Seen through a modern aperture ‘Stella Dallas’ (1937) can appear a crass, classist, snobby, elitist melodrama with a message that money without class is useless, that social standing is vitally important and that the only way to have a happy life is to be part of a rich, middle-class family who play tennis. Stella Dallas doesn’t get to live this life. That’s because Stella Dallas is, as they might say, “all fur coat and no knickers”. But let’s not judge Stella too quickly because she might also be Joan of Arc, and even if this is a melodrama it contains a hidden brutality that could sideswipe us.
Young Stella Martin has grown up in poverty; she the daughter of a mill worker in a factory town. One day she catches, or more accurately “grabs”, the eye of mill owner, Stephen Dallas, and it’s not long before they are married and with a beautiful daughter called Laurel.
Stephen wishes to teach Stella refinement. She has plenty of money now and all that is missing is a touch of class to maintain appearances in these rarified circles. But Stella is too free-spirited and she’s not demanding her husband change for her so why should a wife do so for him?
The two eventually become estranged. Stephen finds a new love in the form of a socialite while Stella brings up Laurel in somewhat chaotic, but fun, surroundings. This works, for a while, but as Laurel grows older the social schism between her parents becomes an issue, especially when Stella rocks up at the swanky (Stella seems attracted to the word “swanky”, especially in the magazines she pores over) resort where Laurel and Richard Grosvenor III are hanging out.
Something has to give. The only question is — what?
So yeah, it’s all potentially patronising, melodramatic schmaltz writ large. Except it isn’t, quite, and the key to this is (in my opinion) contained at the very start in one single, silent glance which sums up (contains?) the entire movie.
It’s during the scene when Stella’s family are having breakfast as they wait for her to return home from a night on the town, but notice Stella’s mother and how worn down she seems, how exhausted she looks… and we’re only fifteen minutes into the film. See how her clothes hanging limply off her ragged body. Listen to her voice (when she actually gets to say anything) and how thin it sounds. Her back is stooped as though she is carrying the weight of the entire movie on her back. Then notice the glance she shoots her daughter when Stella excitedly talks of a better life. This woman seems to have been through some process of total, all consuming destruction. I think it might be called “parenthood”, and she’s trying to give her deluded daughter a wordless warning.
So I think the emotional wallop of ‘Stella Dallas’ is about this — the sacrifice all parents make for their children. Think this doesn’t apply to you? Think again because you and your family might (hopefully) have never been through what Stella goes through but if you ever had a mum who made you breakfast before sending you off to school, or kissed a scraped knee better or gave you a hug so you could dash out to play again without ever expecting or demanding a word or look of thanks then she’s committed an act of love as selfless as Stella’s. And we took it all for granted, didn’t we? This makes the film potentially devastating.
‘Stella Dallas’ was produced by Samuel Goldwyn (who gives himself top billing either in an act of rampant egotism or rabid insecurity), directed by King Vidor (and he was no fool) and shot by Rudolph Maté, cinematographer for Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1927) so if anyone knew how to capture sacrifice and martyrdom in a woman’s face it was him.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Stella and this is, quite possibly, her greatest performance. It’s not readily apparent, though, and can only be properly viewed taken as a whole but, by the end, we realise we have witnessed a woman sacrifice her heart without demanding a single ounce of our pity, or displaying a shred of resentment at her lot or that any of this has been engaged in with a sliver of begrudgement. This feels like a highly accurate portrayal of parenthood, whether it’s true or not (I don’t have kids so am flying on pure speculation here, folks).
I wasn’t moved by ‘Stella Dallas’ as the end credits rolled but the following afternoon, as I sit here writing my thoughts and turning it over in my mind, the more the emotional impact resonates within. I could imagine audiences, especially if they were mothers and daughters, weeping like crazy at this on release, hugging afterwards and telling each other how much they love one another.
So yes, the film is about the aspiration of the American Dream, social mobility, the alluring pull of status and it is VERY dated in its attitudes but it’s also about something else: it’s called “unconditional love” which might be the only way to survive such an unfair world. It’s why the film moves us and it’s something we profoundly recognise if we’ve ever been a parent or a child.