The Barbara Stanwyck Factor: Tying the Binds in UNION PACIFIC

The words “Barbara Stanwyck is one of the greatest film actress of all time” have been repeated so often they risk coming across as mere rote. And so, the attempt to put into words an appreciation for such a weighty force is daunting to say the least. The classic film blog The Girl with the White Parasol, however, is giving it a damn fine shot with a week-long tribute to the much beloved Stanny with the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon— of which this post is part.

As the ultimate actor’s actor, Stanwyck’s face, voice, and very form of being comprise the performances that pioneered the path for every single female performer in her wake. Surely Stanwyck had her equals– Bette Davis. Ingrid Bergman. Katharine Hepburn.

But there were none better.

She’s the ballsy, brainy beauty who beguiled a befuddled Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. She’s the wrong-side-of-the-tracks mother who loved her daughter more than life itself in Stella Dallas. She’s the frightening femme fatale who killed, and loved it, in Double Indemnity. And she’s a million other things: common chorus girl, ace reporter, heartless harlot, professional pancake-flipper and, yes, even a cattle queen from Montana. The films themselves, when extracted of the Stanwyck Factor remain workable. But it is, without question, the Stanwyck Factor that slam-dunks the lot of them.

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Which leads me, with admitted clumsy, to a film rarely mentioned in an appraisal of Stanwyck’s work, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 Western Union Pacific, a melodrama centered around the building of the transcontinental railroad. Make no mistake: the film is hardly Stanwyck’s finest hour. But it is for that precise reason I’ve decided to take a look at this uneven epic as it proves, undoubtedly, Stanwyck’s extraordinary ability to hit a home run no matter the circumstances. She is, appropriately, the tie that binds.

It’s 1868 and Stanwyck is Molly Monahan–a name that proclaims her Irish Catholic roots as loudly as the cross around her neck and her, shall we call it, ‘Irish’ lilt. Her father is a locomotive engineer and she’s grown up with soot under her nails and free wind in her undoubtedly red hair. The building of the transcontinental railroad, a hot-button issue in Congress that was rallied on the wings of its felled champion, Abraham Lincoln, has fallen victim to financial sabotage by Washington opportunists who see more money in its failure than its success. The Union Pacific railroad is expanding West to connect with the Central railroad just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.  But a wily politician from Chicago perceives that should the Central railroad get to Utah first well, it would be just too darn bad for Union Pacific and it would make a lot of deep pockets very full indeed. To ensure the scheme, the Union Pacific is dealt a successive hand of bad cards by the sharpest card sharps around, while the Central railroad steadies ever closer to Utah. The Union Pacific laborers are kept liquored up to, literally, derail progress, Native American skirmishes are cruelly instigated, and payroll is conveniently kept held up in transit.

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Enter tall, dark and handsome Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea). A railroad sheriff, as it were, tasked with the duty of cleansing the Union Pacific’s dirty cargo just as Wyatt Earp would cleanse Tombstone 15 years later. McCrea, a former Union Army sharpshooter, finds his old wartime buddy also aboard the Union Pacific: Dick Allen (Robert Preston). Unfortunately, the likable Preston has fallen into bad company with Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy)– the surly, mustache-twirling racketeer orchestrating the Union Pacific’s (pardon the pun) derailment. Their friendship remains strong, but they now find themselves fighting on opposite sides. Complicating the issue is the fact that Preston is deeply in love with Molly who (big surprise) falls head over heels for  McCrea.

This sets up a classic proscenium for the epic Cecil B. De Mille school of theatre. And at 2 hours and 15 minutes in length, Union Pacific is certainly an epic: a sprawling (perhaps a better word is “meandering”) love triangle peppered with plenty of punch-em-ups, train wrecks, and Indian chases that you’d expect from a traditional Hollywood Western. There is, in fact, nothing remotely unique brought to the table in this Western, as DeMille’s direction lacks the poetic composition and character complexities that made John Ford’s Stagecoach such a game-changer that same year. But yet there is plenty to recommend it, particularly the parade of top notch character actors, many of them wonderfully subtle scene-stealers, including a very young (and very handsome) Anthony Quinn and the amusing odd couple “Fiesta” and “Leach”– a pair of rough-and-tumble wise guys tasked to protect McCrea from a bullet in the back by Donlevy and his gang of rabble-rousers.

Production Shot of UNION PACIFIC
Cecil B. DeMille (left) directing a scene in UNION PACIFIC with Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Anthony Quinn.

And, of course, at the heart of it all is Stanwyck. Once you get past her unfortunate Irish accent, it becomes obvious that she really is the only actress of her day who could pull off the role of Molly. I for one, can’t see Davis, Hepburn, or Crawford chasing after horse carriages or pumping her way through buffalo country on a handcar. Stanywck’s uncanny naturalism and raw humanity is palpable in every one of her roles; the audience is never reminded that this woman is ‘acting.’ She never takes us ‘out’ of a moment to showcase her talent; Stanwyck exists entirely of the moment, infuses it, and seduces us to believe that for 125 minutes she is exactly who she says she is. This versatility makes her feel perfectly at home in an environment that any other actress would have stuck out from like a sore thumb.

When Union Pacific labors along, sometimes feeling like a magnificent steam engine that’s very low on steam, the tie that binds its tracks together is Stanwyck’s Molly. A red-hot firecracker, she energizes every scene whether it be a sparkling smile or a carefree laugh.

The film’s strongest scene is a figurative game of poker between McCrea, Preston and Stanwyck, in which the tension mounts entirely from what goes unsaid.

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Preston, bitterly jealous of Stanwyck’s affections for McCrea, robs the payroll train carrying long overdue wages for the Union Pacific laborers knowing that it will spell disaster for the railroad and, more importantly, for McCrea. He asks Stanwyck to hide the bag, and she obliges–innocent of any knowledge of the contents. Unsure of what Preston is up to, but ready to help him out as a friend. Preston uses her loyalty as leverage: McCrea suspects Preston’s involvement and questions him. But having already committed herself to Preston’s alibi, Stanwyck is honor bound to keep to the story when she realizes Preston really is guilty. Preston raises the stakes by strong-arming Stanwyck into marriage: it is obvious that Stanwyck’s agreeing to marry Preston is the only way that McCrea will get out of the room without a bullet from Preston’s gun in his back.  

It is here, in this scene in the film’s shaky second act, comes the film’s greatest moment, entirely thanks to Stanwyck’s ability to navigate  emotional complexities that exist entirely off the written script.

Stanwyck would become the Queen of the West during the 1950s and 60s with a string of Westerns in film and on TV, so it’s fun to see her here in her second outing out West (her first was 1935’s Annie Oakley).

Union Pacific is currently only available on DVD format.   

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