Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Want to be Just Like Victoria Barkley When I Grow Up


I was ten or eleven the first time I saw Barbara Stanwyck in anything.  I almost wrote "Miss Barbara Stanwyck," because that's how I always, always always think of her.  Because that's how she was billed on the TV show The Big Valley (1965-1969), which is where I first saw her.  In fact, it wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I managed to see her in something else.  But oh, what an impression she made on me in the dozen or so rerun episodes I saw as a kid!  Her character, Victoria Barkley, was unlike any other female character I had encountered before.  She was intelligent, strong-willed, courageous, compassionate, and both respected and loved by those who knew her.  I grew up watching old westerns, both those made for the big screen as well as the small, and if you watch westerns at all, you know that they're mostly about the guys.  Girls are usually there just to be the love interest or to get in trouble so the guys have someone to rescue.  Not universally true, of course, but it felt true to a pre-pubescent me.  Sometimes it still feels true today, and not just in the western genre.  But I digress.

From the first episode I saw of The Big Valley, I knew two things:  I was in love with Heath, and I wanted to be just like Victoria.  Twenty-some years later, I'm still in love with Heath, and I still want to be like Victoria.  Season one and half of season two are available on DVD now, usually pretty reasonably, and you can watch season one for free here on hulu.com.  I definitely recommend trying this show out if you love Barbara Stanwyck or old western shows.  It does not disappoint, especially in its first season.


So what makes Victoria Barkley so special?  I'm going to illustrate just what kind of a gutsy lady she is by telling you the basic story of the pilot episode, "Palms of Glory."  (But I won't spoil all the plot, just part of it.  I promise!)  I could talk about any number of episodes, ones that feature her more prominently, but this one really sets the stage for her character, so I'll use it.

Victoria Barkley is a widow.  She runs a very large ranch in California, near Stockton, with the aid of her four adult children:  Jarrod (Richard Long), Nick (Peter Breck), Audra (Linda Evans), and Eugene (Charles Briles).  (I realize that "adult children" is an oxymoron, but boy howdy, I can't figure out any other way to say that.)  Into their happy, affluent world rides a young man named Heath (Lee Majors)(swoon) who claims that he is her late husband Tom's illegitimate son.

Heath, looking very grumpy and chip-on-his-shoulder-esque

Upon hearing this claim, Jarrod and Nick adamantly declare that Heath is a fraud.  No way did their daddy sire some woods colt twenty years ago!  And if by some chance he did, he definitely wouldn't leave his baby mama to fend for herself!  Not their daddy!  They try to scare Heath off, they try to buy him off, and most of all, they try to keep his claims from reaching their mother's ears.

But Victoria overhears them, and in one of the most powerful scenes I've seen in an old TV show, she tells Heath that, if he were her son, she would tell him to be proud of who his father was, and to fight for what is his because no one could deny him his birthright.

Victoria and Heath size each other up

It's a moment that makes me want to both cheer and cry, and I just can't describe it adequately, so here's a YouTube video that I have cued up to that particular scene:



It's only 2 minutes, and you get to see some lovely acting from Miss Barbara.

Only after Victoria confides in him here does Heath realize just what his presence must be doing to her.  Heath is a constant reminder that her husband found love in the arms of another woman, although he did return to Victoria in the end.  He's also an ever-present reminder to his half-siblings that their father was not the perfect person they always believed him to be.  No wonder they resent him at first.

Yes, at first.  Because Victoria believes Heath's claims.  Mostly.  She takes him in, but before she fully accepts him, she goes up to the mining camp where he says he grew up and does some pretty spiffy detective work to learn the truth (see the episode "Boots With My Father's Name").

It's not spoilage to say that Heath really is Tom Barkley's illegitimate son, since just looking at any description of The Big Valley will show you that he's one of the main characters for all four seasons.  But Victoria doesn't just say, "Okay, you can have your share of the wealth and the power and the nice clothes and the beautiful horses.  Now go away."  She doesn't try to hide Heath in the kitchen or treat him like a lesser heir because he's not her son too.  She tells the world he's as much a Barkley as her children, she brings him into the family, and she never allows herself to regret doing the right thing.

