In an industry of prima donnas, actress Barbara Stanwyck was universally recognized as a consummate professional; a supremely versatile performer, her strong screen presence established her as a favorite of directors, including Cecil B. De Mille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra. Born Ruby Stevens July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, NY, she was left orphaned at the age of four and raised by her showgirl sister. Upon quitting school a decade later, she began dancing in local speakeasies and at the age of 15 became a Ziegfeld chorus girl. In 1926, Stanwyck made her Broadway debut in The Noose, becoming a major stage star in her next production, Burlesque. MGM requested a screen test, but she rejected the offer. She did, however, agree to a supporting role in 1927's Broadway Nights, and after completing her stage run in 1929 appeared in the drama The Locked Door. With her husband, comedian Frank Fay, Stanwyck traveled to Hollywood. After unsuccessfully testing at Warner Bros., she appeared in Columbia's low-budget Mexicali Rose, followed in 1930 by Capra's Ladies of Leisure, the picture which shot her to stardom. A long-term Columbia contract was the result, and the studio soon loaned Stanwyck to Warners for 1931's Illicit. It was a hit, as was the follow-up Ten Cents a Dance. Reviewers were quite taken with her, and with a series of successful pictures under her belt, she sued Columbia for a bigger salary; a deal was struck to share her with Warners, and she split her time between the two studios for pictures including Miracle Woman, Night Nurse, and Forbidden, a major hit which established her among the most popular actresses in Hollywood. Over the course of films like 1932's Shopworn, Ladies They Talk About, and Baby Face, Stanwyck developed an image as a working girl, tough-minded and often amoral, rarely meeting a happy ending; melodramas including 1934's Gambling Lady and the following year's The Woman in Red further established the persona, and in Red Salute she even appeared as a student flirting with communism. Signing with RKO, Stanwyck starred as Annie Oakley; however, her contract with the studio was non-exclusive, and she also entered into a series of multi-picture deals with the likes of Fox (1936's A Message to Garcia) and MGM (His Brother's Wife, co-starring Robert Taylor, whom she later married).
For 1937's Stella Dallas, Stanwyck scored the first of four Academy Award nominations. Refusing to be typecast, she then starred in a screwball comedy, Breakfast for Two, followed respectively by the downcast 1938 drama Always Goodbye and the caper comedy The Mad Miss Manton. After the 1939 De Mille Western Union Pacific, she co-starred with William Holden in Golden Boy, and with Henry Fonda she starred in Preston Sturges' outstanding The Lady Eve. For the 1941 Howard Hawks comedy Ball of Fire, Stanwyck earned her second Oscar nomination. Another superior film, Capra's Meet John Doe, completed a very successful year. Drama was the order of the day for the next few years, as she starred in pictures like The Gay Sisters and The Great Man's Lady. In 1944, she delivered perhaps her most stunning performance in Billy Wilder's classic noir Double Indemnity. Stanwyck's stunning turn as a femme fatale secured her a third Oscar bid and helped make her, according to the IRS, the highest-paid woman in America. It also won her roles in several of the decade's other great film noirs, including 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and 1949's The File on Thelma Jordon.