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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
Young reviewers seem to get so much wrong about 'Stella Dallas' in that they deprecate what they mistake to be its "classism" and snobbery - which in 1937 were, of course, powerful extant social realities and motivators for Depression audiences. It would be helpful if youngsters would see Stella and her husband as characters separated by what's known nowadays as "irreconcilable differences," and therein lies the basis for the eternal theme of Stella's sacrifice: this is tragedy incomparably played because, as Barbara Stanwyck shows us, tragedy is intrinsic in, and flows from, a protagonist's immutable flaws. Of course one allows for youngsters misapprehensions of 'Stella Dallas' because the young have always lived in an increasingly socially-levelled America in which, since World War II as Tom Wolfe acutely noted, "every man" is "an aristocrat" regardless of how outlandish or extreme his dress or behavior, or how low or high his occupation, is.
It's also true that many of this film's naysayers mistake Stella's chameleon-like adaptations in various milieux to be evidence of poor scriptwriting, or of "unevenness" in the concept and performance of the title role. Nothing could be more mistaken for, as is each of us, Stella is a complex character whose handling of changing situations adapts to each of those situations, while her personality remains true to itself and cannot be altered (her "personality" is acknowledged by Stella herself with that very word in the soda fountain scene). Yes, Stella wed in a bid to gain wealth and class. Yes, Stella went dancing and was attracted to an unsavory crowd on the night she brought her newborn daughter home. But when she returned home the look, communicated with gorgeous subtlety, on Stanwyck's face tells that Stella's outlook - but not her personality - is in that moment transformed by motherhood. To rebut claims that Stella ought to have simply dressed-down or, as postmodern jargon has it, "gone with flow, "misses the point of tragedy being inherent in a protagonist whose flaws are the stuff of her undoing, I point out that Stella's care for her daughter is one aspect of her complex character - of woman as mother, and that her prole tastes - of woman as a person - are another such aspect: Stella can't be, or behave as, neither one, nor the other, but only as both, as a whole, person who is, like each of us, a tangle of contradictions in which she's snared for...life. It doesn't matter that the 1937 frame of reference here is "classist," because in every age there are standards by which people live; nowadays, for example, 'Stella Dallas' could be remade with Stella as a Gretchen Wilson redneck woman who weds a left-liberal snob into whose world she doesn't fit, or perhaps as a Lesbian-in-denial who marries because she hopes the incidents of marriage might keep her from losing her family's approval.
Stanwyck's performance here is nonpareil - how she missed an Oscar for this work strikes me dumb. Most reviewers praise Stanwyck for Stella's obvious heart-tugging scenes - the Pullman sleeper and the wedding climax; but I think Stanwyck also showed her chops in scenes in which she had to vamp it up in tacky clothes and excessive makeup - not an easy feat to carry off, to show that Stella is multidimensional, that she's devoted to mothering at the same time as she cannot be anyone but the lowbrow woman she was and is and will always be.
King Vidor's direction is masterful and the black & white photography, and the art direction, costuming and every other contribution of the studio system's artists working at their collaborative zenith, embody the perfectionism of film-making in 1937. The supporting cast is uniformly good, but the young Miss Shirley as Laurel and the dependable Alan Hale as Ed Munn stand out from among the others just as much as they needed to and not a jot more. Indeed this is another of those "they don't make 'em like this anymore" films to be enjoyed and treasured.
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