Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.
It’s no secret that when it comes to the women of the golden age of Hollywood that I have a little crush on Barbara Stanwyck. For me, there’s nobody from the 1930s or 1940s who had the mix of everything that she did. She could play an ingénue, she was certainly capable of showing an evil side, and she could also play down. That’s what Stella Dallas is all about, at least in my world. It’s all about Barbara Stanwyck being awesome.
Stella (Stanwyck) is the daughter of blue collar worker and the sister of a blue collar worker, but she has aspirations. While working in the mill might be enough for dad and brother, Stella wants a life in society, mixing with the right people and living the high life. She sets her sights on Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who works at the mill, but not as one of the workers. As it turns out, Dallas came from money and was prepared to marry into more money when his father killed himself because he’d gone broke. Dallas’s aim was to earn his way back into society, and just when he was getting there, his former finacee Helen (Barbara O’Neil) marries someone else.
It isn’t long before Stella has managed to get her hooks into him, telling him that her goal is to improve herself. They run off and are married in secret, and a year later, she gives birth to Laurel “Lolly” Dallas (played as a teen and young adult by Anne Shirley). Stella has what she wants, or is at least right on the cusp of it, but it’s soon evident that Stephen doesn’t have what he wants. Stella insists on heading to their club for a night of dancing the night after she returns from the hospital. It is here that she meets Ed Munn (Alan Hale), who becomes something of a regular at her house, much to her husband’s disapproval.
It seems, essentially, that Stella could take herself out of the blue collar world, but she couldn’t take the blue collar out of her. She likes Munn in part because of their similar sensibilities. Stephen, though, wants a refined wife that he can take into society—and Stella isn’t it. When he gets a promotion that will take him to New York, he and Stella decide to separate. They stay married, but for all intents and purposes, the marriage is over. Stella transfers her social climbing desires to Laurel, but still can’t get the knack of proper behavior herself. When Stephen reunites with Helen and discovers that her husband is dead, and when Laurel wishes to marry into society, Stella is faced with an awful decision.
I’ll be blunt here—the best thing this movie has going for it is Barbara Stanwyck, but that’s not a slight against this film. Barbara Stanwyck cures a lot of ills and makes a good movie a hell of a lot better. I’d probably have liked this movie just fine with another actress in the title role, but I was almost guaranteed to like it with the divine Barbara on screen for most of it.
And there’s a lot to like here. The plot is a good one. It’s not the sort of wishy-washy romantic tripe that films of this era tend to be labeled as. Instead, these are real people with real lives, real hopes and dreams, and with real problems facing them. Stella wants nothing so much as to fit in with the right sort of people, but she constantly finds herself pulled into the circle of people like Ed Munn. Munn is a great film character, the sort of annoying drunkard who might be played for laughs (and might have been in 1937) but who also has a cloud of sorrow and misery around him at all times. There’s something tragic about him scrounging through Stella’s cabinets for booze, or pulling practical jokes on people on the train. While Stephen tracks as something of a stuffed shirt (although not as much as you might think), Ed Munn is a creep, a drunk, and a bit of a dirty old man. In fact, his interactions with Laurel are downright creepy from a modern viewpoint—he’s a bit of a pederast.
Stella Dallas is a tragedy and a true tear-jerker, not the least because it feels so real. Stella plays like a real person. We see Laurel return from a vacation with her father and talk up Helen Morrison. Ten minutes later, it’s Christmas, and Stella, knowing that there is suddenly competition from Helen, primps herself in front of a mirror to make the best impression on him that she can. It’s tragic and sad, and plays wonderfully. And when a drunken Ed Munn crashes in, everything goes horribly wrong for everyone. It would play as comedy twisted slightly, and would play false played another, but here, it’s magnificent.
In short, I liked this film far more than I thought I would. I hate to sound like a broken record, but Stanwyck is the reason. There’s not a moment that she isn’t this character from head to toe and from start to finish. It’s a magnificent performance in a film that has far more emotional depth than might be thought.
Why to watch Stella Dallas: You need no other reason than Barbara Stanwyck.
Why not to watch: The social lessons here are perhaps out of date.