Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Barbara Stanwyck Is Stellar in Stella Dallas

Throughout her storied career Barbara Stanwyck played every female character produced by Hollywood: ingénue, seductress, bad girl, gangster moll, heroine, entertainer, con woman, socialite, etc. While she carried every role off like a true professional, it was the working class girl who wanted to make good role that she most excelled at.  This most probably had to do with her meager, but colorful, upbringing. Orphaned at the age of four, she spent time in foster homes, but was primarily raised by her showgirl sister, Mildred. It was on the vaudeville circuit with Mildred that Stanwyck learned what it took to get ahead in life: strength, determination, and ambition. These, of course, are the same characteristics that many of Stanwyck’s working class roles required—especially Stella Dallas.

stanstellaConsidered one of the best female character roles of all time, Stella Dallas earned Stanwyck the first of her four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. The daughter of a mill worker, Stella schemes to marry her father’s boss, Stephen (John Boles).  Although they are from two very different backgrounds—he is reserved and refined, while she is loud and crass—they find themselves married and raising a daughter. As Stella finds herself bored with Stephen’s ways, she begins to revert to her tacky ways.  Eventually Stephen leaves her, but leaves their daughter Lollie (Anne Shirley) with Stella because he knows that she is a good mother. As time passes, Stephen finds a much more suitable (and wealthy) woman (Barbara O’Neil) to marry, but Stella doesn’t want to give him a divorce because she’s afraid she’ll lose Lollie. In the end, when she realizes that she cannot give Lollie the life she wants her to have, she makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Of all her roles, and there were many to choose from, this was Stanwyck’s favorite. What’s interesting about this is that Samuel Goldwyn didn’t want to give her the part. He thought she lacked the necessary sex appeal for Stella and wanted Ruth Chatterton for the role. All I can say is: Really? Thankfully director King Vidor and hunky Zeppo Marx (her agent—yes, really) finally convinced Goldwyn that Stanwyck was the right woman for the role.

Based on the Olive Higgins Prouty’s Stella_Dallas_1937_01popular novel of the same name, Stella Dallas is considered one of the greatest tearjerkers ever produced. It is a melodramatic film, but it isn’t schmaltzy. This, of course, has to do with Stanwyck’s multifaceted performance. At times, she plays her character as a conniving shrew and you just want to slap some sense of decency into her. Then, she plays Stella as a loving and devoted mother and you just want to wrap your arms around her and give her a hug.  I suppose the scene where she convinces Lollie that she wants to get rid of her so she can run off to South America with her salesman boyfriend is my favorite because Stanwyck plays it with such raw emotion.  Knowing that the only way she can get Lollie to stanleave her is to convince her that she doesn’t want or need her, Stella is almost ruthless in the act she puts on for Lollie. Not every actress could pull this off, but Stanwyck does a wonderful job of having the audience both hate and admire her at the same time in this scene. It is difficult to watch this, but at least the final scene in the film heals some of the hurt that the audience has endured by Stella’s sacrifice.

This is a film ruled by women---the men are totally forgettable.  Besides Stanwyck’s great performance, the audience is treated to two standout offerings by Shirley and O’Neil. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Shirley does a nice job of playing a young woman who loves her mother but is conflicted by her desire to live a more respectable life.  This may have been Stella Dallasthe finest performance of her career (I do like her in Murder, My Sweet though), but sometimes it is difficult for me to suspend my belief that Stanwyck was old enough to play her mother (they were only eleven years apart in age). That said, she does give a touching performance. An interesting aside about the Stanwyck/Shirley connection is that Shirley played Stanwyck’s younger self in So Big (1932). In addition to Stanwyck and Shirley, O’Neil also does a fine turn as Stella’s polar opposite. I enjoyed watching her scene with Stanwyck.  It was one of those only another mother could understand moments that pull at your heartstrings.

In the end, Stella Dallas is a film you don’t want to watch without a box of tissues.  It is a prime piece of evidence that Stanwyck was one of the greatest actresses to grace the silver screen.


  1. Excellent choice for an article on strong women in movies, Kim. Stalla Dallas makes me cry whenever I see it. Stanwyck is an incredible actress, and you are quite right, she pulls it off without making it schmaltzy. I just love poor Stella. I also agree completely that Ruth Chatterton would have been wrong for this role. Thank heaven King Vidor and Zeppo knew their stuff.

    Olive Higgins Prouty gave us another strong woman character in her other book, Now Voyager. I understand that she was very interested in psychology when it was still a young genre of medicine. Thank you Olive! And thank you, Kim, for a very good article!

    P.S. I love your play on words for the title!

  2. Kim, this is wonderful review of a Stanwyck classic. I think films like STELLA DALLAS are incredibly difficult to make, because--like you and Becky said--they can come across as schmaltzy. Even a spunky personality like Bette Midler couldn't pull it off in the sudsy remake STELLA. But Stanwyck makes it look easy. I agree that the women dominate the film. In fact, one of my few problems with this pic is that any guy--no matter how incompatible--could walk out on Stanwyck character. By the way, I always found it interesting that Anne Shirley played the character Anne (with an "e") Shirley in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and the sequel ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS.

  3. Superb write-up of a great film, Kim. Barbara Stanwyck was a tremendous actress. As you mention at the beginning of your post, she was a versatile performer and could apparently play any character. I cannot imagine STELLA DALLAS with anyone else in the lead. And I completely agree about the ending: while sad, I've always considered it a happy one, a confirmation that Stella was an incredibly strong woman.

  4. Kim, I have not seen the film, Stalla Dallas. Although, its sounds from reading your wonderful review, that it is a really good film, with a great actress, who manages to pull off any roll she plays. I will add the film, Stalla Dallas, to my "gotta see" list of films.

  5. Bravo, Kim, for a touching tribute to "Stella Dallas" and the heartfelt performance given by Barbara Stanwyck! You included the photo that always gets to me, the one of Stella outside the wrought iron fence, clinging to its cold bars, as she watches her daughter for whom she has made the ultimate sacrifice. Pass the tissues, please!

  6. Becky, thanks for the compliments...i thought the title was kind of cute, too. Now, Voyager is an excellent film...I didn't know that was a Prouty novel.

    Rick, the Bette remake was awful. And, you're right, who in their right mind would walk out on Stanwyck...did Robert Taylor leave her?

    To everybody else: great to read your comments.

  7. Yes of course.The movie was really very nice .Story & screenplay was at its best.Thanks for post.

  8. A great post about a great movie!
    To Ricky29: Before she played Anne Shirley the character, the actress was known as Dawn Adams. She took the name Anne Shirley when she made "Anne of Green Gables". They used to do that with child actresses in the 30's - the actress would take the first name of the character or the whole name. Of course, if the actress was a big success, they went with it.
    I actually like John Boles, despite his somewhat wooden acting. His stodginess works quite well in this film. And Barbara O'Neill is such a nice lady in this film! She's famous for two completely opposite characters - Scarlett O'hara's mother and the psycho Duchess de Praslin in "All This and Heaven Too." If she hasn't been featured as un underrated actress on this blog, I hope she will someday.

  9. YAAAY! I love this movie, the ending is sooooo memorable! Barbara Stanwyck was simply one of the best :) Great review!