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.”
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.”
“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?”
(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 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.
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.