Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), the ambitious daughter of a factory worker, falls for Stephen Dallas (John Boles), an executive at the factory whose former fiance, Helen (Barbara O’Neil) has recently married another man. Stella finagles a meeting with Stephen and the two of them begin dating. Before long, they are married with a young daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley). Stella and Stephen clash when Stella longs to be a part of the social scene, much to Stephen’s displeasure, and she forms a friendship with Ed Munn (Alan Hale), a drunken layabout. Eventually, the Dallases separate when he takes a job in New York, and she remains behind in Boston with Laurel, upon whom she dotes. Stella aspires to provide Laurel with all of the opportunities she never had, but her lower-class vulgarity shocks Laurel’s upper-crust school acquaintances and their parents. Meanwhile, Stephen reconnects with the now-widowed Helen, and tries to convince Stella to give him a divorce so they can marry. Not wanting to stand in her daughter’s way, Stella makes the ultimate sacrifice and plans to send Laurel to live in New York with Stephen and Helen, thus giving up her role in her daughter’s life.
Stella Dallas (1937) is adapted from the same-titled novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the similarly-themed maudlin masterpiece Now, Voyager, which was made into a memorable Bette Davis vehicle in 1942. These two films are quintessential “women’s films,” domestically-centered melodramas targeting a predominately female audience that were immensely popular throughout the 1930s and 40s. The genre is relatively ill-defined (in fact, some critics would argue that there should be no subset of “women’s film” at all), but the main characteristic of these types of films seems to be the emotional manipulation of the audience. It’s almost as if it’s a point of pride for these films to wring their viewers dry by the time the end credits roll.
If that is indeed one of the main criteria in classifying a film as a “woman’s picture,” then Stella Dallas more than qualifies. The final third of the film seems determined to wrench tears from its audience through sheer emotional manipulation. And damned if it doesn’t work. A series of well-crafted melodramatic moments–the monologue in which Stella reveals to Helen the motivation behind her giving up Laurel; the goodbye at the train station, as you realize that Stella never expects to see her daughter again; and the gut-punching finale, as Stella watches her Laurel’s wedding through the window–all combine in a concentrated effort to reduce you to a puddle of goopy tears by the end of the movie.
But there is more to Stella Dallas than weeping and wailing. The strength of the film is found in Stanwyck’s role as the sacrificing mother to end all sacrificing mothers, a character who is far more complicated than the prototypical maudlin heroine of these types of “women’s films.” More than anything, Stella functions as an observer, always hovering on the edges, never fully “belonging” to any situation in which she finds herself throughout the movie. She doesn’t belong in the small house with her family; she has more ambition that that. She doesn’t belong with Stephen; in the end, her vulgarity–or, perhaps more precisely, her lack of worldliness–challenges her ability to “fit in” with the “right” people. And in her capacity as an observer, she serves, at least in part, as a stand-in for the audience. The movie was produced at the tail end of the Great Depression, in a time when filmgoers still sought out the movies as an escape for their own troubles. To witness Stella’s attempts to find a place within a strange, new world of privilege–for both herself and her daughter–is a reflection of what audiences had been trying to do for years: to see themselves, perhaps, as guests at the Grand Hotel or attendees at one of Nick and Nora’s lavish cocktail parties, knowing all the while that it was a world to which they could likely never belong.
This brings up one of the central tropes of the film, the issues of class difference that ultimately end Stella and Stephen’s marriage. Stella is brash and ambitious; she talks loudly, drinks copiously, flirts freely. At first glance, she is something shiny and new to Stephen: he’s just learned that Helen married another man, and he’s vulnerable–a fact that doesn’t escape Stella’s notice. She pounces and manages to hook him by taking on a demure, ladylike persona (one that she finds it difficult to maintain, as witnessed by her snappish response to a gossiping acquaintance outside the movie theater) that is similar to Helen’s bearing and attitude. Stephen is not completely oblivious to Stella’s true nature–he tells her to “be herself” instead of trying to be like the “educated,” nice-speaking people he’s always known. “Stay as you are,” he chides her. “Don’t pretend, Stella. Anyway, it isn’t well-bred to act the way you aren’t.”
