Drama

Stella Dallas’ Big Decision

Stella Dallas: Advocate of Ruffles and More Ruffles. Image: Canadian Living

Stella Dallas (1937) is a drama determined to make you teary-eyed. If the first sad scene doesn’t do the job, just wait a few minutes.

This film has one of the most memorable endings from the classic Hollywood era. But we’re not going to spoil the ending because you need to see it for yourself.

The film, briefly, is about a mother’s self-sacrificing love. Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is a homespun, generous woman who has a close relationship with her daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley). As for Laurel, she’s a tenderhearted girl who values her mother’s happiness more than anything.

We are given a clue about the nature of this relationship early in the film. After a fight with her upwardly-mobile, disapproving husband (John Boles), Stella forcibly takes their baby daughter out of his arms. With this simple act, Stella establishes her priorities.

“Mommy’s right here,” she says to the baby. “You’re here with Mommy, and nobody in the whole world is ever going to take you away. Nobody.”

Stella Dallas vacations with the swells. Image: Tinseltown Royalty

We can’t help but adore Stella. She doesn’t fit into Society and seems more estranged from it with each passing year. This is symbolized in her unusual wardrobe choices: For Stella, the more ruffles, the better – and let’s pile on the bracelets! (See above photo.)

Unsurprisingly, Polite Society disapproves of Stella.

In one scene, Stella and her daughter, Laurel, are aboard a night train after a truncated resort vacation. As she climbs into her berth, Laurel overhears a conversation about her mother:

“Do you remember that funny-looking woman, parading around the grounds this afternoon?”

“She can’t be described. I’ll tell you she was quite a number. Dresses up to here, and paint an inch thick, and and bells on her shoes that tinkled all the time.”

“Not bells!”

“And bracelets up to here that clanged. You never saw such a sight. Anyway, do you know who she was? Laurel Dallas’ mother.”

(Gasps all around.)

“Isn’t it weird? To have such a common-looking creature for a mother?”

“Poor thing.”

(Note: We’ve not heard Stella speak this disparagingly of another person, nor has she raised her daughter to do so.)

Alas! Stella also overhears this conversation. Tears fill her eyes as the camera moves in for the kill. Even though Laurel climbs down into her mother’s berth and reassuringly kisses her cheek, we know Everything Has Changed.

Stella concedes defeat to her rival (Barbara O’Neil). Image: NoNaMe

Stella has been separated from her husband for most of their married life. Although Society disdains Stella’s uncultured behaviour and wardrobe, it doesn’t seem to have a problem with her husband consorting with another woman (Barbara O’Neil) in New York City. The Other Woman dresses and acts with sophistication, and everyone knows that makes her a Better Person.

She also has influential friends and the means to give Laurel everything Stella can’t provide.

The scene on the train is Stella’s rebuke; she concludes she’s a liability to her daughter. Even though she promised she would never leave Laurel, Stella reaches an agonizing Decision. She visits the Other Woman and drops this bomb: She will divorce her husband in exchange for Laurel coming to live with them.

So not only will the Other Woman have her husband, she will also have her daughter.

Stella’s voice trembles as she outlines her plan. “Your name bein’ Mrs Dallas, everyone would naturally think she was your little girl. Then when you went places, you see, well, you’re the kind of a mother any girl would be proud of.”

The scene tears us in two, as it’s designed to do. On one hand, we want Laurel to have all the advantages of New York Society. On the other hand, we want to scream at Stella, “Don’t do this!”

Then we reach for more tissue.

Stella Dallas is based on the 1923 novel by feminist writer Olive Higgins Prouty, and was adapted as a film in 1925 and again in 1937. It’s been referred to as the “ultimate women’s picture”, which is fine praise indeed.

We hope you’ll spend some time with Stella Dallas, if you haven’t already seen it. Just be sure to have the tissue ready.

Notes:

Stella Dallas: starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. Written by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1937, B&W, 106 mins.

