Sunday, August 12, 2012

With a Mother Like That...

Film: Stella Dallas
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.


  1. Yes, it is a tragic story, isn't it? It seems King Vidor had a penchant for tragic fates.
    I like that observation that Stella could take herself out of the blue collar world but could not take the blue collar out of herself. That quite well sums up the movie for me.

    1. Yep. There's a strength in Stella that isn't obvious at first but comes out through the film. One aspect that I really like is that Stella is not only a real person, but she is a person of strength and value despite her blue collar, uncouth roots.

  2. BigHominid sent me here and it took me a minute but I remember you from our days on AOL!

    I've saved this blog because I do so love reading well-written movie reviews. (I'm not good at writing them, but I do love reading them.) Looking forward to reading your stuff!

    Bratfink (the former NOVL Brat)

  3. I still haven't watched any of the classic Stanwyck performances(or have I?)
    I'm going to see Double Indemnity soon. Looking through her resume on rotten tomatoes, she sure was a busy!!! I see she was a studio contract actress for Columbia. Which Stanwyck films would you recommend?

    1. Hmm. Double Indemnity is a must. Forty Guns is an interesting one. Also The Lady Eve, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry Wrong Number, and Ball of Fire are good places to start.

  4. Oh the ending! I love that the central relationship in the film is a mother and daughter who love each other, but there is still tension between them. No one in this film is perfect or completely bad, the potential step-mother is actually nice for a change.
    And to think our beloved Barbara was playing the mother of a teenage girl at thirty - and being so convincing in the process!

    1. This would be an interesting film to pair with Mildred Pierce. There are some interesting similarities and differences.

      It's always nice when we're given characters with real depth.

  5. Though some of the structure is stilted I did enjoy the film overall not just for Stanwyck's performance which is brilliant. She really pored herself into the part, among other things this was the only time she consented to bleach her natural hair color to feel closer to the character. She carries the film with no problem but she doesn't perform in a vacuum, Anne Shirley and Alan Hale certainly carry the weight of their roles and in her brief scenes Barbara O'Neil does beautifully sensitive work.

    I can see this being a decent entertainment with another strong actress from the period, maybe Joan Blondell or Kay Francis, but no one had the combination of innate class and low down crass that Stanwyck brings to it.

    Of all the great Golden Age female stars she was the most versatile, Davis and Crawford were too intense to carry off comedy easily, Shearer too brittle, Kate Hepburn, Dietrich and Garbo's comic chops were more relaxed but more specific and Harlow a marvelous comedienne but uncomfortable in heavy drama died too young to know how she'd progress. Stanwyck could do the heavy duty drama both sympathetically and with a good dose of evil but it was her comedic touch, light and much breezier than the others and though she was always radiantly unique she had a commonality that allowed her to play all strata of roles. Her last scene in this is justly famous but I was knocked out by her scene in the train berth when she comes to the realization that she's holding her daughter back.

    1. As you may recall, I gave Stanwyck the Oscar for this year and this performance. I think it was probably her best chance to win, and of her four nominations, it's the one that absolutely should've been hers. She did have tremendous versatility, and I think (although I could be wrong) that this was the film that demonstrated that she had real dramatic chops.

      Hepburn obviously had the same (or even greater) range, but she lacked Stanwyck's everywoman capability. Kate Hepburn was always kind of Kate Hepburn. Stanwyck often had that "low down crass" element to her performances. While many actresses of the time gave the impression that they would flirt for fun, Stanwyck always gave the impression that she flirted because she meant it.