ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melanie Novak writes about the Golden Age of Hollywood, infusing her weekly movie reviews with history, gossip, and the glamour of the studio era. You can read her reviews at www.melanienovak.com and follow her on Instagram @novak_melanie.
Barbara Stanwyck was a legend of the golden age of Hollywood. From 1929-1964, she starred in 81 feature films, earning four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and eventually receiving an Honorary Oscar for her lifetime body of work in 1981. She’s at number 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Greatest Female Screen legends. Her film Double Indemnity (1944) is number 29 on the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, and her films The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941) are numbers 55 and 92 on the AFI list of the 100 Funniest American Films of All Time. She was beloved by audiences, directors, co-stars, and especially film crews, who called her The Queen.
In the 1960s, she turned her attention to television, where she won a pair of Emmy Awards for her work on The Barbara Stanwyck Show and her role as the beloved matriarch Victoria Barkley on the western series The Big Valley.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that by the 1970s, when Stanwyck was nearing her mid-sixties with a mane of pure white hair she refused to dye and nothing left to prove, she’d ride off into the sunset and enjoy a life of leisure.
But if you thought that, you don’t know Barbara Stanwyck. The orphan from Brooklyn who’d been supporting herself since she was fourteen was not about to go gently into that good night.
Jacques Tourneur, her director on The Barbara Stanwyck Show summed her up when he said, “She lives only for two things, and both of them are work.”1
In October 1970 ABC premiered The House That Would Not Die as their movie of the week, the first of three films Stanwyck would make with producer Aaron Spelling.
Stanwyck gets top billing as Ruth Bennett, a woman who inherits a two-century old house that’s reputed to be haunted. She and niece Sara (Kitty Winn) move in, and soon the neighbors are coming to get a look inside the beautiful old house.
Ruth and Sara make fast friends with a pair of potential suitors in Professor Pat McDougal (Richard Egan) and Stan Whitman (Michael Anderson, Jr.) As a bit of a lark, Ruth allows two of the neighborhood busybodies to host a séance in the house, which sets the ghost story in motion.
The house starts to get creepy—doors open and close without warning, the wind blows wildly, and Ruth has disturbing dreams. Pat turns unexpectedly violent for a moment, then forgets what he has just done. Sara’s behavior is the most bizarre of all, and when she attacks and nearly strangles Ruth in the middle of the night, it’s clear she was possessed by a ghost during the séance.
The pedestrian plot unspools as Ruth, Pat, Sara, and Stan try to unravel the mystery of who is possessing Sara and why. There’s the requisite visit to the Hall of Records to research untimely deaths in the house, trips to the attic to read through old diaries and family history, and a climactic scene in a dank cellar hiding a secret grave where both Pat and Sara are possessed and turn murderous.
In the end, the ghost’s murderer is identified, justice is done, and Sara is set free as her possessor can finally rest in peace.
It pains me to pan a Barbara Stanwyck film, but this is one to miss. It doesn’t contain enough scares or twists to disturb or surprise the audience, yet Stanwyck’s professionalism prevents it from being corny enough to enjoy as camp. Her follow-up film with Spelling, A Taste of Evil (1971) is more entertaining, and Stanwyck really gets to let loose in the final act.
But even if these late additions to her towering resume aren’t worthy of her talents, Stanwyck was still in the game, the top-billed star in these made-for-television movies when most of her contemporaries were sidelined, dead, or relegated to cameo appearances.
Even in schlock like The House That Would Not Die, the Queen stays Queen.
1 Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Stanwyck.