And yet Stephen ultimately cannot accept Stella the way she truly is. He finds it difficult to handle her temper and even more difficult to handle her unladylike ministrations in public. He treats her like a child (and, truth be told, she acts it several times during the film), and does his best to stifle her when her behavior becomes embarrassing. Stephen is held up in the film as some kind of paragon of “proper” behavior, a height to which Stella–emotional, ruled by desire as opposed to cold, hard logic–can never aspire. Upper-crust women, the film tells us, don’t indulge in emotional displays. They maintain a calm, cool, judgmental facade. Stella’s lower-class forthrightness and nouveau riche approach is therefore not only out of place, but offensive to them.
This is not to say that the entirety of the blame rests on Stephen’s milquetoast-y shoulders. Stella is petulant and petty at times, selfishly wanting to have fun at the expense of her relationship with her husband. She is also not as self-aware as she should be–although she realizes early on that their different social statuses might create an issue later on, she is later unable (or, perhaps, unwilling?) to see that her behavior causes problems not only for Stephen but for Laurel as well … which makes her growth as a character and her sacrifice in the end all the more remarkable. Stella not only gives up the chance to live with her daughter and continue to raise her through her teenage years, but also sacrifices her daughter’s high opinion of her. She has finally grown up–albeit too late to find personal happiness, it seems.
The end of the film mirrors the scene of Stella and Stephen’s movie date near the start of the film, and underscores Stella’s role as observer. While watching the film, Stella–eyes widened, smiling–is enraptured by the figures on the screen, to the point that she absentmindedly brings a piece of popcorn to her mouth, too enthralled by the story to actually eat it. In the final scene, Stella watches her daughter marry her wealthy young suitor, her eyes shining with the same delighted fervor seen in the movie theater, as she grasps a piece of her handkerchief between her front teeth. Stella seems destined to witness other people’s happy endings without ever fully experiencing one of her own. Still, in the case of Laurel’s wedding, Stella is fulfilled in seeing her plan come to fruition–her daughter has found happiness, and as she walks away, smiling through her tears, her contentment with her sacrifice registers all over her joyful face.
The movie belongs to Stanwyck. There’s no other way to put it–she so thoroughly outshines every other cast member on screen. Stella is a tour de force performance for Stanwyck–which should come as no surprise for fans of the actress, who know full well how supremely talented she was. I would venture to say that Stanwyck delivers the strongest performance of her career in this film–yes, even more so than her villainous turn in Double Indemnity, or her deliciously conniving Jean in The Lady Eve, or her many pitch-perfect comedic roles. There is just something about her in this film that represents the pinnacle of her acting ability to me. She elevates the film beyond the melodramatic muck; by sheer force of will, almost, Stanwyck makes the movie better than it should be.
This is due in large part to her ability to so thoroughly embody the character. From head to toe, from vocal delivery to the most nuanced of expressions, when you watch Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas, you aren’t witnessing a mere performance–you are watching the very art of acting, brought to vibrant, colorful life. She is not playing Stella; she is Stella. To me, she rivals the aforementioned Bette Davis for the ability to get under a character’s skin and will her to live. She even resembles Davis in fleeting glimpses throughout the movie–for example, in the scene in which Stella receives Helen’s telegram warning her of Laurel’s impending return, she’s almost a doppelganger of Davis’s Mildred in 1934’s Of Human Bondage (though the similarity is only in appearance, thank God, as Mildred is a nightmare of a character).
Stanwyck’s physicality in Stella Dallas is astounding. When I watch this film, I’m particularly struck by the way in which she moves across the screen. Stanwyck’s movements are an effective demonstration of her character’s constant attempts to aspire higher than her station. Stella’s walk isn’t gliding or graceful; she swings her hips stiffly, performing what she sees as a “proper” way of walking instead of moving naturally. By the time she makes the decision to give up Laurel, she’s stoop-shouldered with self-defeat. Her lack of makeup in these scenes draws attention to the world-weariness in her face. It is only at the end of the film, after watching her daughter’s happiness fulfilled, that Stella finally moves easily, freely, walking away with her shoulders back and her head held high, striding purposefully toward the camera with a joyful expression. It’s the perfect shot on which to end the film, and an intensely powerful moment for Stanwyck.
It’s little wonder this film provided her with her first of four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. Stanwyck reportedly claimed that losing the Oscar for this film (which was ultimately won by Luise Rainer, for the second year in a row, for her role in The Good Earth) was more difficult than any other loss during her six decades-long career, because she truly felt it was her best work on-screen. Don’t doubt the woman’s word: while Stella Dallas may have its flaws (the rather wooden characterization of both Stephen and Helen comes to mind), Stanwyck herself is sheer, unadulterated perfection.