Sunday, May 13, 2007

Screened: "Stella Dallas" (1937)

The reputation of the film Stella Dallas as a paragon of motherlove suffers, mainly because such a label both reduces and disguises what the film is really about.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPoor Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a millhand and a drudge (an all-too-brief appearance by Marjorie Main), is an ambitious girl. Entranced by a story of lost love in the weekend photo supplements, she sets out to woo and wed its swain, Stephen Dallas, played by the handsome John Boles.

That she succeeds is a foregone conclusion. That she then transforms herself into a scheming social climber would be easily explained away if the birth of her daughter Laurel (later played as a teenager by Anne Shirley) didn't turn her overnight into the kind of woman whose own thwarted ambitions are sublimated onto her daughter. Stella doesn't seem to know who or what she is, which may also be part of the problem, although it is unaddressed in the film.

Much of this is the fault of the author, Olive Higgins Prouty, whose feminism is unfortunately nearly always smothered in the kind of melodrama that would suffocate a Victorian. Prouty was later to tout psychotherapy in another potboiler made into a tear-jerker (Now, Voyager), but it seems Stella Dallas could use a session or two on the couch as well.

After marrying and becoming Mrs. Stephen Dallas, then having her daughter, Stella can't seem to catch a break. She wants the swell life but doesn't like the swell people who come with it, and they decidedly don't like her. She talks of wanting to be refined, but makes no effort to do so, mainly because the man who loves her tells her not to change. Stella's friendship with Ed Munn (a blowhard played with great verve by Alan Hale) seems to play an equal part in her downfall, inasmuch as Munn seems to have a habit of putting Stella in awkward situations which Stella, for her part, can't or won't explain away.

When Stephen Dallas is shopping for Laurel's birthday present one day, long after he and Stella have separated, he meets his old flame (Helen Dane Morrison, played by Barbara O'Neil), which is bad enough. When it's shortly revealed that she's a widow this rapidly becomes as heart-breaking a scene as any in the film. Gradually, of course, Laurel is won over, and soon Stella is given the onerous task of driving her own beloved daughter away for her own good.

True, there is much in here about a mother's love and sacrifice, but the film's subliminal message seems to rail against social climbing and dating outside of one's class. Since Stella is referred to consistently as an excellent seamstress, it would seem that a truly feminist message would be that Stella should open a dress shop, and so gain her entree to so-called "polite society" in that way. Then again, despite her ability with a needle, much is made of the garish way Stella uses those talents.

If such a suggestion were made by Mrs. Prouty in the novel, it is not present in the film. In fact, I would be eager to read the book, if only because it might serve to flesh out the inner life of its heroine better than a film portrayal can hope to. Not that Stanwyck doesn't try, and in fact, this confusion over her identity may have been intentional.

I doubt anyone but Stanwyck could have played such emotions so naturally, but play them she does, and for all they're worth too. Several times she lets conflicting emotions loose across her face, and it's as much a testament to the clarity of DVD technology as it is to Stanwyck's abilities that we actually get to see them all.

In the film's famous final scene, a bedraggled Stella crowds her way to a window at the Dallas' townhouse, and there witnesses her daughter's marriage. Just to add insult to poor Stella's misery, it's pouring rain; then, for punctuation, she is given the bum's rush by a cop with a truncheon.

It's Mother's Day, so I'll go easier on the film than Mrs. Prouty was on the character. Love and sacrifice are excellent qualities in anyone, including a mother; martyrdom and the subsumation of a woman's identity for her children... Not so much. While there is much to be admired in this production (it's an excellent movie) it serves a modern audience best as a curio, rather than a model.
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