Mapping the Swamp: Lessons from Barbara Stanwyck Movies

Stanwyck in "Crime of Passion"
To map the Swamp, you have to counteract the decades of ignorance cultivated by the Swamp elites and re-learn the cultural wisdom of past generations. With the explosion in the number of adults with college degrees, people did not become wiser citizens, as Thomas Jefferson hoped in Notes on the State of Virginia. Instead, the institutions of higher learning became enormous machines of control that tempted a small cadre of people running them; they could not resist the temptation to use their massive prestige and cultural reach in order to empower and benefit themselves and their friends.

Learning and education do not necessarily go together. If institutions are corrupted, as American higher education institutions indisputably are, education can become the opposite of learning. They can actually be stupefying; they can become systems of mental programming that do the opposite of learning. They can serve to conceal, hide, or distort truths in order to regiment students into a worldview that serves the elites. Marx understood this, as did both Freud and Foucault, not to mention Orwell and Sartre, though none of them probably realized how quickly we would see systems of education becoming systems of ignorance.

Many recent scams by the Swamp have succeeded because the average person in America no longer recognizes ambition or imagines that deceit is possible. The LGBT movement has convinced people across America that they are as victimized as black people when they have no historical evidence to justify this comparison, and we have copious, overwhelming evidence that gay rights organizations are abusive, vulgar, cruel, and power-hungry. Similarly, political operatives convinced people that Roy Moore "is" a "child molester" or "pedophile" because of a claim from forty years ago by one woman that he made, on one occasion, a vulgar overture toward her but did not consummate any sexual act with her. People are willing to buy into these scams for two reasons: they are too gullible about racy stories full of pathos, and they are incredulous when it comes to obvious conspiracies and plotting by ill-intended people.

Barbara Stanwyck movies have all the glamour and humor of Hollywood's Golden Age. But most importantly, Barbara Stanwyck's acting strengths and her promoters' creativity combined to create a library of excellent texts, which can strengthen your analytical skills simply by reminding you that there are indeed people who weave elaborate lies and frauds to get what they want. Sometimes they want money, other times fame, other times vengeance, other times a break from their boredom.

In Double Indemnity, Stanwyck plays the saucy Phyllis Dietrichson, a wealthy woman who wishes to become a widow and seduces a hapless insurance salesman into a wildly impossible murder-hoax. Because of an obscure clause in an insurance policy that calls for double payments to a policyholder in the case of a bizarre death, Phyllis comes up with the idea to stage her husband's death by being run over by a train. As happens in so many of her fabulous roles, Stanwyck makes this frighteningly cold deviousness feel all the more natural because she was unlike many of the natural beauties of the era. She did not have Marlene Dietrich's looks or Betty Grable's famous legs. With her somewhat awkward skinniness and unusually shaped cheeks and jaw, she feels almost like the girl next door, even as she plots and connives the most elaborate of evil schemes.

How did Chandler and Wilder end up with this crazy plot and how did Stanwyck bring the wild femme fatale to life with such believable ease? Because Double Indemnity, for all its extremism, is not that far from what people are willing to do--and do--all the time. People give themselves over to greed and vainglory, driving them to concoct lies that have to be tailor-made to sway a necessary audience. If in fact the insurance policy requires that a man die as he falls from a train, then they will work down every detail to make such a rare event seem utterly natural and uncontrived.

In The Lady Eve, Stanwyck plays "Jean," a con woman whose father is a word-class fraudster. On a luxury liner, they seek to swindle a millionaire, Charles, played by Henry Fonda, out of his fortune. In order to carry out the fraud, Jean must use all her seductive talents but most importantly she must do exhaustive research to know all of Charles's vulnerabilities and foibles. She scouts the ship that just happens to pick up Charles from a snake-hunting trip where he's been stranded. Jean tracks the numerous seductresses who are all trying to win Charles's attention, and seizes upon a trick that she knows will work. She arranges for him to trip over her heel, ruining her shoe. Immediately she berates him as if he did something wrong to her, and then demands that he walk her back to her bedroom so she can find another pair of shoes.

The beauty of Jean's trick is that it feels seamless to Charles, who has no idea he is being manipulated and quickly falls in love with her. She seems, to him, like the only woman who isn't plotting to seduce him. Eventually Jean and her father are busted, but she reappears with another false identity, paying a visit to Charles later on. Charles finds her face vaguely familiar--familiar enough to feel a rekindling of old emotion--but she carefully manages to stage her glib conversation at a dinner party so Charles cannot go all the way and figure out that she's really Jean.