And Heath's always getting into trouble, almost as much as Nick, so you could see that she might regret it at some point, but she never does.

All the Barkleys saying grace before breakfast

That's what makes Victoria Barkley so inspirational for me:  her compassion for Heath's plight, her courage to accept that her husband done her wrong, her strong-willed insistence that the rest of the world treat Heath as a Barkley, and the intelligent way she keeps her ranch running and her family safe.  That's why her children and her neighbors love her, and even her enemies respect her.  And that's why I want to be like her when I grow up.  (If I ever do.)


(This is my contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol.)

32 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, she's the crazy old lady from The Thornbirds! When I saw your post the other day about Barbara Stanwyck I didn't recognize her name (and plus I kind of forgot what she looked like when she was younger), but that's her alright! I've actually never seen and entire episode of The Big Valley, but I do enjoy those old western shows every now and then. (And if you haven't seen The Thornbirds, I suggest you don't. It's really quite awful.) : P

    ~Emma Jane

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    1. Lol! I've never seen The Thornbirds and had no real desire to, but hearing Miss Barbara Stanwyck described as "the crazy old lady" kind of makes me want to watch at least her part :-) Probably never will, but at least now I know what to expect of her if I ever see it!

      Since season 1 is available on Hulu for free right now, I highly recommend you check it out! Give it a few eps for the characters to really gel (Nick comes off as mean and nasty at first, but he isn't really). They're clean and fun.

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  2. Great post on a great actress in a great show. Victoria Barkley is so very special, for so many reasons. I wish I'd seen this show when I was a kid, and I wonder what sort of influence it would have had on my younger self? I could go for some eps about now! My brain is definitely craving Westerns right now!

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    1. Well... I actually have a disc of stuff from the library I have to watch next week, but I might be able to cram a BV in somewhere, since we're both on a western bender!

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  3. We would get along so well as we both love Victoria Barkley, and I wouldn't interfere with your feelings for Heath because my heart belonged to Jarrod.

    "The Big Valley, during its initial run, was my introduction to Barbara Stanwyck as well. At the time we lived in an area well-serviced by TV channels running old movies, so it didn't take me long to discover her stellar career.

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    1. Jarrod is my second-favorite brother! He is just full of shiny awesome, isn't he? Honestly, a good Jarrod-centric ep can allllllllllllllllllmost make me question my loyalty to Heath. But not quite ;-)

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  4. I, too, belong to the pre-cable/home video generation who was introduced to Miss Barbara Stanwyck on the small screen. Fantastic write-up. Haven't watched the show in years but now I'm itching to revisit. TO THE HULU!

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    1. I think that "TO THE HULU!" is going to be my new battle cry.

      :-D

      I'm so glad for things like Hulu and YouTube and DVDs that make it possible for me to see all kinds of wonderful things I would have missed out on a few decades ago.

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  5. Must admit I hadn't heard of this series (not sure if it was shown in the UK, though we did get some other Western series here, like The Virginian) but it sounds as if Barbara Stanwyck had a really good part in it. Enjoyed reading your posting and I liked the clip you included!

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    1. Glad you liked the clip! I love the range of emotions she gets to go through in just those two minutes.

      I believe there several full episodes available on YouTube, but as you can see from this clip, they're rather poor quality. Still, better than nothing.

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    1. She really is! Google her and see how stunning she was when she was younger too. She just aged tremendously well, without looking like she's had a dozen facelifts.

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  7. I want to be just like Victoria Barkley when I grow up too!

    I've only seen a few episodes of "The Big Valley" on ME-TV, but none of the storylines prominently featured Stanwyck's character. But your enthusiasm for Victoria B. is infectious. If I get a change to see "The Big Valley" again, I'll remember your post and your passion for Stanwyck's character. :)

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    1. Because it was an ensemble show, there are a few episodes about all the characters, and then most episodes focus on one or another. I think Nick and Heath got more than their fair share, being the heart-throbs, but Victoria got quite a few too. In season one (which is what you can see on Hulu), the episodes "Earthquake," "Teacher of Outlaws," and "By Force and Violence" feature her most prominently.

