Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) is the most well known and celebrated of the genre known as the ‘maternal melodrama.’ Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove.
Maternal melodramas are a subgenre of films referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ – films that catered to a vast and powerful female audience; once considered crucial to box office success. They traffic in sentimentality, laughter and tears. These are uncontrollable emotions that are routinely debased as overly feminine, as are ‘chick flicks,’ another female-centered genre that is reviled and callously disregarded, disrespecting female viewers, women’s struggles, and female heroes.
In 1937, audiences were not only familiar with the popular novel of the same name written by poet and novelist Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923; they also knew the 1924 stage play and the silent film version of 1925, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion and directed by Henry King. Stella Dallas was so popular with women that it was even adapted into a radio serial that ran from 1937 to 1955, one of the first and most successful soap operas.
Exploiting both the popularity and familiarity of Stella Dallas, Vidor’s 1937 film freely abridges the novel to better foreground the best-remembered sentimental scenes of the novel in order to satisfy the female audience, who brought high expectations and even higher demands to the film. Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley delivered the goods in their nuanced performances; Stanwyck won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Shirley won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Laurel, Stella’s daughter.
Stella is the daughter of a poor beaten down mother, played by Marjorie Main, who effectively projects the profoundly despairing mothers of the lower classes. Stella is a determined young woman; while lacking education, privilege, and class status, she is too smart and calculating to be a beaten down victim. She sets her sights on a very wealthy mill owner, Stephen Dallas (John Boles) whom she marries.
Stephen is nothing more than a cardboard cutout and a hefty checkbook. Stella is pregnant, so she marries not out of romantic love, but out of necessity. Stella Dallas directly sides with the lower classes, normalizing Stella’s calculated act by endorsing her choice as practical. Notably, as one of the most famous “women’s pictures,” Stella Dallas firmly rejects fantasies of romantic love. Marriage is the primary mode of upward mobility for women in the 1930s, but Stella has little time for romance.
Stella is, however, deeply in love with her daughter, Laurel. She showers Laurel with all the things she has never had for herself. Stella finds great joy in selflessness, but only when it comes to her daughter. She lovingly sews dresses for Laurel, despite the fact that she can afford to purchase them. Stella and Laurel often sleep in the same bed, so close is their bond. Because they are not in love, Stella and her husband live apart. Young Laurel lives with Stella, but increasingly spends more and more time at her father’s house among the wealthy and privileged and Stephen Dallas’s wealthy romantic partner, Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil) an upper-class figure portrayed as kind and helpful.
As Laurel grows up, both Laurel and her mother are subject to cruel remarks, intended to “put them in their place.” There are several painful scenes in which wealthy people publicly disdain Stella, who dresses in outlandish clothing inappropriate for a woman married to money. Stella has not been taught to class-pass in restrained “tasteful” clothing; thus she is the subject of cruel barbs made about her clothing, speech and behavior. Stella laughs loudly, she drinks beer, she is slightly overweight, and she even has a low-class buddy, Ed Munn (Alan Hale Sr.) for whom she has no romantic feelings.
Laurel is at first oblivious to anxiety around her mother’s class status. Mother and daughter share passionate and unconditional love, a love more significant than any romance. Eventually, however, Laurel can no longer ignore the way people regard her mother. The film is at times convoluted, but so is life as the daughter of a “mixed marriage,” marked by an unfixed class status. Stella and Helen agree that it is in the best interest of Laurel to join the upper class. Stella recognizes that Laurel will never go willingly, unless she herself makes a decisive break with her daughter. Stella thus stages a scene for Laurel, acting like a low down floozy who doesn’t love her daughter, but loves Ed instead.
Laurel, though initially hurt, moves on and eventually marries up. On the night of Laurel’s wedding, Helen intentionally leaves open the curtains so that Stella can watch her daughter marry from outside of the house. Barbara Stanwyck magnificently portrays Stella’s supreme moment of triumph. Don’t mistake her tears as tears of sadness; Stella cries tears of joy. Stella is not a beaten down figure. She is a hero who has accomplished her purpose, whose plans have turned out just as she planned. Her story reflects the struggle of countless unsung heroic women.
In dismissing genre films made for women, critics not only erase the female spectator; they erase women and female heroes, real and fictional. Maternal melodramas, by contrast, recognize and reward the victories of women at the bottom of society. Women like Stella Dallas tend to be poor and destitute, prostitutes, unwed and pregnant, and non-conformist in terms of romance. In short, they subvert society with their disruptive acts of maternal heroism. It is very important to note, however, that Stella Dallas figures always win, at least in the world of the maternal melodrama.
Stella Dallas (1937 United States 106 min)
Prod Co: The Samuel Goldwyn Company Prod: Samuel Goldwyn Dir: King Vidor Scr: Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, from the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty Phot: Rudolph Maté Ed: Sherman Todd Prod Des: Richard Day Mus: Alfred Newman
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley, Barbara O’Neil, Alan Hale Sr., Marjorie Main, George Walcott, Ann Shoemaker, Tim Holt.