Stella Dallas, 1937, United Artists. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. B&W, 106 minutes.
Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is brassy, brazen and audacious enough to step outside of class constraints and pull herself out of the hovel she grew up in to take her place in high society. She has set her sights on vulnerable Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who recently broke off his engagement with the refined Helen (Barbara O’Neil) when his father committed suicide after the family business failed.
While waiting until he moves up enough in his new job to support the woman he loves, he discovers Helen has married another man. Heartbroken, Stephen is on the rebound, and falls for Stella’s efforts to charm him into wedlock.
A year after the two marry, they welcome their daughter, Laurel. Soon that child is the only bond between the couple. With his attempts to change his wife’s unrefined ways a marked failure, Stephen is increasingly put off by Stella. Add to that her friendship with the uncouth and loud Edward Munn (Alan Hale), a man of whom Stephen strongly and openly disapproves.
Eventually Stephen accepts a job transfer to New York, and Stella stays behind in Massachusetts with Laurel (Anne Shirley), now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Stella is a devoted and loving mother, and dotes on the growing girl to a surprising degree, given her otherwise self-absorbed nature.
Things take a dramatic change when Stephen has a chance meeting with Helen, now a widow with three boys. Their romance starts anew, with Helen welcoming Laurel into her life. Stella is faced with choosing between her own happiness and that of her daughter’s.
Stella Dallas was based on the book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the novel Now, Voyager, on which the film starring Bette Davis was based. Prouty also became a mentor to Sylvia Plath and is believed to be the inspiration for the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty, who herself suffered from psychological issues, had a strong interest in the internal motivations of the characters in her books.
The book had been made into a silent film in 1925, starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett, and was also re-made as the movie Stella in 1990, starring Bette Midler and Stephen Collins. The story has been analyzed numerous times for its perception of a woman’s role in society, the ideals of motherhood and the perils of sacrifice.
Melodramas of this sort were popular during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and to an extent we still see them today, albeit on the small screen. They are presented on cable channels such as Lifetime, notorious for somewhat overblown stories of human pathos. However, that is not what is delivered here. In the time Stella Dallas was made, production values for films of this calibre were much higher than the made-for-TV movies of today, and it shows in the final product.
The film received two Academy Award nominations, Best Actress for Stanwyck and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley.
This is a tale of woman who first wants more for herself, than dreams those dreams for her daughter, who is actually in a position to obtain them. It is both warm and tragic, with a character who is on the one hand appealing, and on the other, a bit appalling. In the end, whatever you may say about the decisions she made, her final motivation was from a mother’s heart.