Stella Dallas

Released:  1937

Cast:  Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley, Barbara O’Neil, Alan Hale

Oscar Nominations:  Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Supporting Actress (Anne Shirley)

SUMMARY:  In 1919, Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) lives with her parents and brother in a Massachusetts factory town.  Both her father and brother work in the factory, but Stella wants a higher-class lifestyle.  She has her sights on Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a former heir who now works as the factory’s ad man.  Dallas was the son of a very wealthy man, and was engaged to a woman named Helen (Barbara O’Neil), but after his father lost his fortune and killed himself, Stephen dropped out of sight.  He intends to return to Helen once he is established monetarily, which he nearly is.  However, Helen marries somebody else before he can go back, so Stephen starts to return Stella’s attention.  The two quickly get married, and a year later have a daughter named Laurel.  Initially Stella seems resentful of the pregnancy and baby, as it keeps her confined to the house and the hospital.  However, she quickly is  wrapped around the baby’s finger.  She wants her daughter to have all the high-class opportunities that she did not, and puts all of her energy into this goal.  She has little time left for Stephen, who has no desire to live in that world.  Stephen’s success at the factory soon leads to a job in New York, and he wants Stella and Laurel to move there with him.  To his surprise, Stella has absolutely no desire to leave her home, since she has just recently made the acquaintance of Ed Munn (Alan Hale), a popular gambler who she thinks will be her ticket to high society.  Stephen moves to New York, while Stella stays in Massachusetts with Laurel.  While Stephen visits Laurel when he can, and he and Stella are still married, they are effectively separated.

As Laurel (Anne Shirley) grows up she continues to be the apple of both her mother and father’s eye.  She still lives with Stella, but visits her father in New York on the weekend.  Stella has completely thrown herself into furthering her daughter’s prospects, and puts little time, money or effort into her own appearance.  She has also not overcome her rough manners and brash attitude, which often offends and/or shocks the very people she wants Laurel to associate with.  Meanwhile, in New York, Stephen has run into his old fiancée Helen, who is now a widow with three sons.  They renew their friendship, and on one of Laurel’s weekend visits they stay at Helen’s house.  Stella is jealous of the way Laurel raves about Helen, and when Stephen asks for a divorce she refuses to grant it.  Instead, she decides that she and Laurel ought to be able to live in the same style that Stephen does, so they begin traveling to all kinds of fancy resorts and hotels.  Laurel becomes a very beautiful and graceful young woman, successfully achieving all of the things her mother wanted for her.  During one of their vacations she meets Richard Grosvenor III, and falls in love with him.  Stella has been ill and confined to her room during this particular trip, but decides that she must meet Richard’s mother.  She gets dressed up and puts makeup on, then goes wandering (rather loudly) through the hotel looking for her daughter.  Laurel’s friends see her, and (unaware that she is Laurel’s mother), openly mock her lurid outfit, thick makeup and brash attitude.  When Laurel overhears this, she insists to her mother that they head home.  However, on the train ride that night Stella overhears some girls talking, and figures things out.  When they do get home, Stella visits Helen and asks if she and Stephen would marry if Stella granted the divorce.  When Helen replies in the affirmative, Stella begins, in a roundabout manner, to ask if Laurel would be able to live with them, as her social prospects (and the chances of marrying Richard) would improve if people believed Helen was her mother.  Helen realizes what Stella is asking, and agrees.  Laurel cannot believe that her mother has sent her to live with her father, until she realizes that it is Stella’s attempt to save her daughter’s reputation.  However, Laurel refuses to give her mother up, and returns home.  Stella counters by making it appear as though she sent Laurel away so that she could marry Ed Munn and move to South America (neither of which are true; she stays in town).  A heartbroken Laurel returns to her father.  She eventually marries Richard, but during the wedding Helen insists that the front curtains be left open.  As the ceremony is conducted, Stella watches from outside.

P.S.  Did you notice that the actor that plays Stephen has the same name as that soldier from Archangel?

MY TAKE:  Well that sucked.  First of all, I resented Stella for marrying a nice guy like Stephen solely so that she could move up in the world.  Secondly, as someone who is very close to their own mother, I hated what happened at the end of the movie.  I didn’t like that Laurel didn’t stand up for her mother when her friends were mocking Stella, and I couldn’t believe that she fell for that bit about marrying Ed Munn and moving to South America.  I guess I can sort of understand Stella’s motivation for doing this, but it’s kind of flaky to put so much stock in your daughter’s social position.  I think that if Richard really loved her, he wouldn’t be deterred by her mother.  Surprisingly, since she was kind of the “other woman”, I did like Helen.  She caught on pretty fast to what Stella was talking about with Laurel, and even though she tried to talk her out of it she agreed to help.  Then, during the wedding, she demands that the front curtains be left open.  This seems like a lapse in judgment, as it allowed all kinds of people to gawk in through the windows, but she obviously knew that one important gawker would be there.  Sure enough, Stella was watching, and left with a triumphant smile.  I’m glad she’s happy, but I can’t understand it.  It was just a sucky story.  What really intrigued me was the physical progression of Stella.  It was pretty obvious by the end, but for a while I couldn’t tell if she was gaining weight or if it was just my imagination.  Then I remembered watching Double Indemnity, and thinking that Barbara Stanwyck was impossibly thin, and realized that it must have been intentional:  as Stella focuses more on her daughter than herself, she starts to put on the weight.  Like I said, by the end it’s pretty obvious that she’s a lot heavier than she was when she married Stephen.  I’m pretty sure it was a fat suit, because her face doesn’t get that heavy, and frankly, I can’t imagine Stanwyck putting on that much weight.  This question kept me entertained during a horrible (in an unhappy way, not an incompetent way) story, though.

RATING:  Unhappy.


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