The women’s melodrama, often known as the “weepie,” labors to evoke a powerful emotional response from its target audience through its depictions of the most heartrending facets of women’s experience, and King Vidor’s Oscar-nominated “Stella Dallas” (1937) excels at this object. With Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, the film depicts the consequences of an unequal marriage and the devotion of a flawed mother to her beloved child. Strong performances and complex characters make “Stella Dallas” a prime example of its genre; this is a real three-hankie picture, with an ending that’s guaranteed to get the waterworks going.
Stanwyck leads as Stella Martin, a working class girl with dreams of a high class lifestyle. She reels in well-heeled Stephen Dallas (John Boles) for her husband, but the differences between the two soon lead them to live separate lives. Still married for the sake of their daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley), Stella and John grow farther and farther apart, especially because Stella’s own lack of class and her friendship with the rowdy Ed (Alan Hale) lead her into embarrassing and socially damaging situations. Eventually, Stella realizes that Laurel’s future depends on Stella’s ability to make a wrenching maternal sacrifice.
Stella Dallas is the kind of part that Bette Davis loved to play, but this is an unusual choice for Stanwyck, who generally preferred cool characters and dangerous femmes fatales. Still, Stanwyck brings plenty of fierce energy and a willingness to be ugly to her performance; she doesn’t try to sugarcoat Stella’s crass, blue collar sensibilities, and she can be truly appalling at times. In other moments she gives Stella the power to break the viewer’s heart; it’s a mark of Stanwyck’s talent that she can move us to pity this woman just moments after we have judged and rejected her. The New York scenes and the final wedding scene are especially memorable moments, demonstrating the actress’ ability to embody this multi-faceted character. She tempts us, dares us even, to laugh at Stella for being low, and then she pulls the rug out from under us to show that class and fashion sense have nothing at all to do with a person’s ability to love and commit courageous acts of incredible selflessness.
The other players fill in the background and provide a rich subtext to the picture. Marjorie Main makes an especially provocative choice as Stella’s mother because her own stock character, that of the brassy but devoted mother figure, is so like Stella herself. Alan Hale’s presence underscores the thematic connections between this picture and “Of Human Bondage” (1934), in which Bette Davis plays a Cockney woman in a similarly unequal relationship. Hale plays a disruptive, unlikeable intruder in both pictures, although “Stella Dallas” twists the course of the other film’s plot by making maternity a turning point in the heroine’s life. Anne Shirley makes a moving and inherently graceful Laurel; she and Stanwyck both earned Oscar nominations for their performances. Barbara O’Neil makes an excellent foil to Stanwyck as Stephen’s old flame, Helen; a compassionate and complex character herself, she is the only person in the entire film who really understands Stella, and they have a particularly moving scene together toward the end of the picture. John Boles might be the only weak spot in the cast; it’s hard to understand what the two women see in his Stephen Dallas, but this isn’t his story, and he doesn’t have much screen time in which to build our interest.
For more women’s melodramas, try “Dark Victory” (1939), “Kitty Foyle” (1940), and “A Woman’s Face” (1941). You’ll find more weepie tributes to maternity in “The Old Maid” (1939) and “Mildred Pierce” (1945). For different takes on Stanwyck, see “Baby Face” (1933), “The Lady Eve” (1941), and “Double Indemnity” (1944). There are also two other film versions of “Stella Dallas” if you want to make comparisons between them. The original novel by Olive Higgins Prouty was adapted into a film first in 1925 and then in 1990 with Bette Midler in the title role.