanwyck, though not quite as iconic today, delivers an equally powerful and dynamic character in the Mae West idiom.
In 1933’s “Baby Face”, Stanwyck plays a poor, rural girl who — literally — sleeps her way to power and riches. With nothing but brains and looks, she makes a fortune by seducing every man on the ladder’s next rung. While Mae West’s films are always tongue-in-cheek, with plenty of puns, quick wit, and humorously manipulative scenes, Baby Face is very close to the opposite. In place of puns and fast-paced dialogue, Stanwyck merely delivers a series of icy stares and half-crooked come-hither smiles. In place of tongue-in-cheek sexual references, Stanwyck makes it clear that she is sleeping with anyone and everyone for purely manipulative gain. There are — count them — SEVEN blatant sex partners in a film that clocks in at just over an hour. In place of West’s humor, there is a moral corruption and depravity to Stanwyck’s performance. In fact, three of those seven lovers wind up committing suicide.
Archetypal figures will never die. It is through these flat, simple characters that every story of mankind can be told. The tramp; the hero; the villain; the heroine. It is not the story that conveys the message — it’s the way the story is told. As much as I love West, Stanwyck digs much deeper, finding a haunting emotional depth that blurs the boundaries between hero and villain, morality and survival, love and lust. You never know which one of these emotions is happening at any given moment, because at any given moment they are all happening simultaneously. And she achieves this with the slightest of dialogue and the smallest of movements.
They call Buster Keaton “The Great Stoneface”, but Barbera Stanwyck certainly gives him a run for his money.