William Wellman is not a director I know well, and he didn’t direct film noir, so I had to work hard to find a way to take on the challenge of Now Voyaging‘s William Wellman Blogathon. Of course, I’ve seen and enjoyed a number of Wellman’s films, and I respect his body of work and his success. He helmed the moving war melodrama Wings (1927), the first Best Picture Academy Award-winner. He directed the fiery Cagney and Harlow in The Public Enemy (1931). And he wrote and directed the original 1937 A Star Is Born, for which he received the Academy Award for Best Writing and Original Story, and was also nominated for Best Director. Then there’s the fact that I just adore Carole Lombard in his film Nothing Sacred that same year.
But none of that gets me to the focus of this blog: film noir. So I had to take another approach. I can’t convincingly argue that Lady of Burlesque is noir, but I can say this 1943 film offered Barbara Stanwyck a pivotal role in her career. That’s a strong thesis statement, and I’ll do my best to support it…or you can just come along for the ride.
Before Lady of Burlesque, Stanwyck had established a significant presence in Hollywood film. She’d played the promiscuous social climber Lily in Baby Face (1933), sharp-shooting Annie Oakley (1935), the ultimate self-sacrificing mother in Stella Dallas (1937, an Academy Award-nominated performance), a delightful card sharp in The Lady Eve (1941), and (my favorite) a sassy gangster’s moll named Sugarpuss O’Shea in the superb comedy Ball of Fire (1941) — and that’s only a few of her many roles!
With Lady of Burlesque, she combined her talents for comedy and musical numbers with the beginnings of the acting style she’d use for the tougher dames and femmes fatale she’d soon be playing in noir, from Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) to No Man of Her Own (1950) and Clash By Night (1952).
Partly, of course, this shift is about era and the dominance of noir during the war years and after. But her performance as Dixie Daisy in 1943 arguably combines the best of her established abilities (sans melodrama) with an extra oomph of brains and determination. In such a formulation, Dixie is certainly qualitatively different but not all that quantitatively far from the gloriously selfish and evil roles of Martha Ivers and Phyllis Dietrichson for which she would soon be forever known.