“Stella Dallas” (1937) is one of the reasons why Barbara Stanwyck was one of the best actresses of her generation. It demonstrates not only her believability in a role, but a dedication to her character that seems to outstrip her contemporaries.
Often labeled a “tearjerker,” the film really does not get tear jerking until the end when Stella is faced with a decision about her daughter’s future. Most of the film is an interesting commentary on class structure and about being true to oneself. Stella’s New England mill town and her family’s dingy company house is presented with stark realism. She becomes smitten by Stephen Dallas, who works in the factory office, the son of a disgraced millionaire who had committed suicide due to the failing of his business. Stella knows very well that Dallas has no money and has severed his ties to rich society. All she wants from him is what attracts her about him: his kindliness, his manners. She wants to be with him, she says, because what is good and fine about him may rub off on her in time.
Her early scenes with John Boles, who plays Stephen Dallas, are sweet and earnest. Stella is clearly not a gold-digger, just a girl with a soft heart afraid to grow up hard in hard surroundings. Boles encourages her to be herself, that it really isn’t good manners to pretend to be something you’re not, and that high society is really dull. Dallas had previously broken off an engagement to be married, and Stella brings warmth and fun back into his lonely life.
They start their life together, but after their daughter is born a rift begins that will tear them apart. Stella’s campaign of self improvement ends when her daughter Laurel is born, and from then on puts all her energy and interest in the child. Boles’ character grows dismayed when he sees the change, and becomes embarrassed by Stella’s behavior. She has grown loud, coarse and common. When Boles is promoted to run the New York office of the firm, Stella refuses to go with him, no longer interested in society, wealth or finery, or Boles. She just wants to raise her baby by herself.
At this point, the film could turn into a story of a smothering, domineering mother living her life through her child, but the film never skirts into that territory. Both parents are kind to the child and respectful of each other, never playing Laurel off on the other parent. As a result, Laurel, played very sweetly by Anne Shirley, grows up to be an unaffected young lady, with her mother’s spirit and her father’s gentleness and elegance.
Alan Hale has a particularly wonderful part as Stella’s low-brow buddy, and his drunk scene with the turkey at Christmas is some of his best work, funny and sad at the same time. He is abashed when he realizes his untimely appearance has messed up a reunion between Stella and her husband. Bole’s look of bewildered helplessness whenever Hale is around goes a long way to explaining who both men are and how they fit into Stella’s life.
What makes Miss Stanwyck’s work in this film so fascinating is her intimate, clinging scenes with Anne Shirley that illustrate their co-dependence, and also her willingness to look frumpy. Screens stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” were sometimes willing to play the bad girl, but that bad girl was inevitably glamorous. Stanwyck went where no major star would go at that time: into unflattering clothes and gaudy jewelry, and body padding to make her appear heavier as she entered middle age. Stella is not aging well, including her bad dye job with a brief but meaningful scene where after she and Laurel have words, and Laurel makes repentant overtures by silently coloring her mother’s dark roots for her while Stanwyck sneaks a forlorn look at herself in the mirror.
Stanwyck invites the audience to laugh at her, dares them to deride her, and yet because of the astonishing honesty of the performance, we cannot really laugh because she is too real. When Laurel’s friends mock Stella, and Stella overhears, it is a loss of innocence for them both. Laurel has sometimes been frustrated with her mother, but never before embarrassed by her. Stanwyck sees for the first time what must have embarrassed her husband so many years ago. Now, the film becomes a tearjerker when Stella must make choices, which she makes with such clarity and resolve. At last, Stanwyck has that famous final shot, what some have called the best fadeout in motion picture history, as she beams triumphantly at the result of the choice she has made.
That’s all for this week. See you Monday.