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Barbara Stanwyck: Rags to Riches

Getty Images / Silver Screen Collection

America loves a good rags-to-riches story, and Barbara Stanwyck's was one of the best in Hollywood history.

We're celebrating the anniversary of Barbara Stanwyck's birth July 16, 1907, by remembering her humble beginnings and brilliant career.

Movie and television stars often have quite a bit of help in finding fame. Some grow up in acting families, seemingly destined from birth to follow in their famous parents’ footsteps. Others attend top drama schools, learning firsthand from seasoned pros. Plenty do struggle along the way, waiting tables and surviving on ramen as they attended audition after audition. Few, however, can claim an upbringing quite as miserable as Barbara Stanwyck's.

Born to working-class parents in Brooklyn, Stanwyck experienced devastating loss early in life. When she was 4, her mother died of complications of a miscarriage triggered by a streetcar accident. Weeks later, her father left his young children for a job digging the Panama Canal. Did he write loving letters and send home his earnings? No – he was, in fact, never heard from again. Stanwyck was raised by her older sister, Mildred, who was just 9 when they were abandoned.

When Mildred got a job as a showgirl, Stanwyck and her brother entered the foster care system. They were never lucky enough to find a loving family to give them the comforts of a home, though; instead, they bounced from family to family. Stanwyck frequently ran away and at 14, dropped out of school to make her own way in the world. She did the jobs that were most available to young women a century ago – typing, filing, wrapping packages at a department store. She was able to fend for herself, but wanted more. She wanted to be a star.

She didn't have long to wait for her first break. She was hired as a chorus girl with the famed Ziegfeld Follies when she was just 16, and though it wasn't an opulent job, it kept her afloat and gave her a leg up on further showbiz opportunities. She worked her way up from chorus girl in nightclubs to chorus girl on Broadway, landing her first starring role in Broadway's "Burlesque" in 1927. But her true stardom lay ahead in the world of movies. It was Frank Capra who cast her in the film that would make her famous: 1930's "Ladies of Leisure."

Seven years later, Stanwyck played her first Oscar-nominated role: the title character in "Stella Dallas." That same year, she commented on the poverty she rose from: "I knew that after 14 I'd have to earn my own living, but I was willing to do that ... I've always been a little sorry for pampered people, and of course, they're 'very' sorry for me." Though Stanwyck was clearly in the "riches" phase of her rags-to-riches story – and fast approaching a year when she’d become the highest-paid woman in Hollywood – she didn't rest on her laurels. Instead, she continued starring in film after film, sometimes four or five in a year, displaying a wide range of talent. In the screwball comedy "Ball of Fire," she was fast-talking and funny. In the noir classic "Double Indemnity," she was a seductively ruthless housewife who wanted her husband dead. Both performances were Oscar-nominated, as was another noir role in "Sorry, Wrong Number," but Stanwyck would never win an Academy Award for her performances.

Not so stingy were the Emmy Awards, which Stanwyck began to rake in upon making a career shift to television in the 1960s. She won one Emmy for her short-lived anthology series, "The Barbara Stanwyck Show." She took home another as the star of "The Big Valley," one of the best-loved TV Westerns of the genre's golden age. And in 1983, when she starred on the second-highest-rated miniseries of all time, "The Thorn Birds," she won a third Emmy, as well as a Golden Globe.

"The Thorn Birds" was Stanwyck's last great project, though she'd occasionally play a recurring role on "Dynasty" and "The Colbys" in 1985 and '86. From her 1927 movie debut to that last recurring role, she portrayed more than 100 characters, and as a result was honored with life achievement awards from the Screen Actors Guild, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the American Film Awards. But though she spent much of her life acting out other people’s life stories for audiences, her own rags-to-riches story is just as captivating as any character she played.