Review of Stella Dallas

Stella Dallas (1937)
15 August 2003
Profoundly frustrating, but, without a doubt, emotionally stirring. It's about a low class woman, Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck), who marries a rich man. They have a daughter, Laurel, but then the marital relationship deteriorates. The husband (John Boles, always looking shocked) moves to New York, where he gets involved with a woman he knew before he met Stella. She married and has children, but her husband has died. Stella has little interest in men, though she does have one very good male friend, Ed Munn (Alan Hale, the real life father of the Skipper from Gilligan's Island), who does love her, but both are content as friends. Stella's only real interest is the happiness of her daughter (played by Anne Shirley as a teenager), and the main conflict of the film is her class as compared to her husband's. She, of course, wants her daughter to be a proper young lady, but she herself is really not. Stella's idea of high class is the upper class' idea of trashy. While this conflict is very interesting, the resolution of it is maddening. Really, how would a poor audience during the Great Depression see this film? It was certainly very popular. But the message is that, if you're not bourgeois, it's best that you give up your child. It's better for the child that way. This is the kind of sentiment that might start a revolution in some parts of the world! That cruel final scene made me want to pull out a guillotine.

Yet there are so many beautiful pieces of the film. King Vidor was one of the very best Hollywood directors, and it shows here as well as it does in The Crowd. There's a poetic moment where Laurel Dallas has a tender moment with her boyfriend after they've been for a bikeride. It's filmed without dialogue. And the relationship between mother and daughter is wonderful. Anne Shirley has many of the film's best scenes in terms of acting. She's very sensitive as an actress, and there is a scene where she has to comfort her mother, when we might expect Laurel to be angry at her.

Barbara Stanwyck is good in the role, but she did better. The character has many inconsistencies, which is the script's problem. Stella seems like a naïve, young girl when we first meet her, but her manners and class seem to fade steadily as the story moves on. It's far too exaggerated at some points, and that, I suppose, is Stanwyck's fault. Or Vidor's, perhaps, as well. Among the other actors, Alan Hale is fun. He also gets more and more pathetic as the film advances, but, disappointingly, at a point we are no longer asked to care for him. He was such an interesting person, and I don't like how he's dismissed. John Boles is painful to watch. 7/10.
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