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Working-class Stella Martin marries high-end Stephen Dallas and soon they have a daughter named Laurel. But Stephen's incessant demands of Stella to become what she isn't leads to their eventual separation. Stephen later marries Helen Morrison (his prior fiancée), and Laurel becomes the focus of Stella's life and love. Nothing is too good for Laurel as far as Stella is concerned. Determined to give her all the advantages, she takes Laurel on a trip to an expensive resort where Laurel makes friends with rich kids. After an embarrassing incident, Stella realizes that her daughter would go farther in life without Stella as her mother. Her subsequent sacrifice is shattering. Written by
Stella Dallas is probably one of the most complex roles in a soap opera for any female actress to play. She's loud, brassy, and vulgar. She also knows that she desperately wants some kind of class. Her problem is that she thinks she can marry it and her problems are solved.
For Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Martin that was only the beginning when she married Stephen Dallas played by John Boles. They come from different worlds, Stanwyck and Boles, and even with the birth of a daughter it doesn't bring them together.
Samuel Goldwyn had great success with the silent version of Stella Dallas, it was his biggest moneymaker as a silent film. Goldwyn waited until he found the right actress for Stella before doing it again.
Though he wanted Ruth Chatterton to play Stella, he was more than pleased with Barbara Stanwyck's Oscar nominated performance. Stanwyck hits Stella on every level just right, especially when she realizes after overhearing some women on a train talking about how vulgar she is and realizing what harm she was doing to her now grown up daughter played by Anne Shirley. Stanwyck makes the ultimate sacrifice for a mother and tears at the audience's hearts.
Two other performances I liked in Stella Dallas. One was Barbara O'Neil as Mrs. Morrison the widow who became John Boles's second wife. Her scene with Stanwyck as Stanwyck tells her to take Shirley off her hands is a classic. Barbara O'Neil was gracious and charming, and exhibits a discerning heart. This would have been her career role had she not also played Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone With the Wind.
The other performance is from that scene stealer Alan Hale as the good time salesman who Stanwyck takes up with. He's as vulgar as she is, but he also is not a bad person, just not anyone's ideal husband. Still they're as suited for each other as Boles and Stanwyck were not.
I guess the moral of the Stella Dallas story is that romance is not like water, it does not seek its own level. Maybe it should however.
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