In Barbara Stanwyck’s 57-year career, the dynamic imagery of horseback riding became a critical element of her tough, gender-bending star-image. Those images have outlasted the culture in which they were produced, offering a unique image of a woman on the 20th century screen. At the same time, the transcendent, enabling, independent imagery of horseback riding was produced within an industry of illusion, deception, and misogyny; and the off-screen scene of gendered labour and sexist critical discourse is not so pretty. In this video essay I have used the audio-visual archive to unpack the pleasures attached to watching Stanwyck on horseback.
The archive is accessed in this video as a site of struggle, weaving fragments of biography, the voices of critics, and Stanwyck’s own distinctive voice into and over excerpts from her films and TV shows. Sometimes the fragments don’t add up to a coherent narrative, as we expect the star discourse to unfold. Hollywood magic tended to erase and bury contradiction, and it is the historian’s mission to “find the fissures within.” In this sense the video essay follows from my book Archiveology, in which I argue that the archive is a construction site, so that new histories can be imagined. Following Walter Benjamin’s sensory historiography, excavated images from the past are considered “treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights.” In that book I also argue that archiveology enables us to rescue women from their narrative traps, but seeing Stanwyck riding, we find that her body is a site of struggle. Her dedication to her craft led her into multiple situations where she was injured on sets, and continued to work despite debilitating pain. She was well known to be a consummate professional who was committed to timely production schedules and studied her scripts and characters diligently. This essay foregrounds the invisible labour behind Stanwyck’s star-image, as well as that of the many stunt people who helped her create the magnificent images of a woman on a horse.
The compilation of film clips from six decades of film and television enables a review of patterns of behavior in the diversity of Stanwyck’s movies, and helps to articulate the contours of her star-image as a horseback-riding star. Audio clips of Stanwyck herself talking about riding is a way of bringing in her own off-screen voice. Remixing the sounds and images of her performances enables an affective reading of her performance with horses, while the textual counter-discourse challenges the significance of that affect. Stanwyck was very much part of the industry, and put her body on the line to support an industry of illusion. The viewer of this video essay is invited to look more carefully at the women on horses to try and distinguish the body of the star from those of her doubles.
Against Barbara Stanwyck’s triumphant, powerful image of a woman pounding against the fantastic landscapes of the American West, we need to listen to the words of the songs that are often putting her characters down. Moreover, the most spectacular stunts tend to involve the act of falling, and there is a kind of inner tension between Stanwyck’s affinity for dangerous riding and the tendency for her characters to fall off their horses, just to be saved by men. We know how often her power and independence is curtailed by the requisite happy endings of heterosexual romance; and the act of falling is often the price to be paid for riding high. From a feminist standpoint, this approach can also be aligned with Sara Ahmed’s conception of the feminist killjoy, which is a strategy of critical vigilance even at the expense of “happiness” or as Sara Ahmed puts it, “a feminist killjoy is an affect alien.”
Stanwyck’s affinity for horses was closely linked to her career as a versatile performer, for whom the Western genre was a crucial vehicle for her survival as an older woman in the 1950s. This videographic analysis is what Kevin Esch describes as a “distanced” reading of film performance in which the “mythistory” of the star’s aura is conjoined with an understanding of the cultural labor that interacts with social and industrial forces. Stanwyck’s archival presence in dozens of movies and TV shows enables us to watch her incorporate animals into her performance, and also, through her discourse on stunts, understand her use of frontier culture in the creation of her own legend as a tough woman.
In an interview taped during the shooting of The Big Valley in 1968, Stanwyck was asked if she had ever thought about directing. She dismisses the idea abruptly: “No. I could help, but I don’t know enough.” In fact, by some reports, she “ruled everything and everyone,” during the four years the show aired, with final approval of scripts, guest cast and directors. The fact that Stanwyck was always ready to put her body on the line, by radical dieting practices and doing stunts, but unable to imagine becoming a director, is emblematic of the precarity of women’s agency within the film industry during her lifetime. Like her riding scenes, this inequity highlights the affective claim of fantasy as a deep-seated ambivalence within women’s cultural history and Stanwyck’s role within the dreamscape of Hollywood. In Lauren Berlant’s words, it can be thought of producing “a sense of thriving in the consumer’s body and sometimes in the mise-en-scene itself.”
Berlant urges us to identify the utopian within the everyday, through sentimental genres, so that the present is “thickened” and adapted to a scene of bargaining not with fulfillment but with sensually lived potentiality. The archival fragmentation and reconstruction of Stanwyck on horseback provides insight into our own pleasure in watching this dynamic woman, and how such pleasure harbors a secret struggle hidden between frames and offscreen. As yet another site of struggle, the archive provides a critical counter-discourse to the sensuous images of the star and her unnamed human and animal co-stars. Her ability to incorporate horses into her performance is not only a question of acting and technique, but an ability to navigate the industry as an independent, original, and indefatigable player. Over the course of her career, as she became more and more comfortable with horses, she contributed to a dynamic new image of women in movement, riding with purpose across iconic landscapes. Her final riding scene is in The Thornbirds (1983) at the age of 76. Sitting tall in the saddle, she rules her sprawling frontier ranch with dignity, authority and elegance. Taken out of narrative context, in the remixed archive of her performances, Stanwyck’s tenacity increases her appeal as a complex feminist icon. Contrary to the deeply misogynist theme song of Forty Guns, no one actually took her whip away, precisely because she is a woman after all.
Statement by Catherine Russell
 Catherine Russell, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
 Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” Selected Writings vol. 2. 1927-1934. Edited by Michael J. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Translated by Jonathan Livingstone and others. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, 576.
 This insight is supported by Laura Mulvey’s similar claims in Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).
 Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
 Kevin Esch, “The Bond that Unbinds by Binding: Acting Mythology and the Film Community,” in Theorizing Film Acting, Aaron Taylor ed. (London: Routledge, 2014), 130.
 “Portrait of a Star” 1968. American Heritage Library Barbara Stanwyck Collection Box 46.
 Gary A. Yoggy, Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television, McFarland and Co., 2008. Yoggy cites Dwight Whitney, “The Queen Goes West,” TV Guide February 22, 1966), 6-7.
 Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham Duke University Press, 2008), 272.
 “Woman with a Whip” was written by Harold Adamson and performed by Jidge Carroll in Forty Guns.
Director biography: Catherine Russell is Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of five books, including Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Duke, 1999), and Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices (Duke, 2018), two books on Japanese cinema, andNarrative Mortality (Minnesota, 1990). Her articles on documentary cinema, Japanese cinema, and experimental film have appeared in numerous journals, collections, readers, and anthologies. She is presently working on a book called The Lady is an Actor: The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck, under contract with University of Illinois Press. Please see http://catherinerussell.ca
Co-editor biography: Shannon Lynn Harris is an artist whose film and video work reflect a creative practice that draws from the particulars and subjectivities of personal experience and landscape. The ways in which documentary and experimental film/video practices intersect, the potential of expanded notions of cinema, and the experientiality of image are areas of interest to her. Shannon’s work has been screened in North America, New Zealand and the EU. She has been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, Conceil des arts et des lettres du Québec and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. She has a BA from Simon Fraser University and obtained a BFA with Special Distinction from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema and an MFA from Concordia University. She originates from Vancouver, British Columbia and is currently based in Montreal, Canada.