Stella Dallas (1937)

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 (Barabara 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.

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John Boles, Barbara Stanwyck

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.

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Anne Shirley,  Barbara Stanwyck

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.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 126 minutes.

After being cheated out of their fair wages and finding themselves dead broke in a foreign country, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) look to the gold hidden in the hills of Mexico as the way out of dire circumstances. They turn to a crusty old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), to lead them in their search for buried treasure.

It’s dangerous in 1920s Mexico to search for gold; banditos and federales lurk behind every corner and will likely kill you before asking questions. But Dobbs and Curtin are determined, and Howard reluctantly agrees to go along as their guide.

The story isn’t in the search, however, it’s in the minds and motivations of the men seeking what they are unlikely to find, the drive that keeps them moving toward their goal of wealth and satisfaction, and the greed, fear and paranoia that soon accompany them in their quest.

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Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt

Bogart was given his big break in John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, and this film proved to further his career in yet another fashion with its grisly reality and harsh characterization. That Bogart was the top-rated actor of his time is no surprise, given his versatility and intelligent performances, and he played his unlikable character in such a way one is fascinated by the performance and drawn into the story despite the growing realization that Dobbs is truly unsavory and at times, malevolent.

Walter Huston, father of the film’s director, played bit parts in some of his son’s other films (he was seen as a “good luck charm,” although his appearance did not guarantee success), but this is the only movie of John’s in which he played a major role.  John Huston had long wanted to bring the novel of the same name to the screen, and he always envisioned his father in the role of Howard. As fate would have it, both father and son won Academy Awards for their parts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and John as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tim Holt, best known for his likable performances in Westerns, rises to the occasion and proves himself to be far more capable an actor than many gave him credit for throughout his career. That likability comes through in this character, but he’s as tough as the rest, and is a fine contrast to Bogart’s roughness.

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Humphrey Bogart

Critics of the day had nothing less than effusive praise for the film, and summed up its nature eloquently. The New York Times movie critic made note of the film’s grim yet redeeming theme in this manner: “Mr. Huston has shaped a searching drama of the collision of civilization’s vicious greeds with the instinct for self-preservation in an environment where all the barriers are down…he has done a superb illumination of basic characteristics in men.”

Variety stated, “It’s a grim and brutal slice of life whose raw elements have been ordered onto the plane of tragedy through a terrific twist of irony. There’s a magnificent joker hidden at bottom, but spectators will find it so grisly and so bitter that this film moves out of the class of simple entertainment into the realm of vivid experience.” James Agee wrote of the movie in The Nation,  “nominally an adventure story, this is really an exploration of character as revealed in vivid action.”

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Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an outstanding film and has stood the test of time because of its insightful view into human nature set in the backdrop of a Western tale. The cinematography matches the mood in its stark and simple nature (John Huston once said of the detached style of filming, “I just wanted them to look like they were stewing in their own juices”).  That, together with the real-life settings of Durango and Tampico, Mexico, the all-to-authentic performances and the story itself, make it a classic worth watching.