Thursday, August 16, 2012
Stella Dallas (1937)
Stella Dallas is sentimental melodrama, and as far as the plot is concerned it’s fairly conventional melodrama. But then the essence of melodrama is that it is formulaic to some extent - the genre has certain conventions and if you can’t accept those conventions then you had best avoid Stella Dallas. What really matters is how sincerely and how skillfully such conventional themes are treated and in that respect this film scores highly.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that the movie was made in 1937. They were different times. Criticising the movie because the characters don’t behave the way people today would behave (as some online reviewers have done) is to miss the point. The movie deals with the world as it was in 1937, not the way it is today.
This Samuel Goldwyn production was directed by King Vidor and gave Barbara Stanwyck her most demanding role up to that point in her career. It’s a powerhouse performance and it shows that Stanwyck was not afraid to be unglamorous and even at times to appear ridiculous and even pathetic. Despite this she always maintains a certain dignity and we never lose sympathy for her, but at the same time we can never despise her enough to pity her.
Stanwyck is Stella Martin, a mill-hand’s daughter who dreams of a better life. Rather ambitiously she sets her sights on Stephen Dallas. Stephen is the scion of a wealthy and distinguished family. His millionaire father managed to lose his fortune and now Stephen has to work for a living. He is the advertising manager for the factory in which Stella’s father and brother work. He might not be wealthy but Stella knows class when she sees it, and Stephen has class.
They marry but they are always at cross-purposes. Stella wanted to escape from her working-class life and family while Stephen was charmed by her simplicity and her naïvete. Stella’s attempts to fit in with the high society crowd embarrass Stephen. Stella tries hard but her working-class background always betrays her. She always ends up making herself look foolish.
The situation is complicated by the birth of their daughter Laurel. Stella devotes herself to her daughter while she and Stephen drift apart. They end up living separate lives in separate cities. Stella wants Laurel to have all the advantages she never had and she works hard to give her those things. Unfortunately her unconventional behaviour and her obvious lower-class background cause continual problems and also cause Laurel more and more embarrassment as she grows older. Finally Stella finds she has to make a choice between her own happiness and Laurel’s future.
Stella is caught between two worlds. She cannot go back to being a simple working-class girl but she cannot adapt to the rich society world in which Stephen moves so effortlessly. She has done a fine job in raising Laurel but her daughter is now about to move into that world of high society and Stella is now a hindrance to her.
Stanwyck was 30 when she made this movie but in the later stages of the movie she manages to look like a blowsy and faded 45. The makeup effects are subtle - mostly it’s Stanwyck’s sheer acting skill that conveys the sense of a woman ageing none too gracefully.
Stella is a tragic figure but she never gives in to self-pity. She is too concerned for her daughter’s future to have the luxury of feeling sorry for herself. Her self-sacrificing behaviour might be annoying to some modern viewers but there was a time when parents really did unhesitatingly sacrifice themselves for their children. And such behaviour was not despised.
John Boles as Stephen is a little colourless, or perhaps he just seems that way since his performance is so low-key while everyone around him is giving bravura performances. Alan Hale is amusing as always as Ed Munn, Stella’s indefatigable admirer who can never win her because Stella always puts Laurel first. Anne Shirley as Laurel is over-the-top at times but avoids making her character annoying and she is generally effective. The emotional bond between mother and daughter is convincingly and movingly portrayed.
King Vidor never allows the inherent sentimentality of the story to overwhelm the film. This is a three-hankie weepie but he’s never overly obvious.
There are many people who believe that women got better roles in the pre-code era than they did post-Code. I don’t agree and Stella Dallas is a good example of the much more emotionally challenging roles that actresses got in the late 30s and in the 40s.
The Spanish DVD from Regia Films is a little grainy at times but generally it’s a very good transfer. It includes the original English-language version as well as the dubbed Spanish version and it seems to be the easiest DVD edition of this film to get hold of. I recommend both the movie and the DVD.