      Hope you get to see some eps soon! They're such fun.

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  8. Hamlette,
    Thanks for this write-up: TBV was a fave of my childhood, I'd watch the show religiously--but now can hardly remember anything of the series, excepting the Heath and Victoria scene you featured!
    I had wanted to work TBV into my review of FORTY GUNS (as if FG was a prequel to TBV), but dropped that line of thought.
    An aside: as a kid, I'd always wanted Heath and Audra to, um, "get it on," and yes, I know that's sick.
    Thanks,
    Ivan

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    1. Hah! That would be funny -- if Victoria had actually not come west with Tom like she says, but been there already, and in considerable power too.

      Heath and Audra do nearly kiss in the pilot ep -- she's trying to prove he's not her brother by tempting him. Their first meeting also involves a roll-on-the-ground tussle. So yeah... the subtext is there! Though I've always been far more intrigued by Heath's relationship with Victoria -- she treats him more like an adult half the time than she does Nick or Audra, and often like an equal. Sometimes I get the sense that she wishes just a teeeeeensy bit that she was thirty years younger again.

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  9. Great post. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like every other episode of "The Big Valley" had Victoria Barkley being kidnapped or held hostage. My favorite is the episode that is a variation on the movie "So Long At The Fair", which had Audra being secretly quarantined because she has a disease fatal to cattle. The town tries to keep Victoria from finding out, but of course Stanwyck doesn't go away quietly.

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    1. Well, every fifth episode also had Heath getting all grumpy because someone wasn't accepting him as a true Barkley. And Nick fell for more double-crossing dames than a film noir flunky. And Jarrod coolly saved the day in probably every-other-episode, while Audra continually was too sweet and naive for her own good.

      Anyway, I think I've seen that ep! Though I haven't seen "So Long at the Fair," so it reminded me of "The Lady Vanishes."

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  10. My first acquaintance with Miss Stanwyck was actually Christmas in Connecticut but I use to watch Big Valley reruns when I got home from school every day and loved them. Always adored her and Linda Evans both, as far as the boys it was hard to decide. They each had there charms but I think Nick was my favorite at the time, that cocky gunslinger vibe was irresistible.

    Barbara was very motherly and feminine when the series started and while she always remained caring throughout she ended up in more riding gear as the years passed. That always lead me to wonder where the hell she found a leather slack suit in 1850's Stockton? Not that it made me enjoy the show any less.

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    1. True, she got to do a lot more actiony stuff in later seasons. I actually have to laugh at the pilot, because at one point the boys quiet each other because "Mother is having her afternoon nap." I'm like, "WHAT? Victoria napping? No way!" Clearly, her character evolved a good deal.

      I figure anyone as rich as Victoria Barkley can get a tailor to make her anything she wants, and get away with wearing it too. Besides, she looks amazing in those pants!

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  11. This was an incredibly sweet, engaging entry, a tribute to one of those times where a great character and a great performer coincide. I've only just begun to explore The Big Valley but you and other bloggers have convinced me that I really need to give it some extended time. Obviously it has more going for it than Stanwyck. I'm so glad you decided to join the blogathon, Hamlette. Thanks for the contribution.

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    1. Thanks! I hope you do give The Big Valley a whirl, because it is a delightful blend of the rootin'-tootin' and the thought-provoking. And Barbara Stanwyck is wonderful in it.

      Thanks for hosting the blogathon! It's the first I ever participated in, and it's been swell!

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  12. I'm glad to read of another gal who found Missy via reruns of The Big Valley. I began watching it at 8 and have now seen all her films and most TV appearances.
    Now The Thorn Birds part is one of her best (of later years) and she won an Emmy. The character is not "crazy" but manipulative along the lines of Stanwyck's classic roles in Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

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    1. Lol -- isn't it interesting how "crazy" can mean so many things? Glad to hear she's not so much mentally disarranged as conniving and tricksy. Who knows -- I may see it one day! I'll probably end up with Amazon Prime or Netflix or something one of these days and start catching up on all the things my library doesn't have.