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33 thoughts on “Stella Dallas’ Big Decision

  1. Excellent choice for the blogathon! As I mentioned on the post at Cary Grant Won’t Eat You I often find myself wondering what happens to the characters in this film after the credits roll. What becomes of Stella—what does the future hold for her? Is there any chance she will ever reconcile with her daughter?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I LOVE Double Indemnity and Ball of Fire! Barbara Stanwyck is terrific in both – and they’re such opposite movies.

      If we ever meet in real life, we’ll set aside an evening to watch these two movies as a double header. I’ll bring the popcorn.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great writeup, Ruth! I agree with you about Stella Dallas — not just a great tearjerker but a great movie. I keep meaning to track down the novel.

    There was another remake in 1990, called just Stella and starring Bette Midler. I haven’t seen it, so have no idea if it’s a goodie or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the Bette Midler remake tip. I was unaware of this film but, according to the image on IMDB, it looks like Siskel & Ebert gave it a “Thumbs Up!”.

      I was thinking of looking for the novel, too. I bet it’s fascinating.

      Like

      1. I was surprised to find the novel’s not on Project Gutenberg, although a couple of her others are there . . . including Now, Voyager, which I’d forgotten was hers (pretty dumb of me, because a printed copy of that book is actually sitting in my READ IMMINENTLY pile). I assume the novel Stella Dallas is in the public domain, like those other two; maybe it ain’t.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I assumed it was in the public domain, too, because a lot of online folks talk about this book. But I can’t find it.

        I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Now, Voyager…another book I’ve been meaning to read.

        Like

  3. When I first saw this, I remember realizing the direction this story was gonna go and I was like, oh hell no. I felt a little miffed at being so manipulated emotionally, but Stany sells this role so damn well that you just have to give in to it in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I get teary just thinking of that ending! My sister and I have a theory. We really think Laurel is a rather remarkable young lady and at some point we think she will figure out what her mother did for her and go find her. At least, that’s what we like to imagine. Laurel really is a sweet young lady…Stella raised her beautifully!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That ending! I love, LOVE how Stanwyck handles it. She is perfect.

      As for the possibility of a Laurel and Stella reunion, I believe in it. I bet, after Laurel has a baby, she sits bolt upright in bed one night, with a “Hey! Wait a minute!”, then tracks down her mother.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Bahaha! You’ve got that right, Marsha. John Boles is handsome, and he really is superb in this film, isn’t he? I tend to overlook his performance because Barbara Stanwyck is so riveting.

      Like

  5. Loved this review, especially your quotes! STELLA DALLAS is such a well-crafted film that it’s easy to forget how hard it is to make movies like this. For example, contrast this original with the later STELLA and there’s no comparison!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m curious to see the later version of “Stella”, although I know it can’t compare to this one. I like what you said about movies like this not being made anymore. They certainly aren’t… 😦

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    1. I haven’t read Stella Dallas, the novel, but it sounds like your review captures the spirit of what I’ve read about the book. They say Olive Higgins Prouty was addressing mother shaming and how unfair it is. Thanks for sharing the link! 🙂

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  6. Great piece! I’ve only seen this movie once, and while I enjoyed it, I think it’ll be a long, long time before I see it again. It’s just SO MUCH. The torture that Stella goes through is heartbreaking and the way she gives up Laurel…nope, can’t do it, I can already feel the tears coming on!

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  7. Love this analysis. Hadn’t even thought about how swiftly and decisively she expresses those priorities–and as only Stanwyck could express it. I liked Bette Midler in the 80s version, which I actually saw first. Goodman as her friend Ed was also perfect. I liked the movie less, but their performances are worth seeing. Thanks for the link to my blog too!!:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to see the later version “Stella”, if only for the fab Bette Midler and John Goodman.

      As for your post on Stella’s husband, I thought it was fabulous. I think it’s my favourite on your site.

      Like

  8. I love Stanwyck’s work here so much–she totally commits to the role. I believe this movie outshines all the sacrificing mother movies that came before or after it.

    Thanks so much for joining in the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. Stanwyck is 100% committed to being Stella Dallas and all that goes with it – the clothes, the middle-aged heaviness, the absence of makeup, etc. Not every actress would do that, hey?

      Thanks for hosting this blogathon! I found some fab new films to watch. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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