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Stella Dallas

Posted by martinteller on April 4, 2015

Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) wants nothing more than to transcend her lower-class, small-town roots.  She sets her sights on Stephen Dallas, a wealthy, urbane executive at the local mill.  She wins him over and tries to fit in with high society.  But when their daughter Laurel is born, her efforts focus instead on providing the finest for her little girl.  Stephen has separated and taken up a position in New York, putting him in contact with his old flame, the widowed Helen (Barbara O’Neil).  As a teenage Laurel (Anne Shirley) is drawn to the sophistication of Stephen and Helen’s world, Stella tries desperately to measure up as a mother.

A comparison I would make is imagine King Vidor’s later masterpiece Beyond the Forest with Stanwyck as a much more sympathetic version of the Bette Davis character… combined with Mildred Pierce with Shirley as a much more sympathetic version of the Ann Blyth character.  In other words, it’s about a social climbing woman and the daughter she tries to provide for, but without any of the cynical nastiness (except in the way the stuffy upper crust perceives Stella).  It’s interesting to note how often “social climbing women” appear in Vidor’s films… they’re also at the center of Ruby Gentry and, in a way, Duel in the Sun.

In some cases, these women are villainous.  Not necessarily because of their ambitions, but because of the way they go about achieving them.  Stella is no villain… by the end, she’s practically given sainthood.  The movie is almost ludicrously melodramatic, but that does make the tearjerker moments — which come fast and furious in the final half hour — more effective.  You just want to love and root for this character, despite her mistakes.  Of course, so much of this is due to Stanwyck’s performance.  Everyone in it is fine (even Alan Hale, doing a whole lot of drunk acting) but Babs is very much the shining star here.  She does a lot with a tricky character, and at times does great work with just her eyes.

Kind of cheap and manipulative (and there are a couple of sloppy edits), but in a truly enjoyable way.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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