      And kudos to you for having seen so much of Stanwyck's filmography! I've only seen a handful, myself, though I watch more whenever they cross my path.

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  13. The Big Valley was my introduction to Barbara Stanwyck, and it was already in syndication. I, too, wanted to be Victoria Barkley.

    The writing of The Big Valley was best in the first season, before (as some posters have already mentioned) they changed her to wearing more contemporary clothes although she did look cool in leather. In those days, they wrote series as though the actors had amnesia regarding experiences they went through in previous episodes, so I suppose we were fortunate that several of the episodes did tie together -- the ones dealing with Heath's arrival, announcement about his identity, Victoria's investigation of his claims in the dangerous ghost town of Strawberry, etc. But some of the stand-alone episodes were also my great favorites. I loved "The Great Safe Robbery" where Stanwyck showed her ability to do great comedy.

    Stanwyck had such an impact in my early life that I mention her several times in my book about bullying, CHURCH SCHOOL BLUES. As a kid who had survived several years of bullying, I looked to her as a model of how a survivor of life's hard knocks could turn out. I think that's why I got such a kick out of it when, after I was grown, someone told me that I reminded them of that "deep-voiced actress who starred in that western tv show."

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    1. Yes, it's sometimes hard to understand the lack of continuous story lines today, as we're used to series that have eps that build on each other over time. I grew up watching a lot of old TV, though, so I'm pretty used to it. A different era in so many ways.

      That's very cool that Stanwyck impacted you so much, and congrats on getting a book published! I'm a writer myself, and I know how much hard work goes into a book, though I haven't sought publication myself yet.

      But that's especially awesome that someone actually compared you to Stanwyck once. Way to go!

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  14. I just finished watching an episode of The Big Valley---the one in Season 2 when an old con man named Charlie Sawyer claims Heath is his son, not Tom Barkley's, and in a moving scene that brings tears to my eyes, our beloved Victoria tells Heath that he is a Barkley in every way that counts.

    So, anyhow, watching the show reminded me of the fact that you were going to write about it for the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon, which was happening when I was on vacation (and off-line). I just had to come by and read your piece...even if I am a month late.

    In the early 70's, our local TV station aired re-runs of The Big Valley, and I loved coming home from school to watch it. Heath was the draw for me then...oh, did I have a crush on him. And I, too, loved Victoria. Funny, though, I had no idea that Miss Barbara Stanwyck had any other claim to fame than that show. Little did I know then that she would be my 3rd (and sometimes 2nd) favorite movie actress of all-time.

    I own the 1 1/2 seasons which are out on DVD. I sure wish they would release the rest of the series.

    Thanks for writing about this show. It's a definite must in any mention of the great Barbara Stanwyck's career.

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  15. I've seen that episode! A juicy one, for sure.

    My dad bought the whole series on greymarket DVD, but I'm like you, holding out for them to really release the rest of the series. It's not like there are 10 seasons or something -- they could even release it via print-on-demand or something like Amazon has done for some older shows like Cheyenne.

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  16. I read this post about a year ago and it made the show sound so great that I went out and purchased Big Valley Season 1. I've enjoyed it immensely! You can claim at least one Big Valley convert. :) Thanks!

    (Oh, and B. Stanwyck is excellent in some western films too!)

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    1. Annie, that's so exciting! I'm so glad you've been enjoying it.

      I've only seen a handful of Barbara Stanwyck's movies. Double Indemnity, of course, and Ball of Fire, and the western The Violent Men with Glenn Ford, which I reviewed here. Which have you seen? Any recommendations?

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    2. Oh, I never saw The Violent Men! After reading your review (and knowing it has Glenn Ford in it) I'm putting it on my list to watch. :)

      It's hard to remember all of her films I liked...'twould take a little bit of remembering. The first movie that I ever saw with her in it was The Moonlighter, a western. It also stars Fred MacMurry and has Ward Bond in it as well. If you haven't seen it you should find a copy!

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    3. It's definitely worth seeing -- I did end up buying my own copy.

      I haven't seen The Moonlighter, so adding it to my watch list :-)

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