Stella Dallas (1937)

“Such women don’t deserve to have children!”

Synopsis:
A working class woman (Barbara Stanwyck) marries an executive (John Boles) and has a child, but the couple find themselves drifting apart and soon live separate lives. As their daughter (Anne Shirley) grows older, she becomes more aware of her mother’s lack of social refinement — and when Stanwyck realizes it’s best for Shirley to live with Boles and his kind socialite girlfriend (Barbara O’Neil), she makes the ultimate maternal sacrifice.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “prototypical soap opera” — based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty — “was one of the first to advance the form’s most important tenet: whatever a woman’s faults, she will be a devoted, loving, sacrificing mother.” (If only this fantasy were remotely true…) He notes that Stanwyck’s Stella — “a smalltown girl who marries above her class” and “is well-meaning but restless for the wild life” — is “not upset about separating from Boles” (he points out “this is one of the screen’s first amiable divorces”); however, “she can’t bear not being with her teenage daughter… who gives meaning to her otherwise drab life.” Peary writes that “thematically this picture, is, of course, dated, but it’s still worth watching because of its classic status, the strong and sympathetic performances by Stanwyck and Shirley, and director King Vidor’s interesting portrait of smalltown America. Even considering the snobs who naively make fun of Stella, this film contains some of the nicest people…” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment. Stanwyck brings pathos and nuance to a challenging role: we’re willing to believe in her character’s story given that no easy answers are presented or accepted. It is indeed refreshing to see how nicely the major players (though certainly not all of society) treat one another other. Stanwyck and Shirley’s dilemma becomes simply an old-fashioned (albeit class-soaked) take on the recurring challenge of custodial privileges, which haven’t disappeared.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Stanwyck’s performance, and as a classic soaper.

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