Academic journal article Criticism

The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Melodrama, Kitsch, and the Media Archive

Academic journal article Criticism

The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Melodrama, Kitsch, and the Media Archive

Article excerpt

To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.

-Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History" (1940)'

The Barbara Stanwyc\ Show lasted only one season on NBC from September 1960 to July 1961 and has been more or less relegated to a footnote in Stanwyck's long career. As an anthology drama series, each week featured a new story, a new cast of characters and guest stars, and a new setting. The show was directed and written by a rotating series of men, including directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Florey. Stanwyck was very much the driving force behind the series, starring in all but two episodes,2 and it was she who pushed for the series in light of the paucity of roles she was being offered at the age of fifty-three. Notorious throughout her career for being a hard worker, she outdid herself in the series, playing a wide range of working women, including businesswomen, scientists, a lawyer, a couple of sheriffs and bar owners, a journalist, and a fashion designer.

Stanwyck had already appeared in several other anthology shows and was one of many movie stars who made the move to TV in the 1950s. Christine Becker has argued that the small screen offered many top stars opportunities to restart their careers and to maintain more control over them. She also suggests that the professional involvement of A-list actors was instrumental to the aesthetics and standards of the new medium.3 Later in the 1960s, Stanwyck starred in the long-running Western TV series The Big Valley (1965-69) as the widowed matriarch of a family dominated by hardy men. While that series may have helped solidify the formulaic moralism of the Western-as-family drama, its predictability and conservatism are in stark contrast to the idiosyncrasy of the shortlived Barbara Stanwyc\ Show (figure 1).

Stanwyck introduces each episode of her show while wearing a new gown designed by Daniel Werle (who went by the couturier handle of "Werlé"). Most commentators say that she "had trouble being herself" in these intros, and she does indeed seem somewhat uncomfortable in the role of fashion model reading from a teleprompter. Loretta Young had perfected the gesture of introduction in her long-running Letter to Loretta (1953-61) in which she spins into her "living room" and reads a viewer's letter introducing the week's story. Stanwyck's short introductions usually credit the director, the writers, and her costars, and briefly describe the upcoming drama. These are frequently pitched as some kind of melodrama: a melodrama of decision, a melodrama set in the High Sierras, a dark melodrama, or a comic melodrama. Generically, the episodes borrowed heavily from a variety of film genres, including Westerns, film noir, adventure films, the woman's film, and comedies, but the general term melodrama pointed at the time to a combination of action (which was how the term was used in the popular press at the time)4 and emotional tension.

As a critical methodology, melodrama is an invaluable tool for rescuing cultural productions that have been neglected by historians, particularly works produced by and for women. In conjunction with Walter Benjamin's conception of allegory, they can be frequently viewed as variations of mourning plays (Trauerspiel). For Benjamin, these seventeenth-century plays had a playful aspect, and he is not above punning on the word "spiel" as a form of play, and, following Friedrich von Schiller, he emphasizes the effect of art over its structure.5 Resolutely secular, these mourning plays privileged emotions over action,6 and, like melodrama, they displayed a baroque excess of signification. Given the parallels between melodrama and Trauerspiel, we may be able to recognize the value of kitsch for a cultural anthropology invested in the desires and unfulfilled futures of the past. In this sense, the melodramatic impulse within the kitschiest examples of popular culture may enable them to be redeemed as exemplary of the dreamworld of cultural history. …

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