Like Double Indemnity, Lady Eve draws from Stanwyck's smooth acting talents to remind us how natural and easy it can be to practice immense deceit. Since 1941, when this film came out, has nature changed that much? Are we no longer targeted by people who research all our inclinations, quirks, and tastes, for the deliberate purpose of prompting us to do something they want? Of course not. What Stanwyck performs as a seduction plot, the postmodern advertiser does by monetizing our online behavior and catering fake news, sales pitches, and sundry scams to tickle our fancies when we least expect it.

In Christmas in Connecticut, Barbara Stanwyck plays the pre-feminist career woman, doing Judith Butler's gender performance fifty years before "performativity" became a thing in the dumbed-down, post-Reagan academy. Stanwyck's persona dramatis is Elizabeth Lane, a city-dwelling media entrepreneur (some might call her a "writer") who has convinced Americans everywhere she is a Connecticut housewife in her monthly recipes cum confessionals about life in the country. In truth she lives in a walk-up in Manhattan, where she sees laundry drying outside her window and types to the noise of her radiator burping steam. But never mind the falsity, she perfects the written voice of domestic homemaker. For her columns she recasts recipes that she squirrels from a Hungarian refugee who has fled Eastern Europe with his formulae for goulash and other delicacies.

Caught in her snares is an Army nurse who knows the publisher of Elizabeth Lane's magazine. The nurse is owed a favor from Mr. Yardley, the publisher, and convinces Mr. Yardley to arrange for her beau, Jefferson Jones, to spend Christmas holidays on the Connecticut farm with Mrs. Lane. So Elizabeth has to come up with a farm, a husband, and a baby, before she gets discovered and might lose her job. The wacky plot gives us the delight and humor we can expect from a Stanwyck film, but it also keeps us from forgetting that the media are a bunch of liars and poseurs and nothing we read should be taken seriously. It also exposes the fact that narratives that we want the most to believe are usually the ones that people craft to match our fantasies, because they have something to sell us.

Lastly, in a later film Crime of Passion, Stanwyck plays Kathy Doyle, yet another female columnist. By now it is the late 1950s and feminism is on the horizon. Kathy's reader base is mostly working women, so her sudden decision to quit writing and marry a Los Angeles policeman inflicts a major loss on the San Francisco audience. But to LA Kathy goes, only to find herself plunged in a maelstrom of plotting and social manipulations as she channels all her lost professional ambition into backdoor politicking for the sake of her husband's advancement in the police force.

Both Christmas in Connecticut and Crime of Passion, for all their camp and Hollywood hyperbole, serve an important educational purpose. They convey to us, the viewers, the natural state of the Stanwyck character, which is a regular everyday American filled with normal human emotions but given to frightening extremes of deception and corruption. Stanwyck makes the vicious manipulation of film noir and screwball comedy seem perfectly believable for two reasons: first, she is a good actress. But second, and more importantly, the things her characters do are fully within the realm of human possibility. Nothing Stanwyck does is a stretch. She is such a good actress because she carries out diabolical plots the same way any of us could, if we really wanted something badly enough.

Today's consumers of culture have lost their connection to the basic insights of the Barbara Stanwyck flick. The average American trusts what he sees in social media because he has never been prompted to question and deconstruct the social machinery that produces social media. Schools no longer teach long, complicated narratives with plots that are at once convoluted and yet full of ordinary people. Young people LARP or dress up as Harry Potter characters but they never quite figure out that wicked dissimulation and nefarious cabals make good stories not because they are escapist, but because they are so very real.

We no longer have great scripts like the kinds that allowed for Barbara Stanwyck to bring first-class con women like Elizabeth Lane or Phyllis Dietrichson to life. Special effects and advanced graphics, combined with a stress on physical action and explicit sexuality rather than conversation and witty banter, have destroyed the devilish plot as a theatrical option for our entertainment. Even the scripts that are supposed to be "smart," like Pulp Fiction, do not project to the audience the reality that lots of people in our world are smart, and not in a good way.

It is worth getting away from the decontextualized soundbytes and politically one-sided propaganda that flood our minds, to connect with the basic wisdom that narratives used to provide to people. There are devious, vicious women who are smart enough to trick and deceive us. Without them, the Swamp would never be the Swamp.

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