Film Review: Stella Dallas

Sophia Sullivan FLM2009-630: The Art of Film M. Brown Melodrama Stella Dallas (1937) Dir. King Vidor. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley, Barbara O’Neil, Alan Hale. MGM (DVD) This film follows our protagonist, Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) through her journey of courtship, marriage to loss. Stella sneaks her way into meeting Stephen Dallas (John Boles) after finding out in a tabloid magazine article about his family fortune being loss and him ending his engagement to Helen (Barbara O’Neil) the socialite.

Stella’s complete devotion to her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) and her reluctance to change who she is, keeps her from moving to New York with her newly promoted husband Stephen (John Boles). Living separate lives, not completely confessing to the fact that the couple was what would currently be called “legally separated” due to probable censors. The film’s thematic of maternal sacrifice and the loneliness, devotion of the film cause this movie to become what is known in the film industry as a “Weepie”.

The Mise-en-scene of the film is predominantly domestic and focused on the excesses of interiors and Stella’s outlandish fashions. The film cannot be categorized as realistic, even though it seems naturalistic at times. The storytelling of Stella’s constant journey to better her life and that of Laurel’s, is purely stylized. Stella’s persona sticks out like a sore thumb against the socialite circles, dressing in the eccentric fashions she deems as stylish, speaking too loud, not fitting into the lady-like deportment her husband demanded.

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The theater was the ultimate form of escapism to the masses. The melodrama was a peephole of sorts into the gorgeous and painfully dramatic lives of the wealthy. Stella ends up making the definitive maternal sacrifice at the end of the film. She turns her daughter against her to guarantee her daughter the future she herself wanted one time, forsaking her own happiness. To give up a child so that child could be happy is a dreadfully painful sacrifice to any loving mother.

In the final scene of the film, Stella watching with the crowd outside the window of Stephen’s new home, as their daughter weds into a wealthy family. Laurel now is not associated with the brassy Stella and has been accepted into the social circle of the elite. She watches as Laurel weds, with tears rolling down her face, the rain soaking her. She then turns away and walks down the street triumphantly with a huge smile on her face. This feminine sacrifice completes her daughter’s road to happiness. The melodrama is known for its sudden shift in emotions.

One moment Stella is yelling at her daughter for finding the dress she was making her as a surprise and ten seconds later she is hugging her and telling her how much she loves her. In my opinion this genre juxtaposes moments of utter happiness and bliss with the abrupt change to hysterics and tears far too quickly to not require a psych consult. I know this film is a classic and a classic to the melodrama genre, but I just don’t get it. I guess it was the social norm at the time to look upon women with esteem for giving everything up to guarantee the happiness of child, marriage and home.

But then again she could have been happy enough with herself to not want to marry someone just to better herself. She would marry someone who loved her for who she was and where she came from. She could of raised her child with a strong sense of self that would have her become a role model and not an embarrassment. I speculate that was not the case when it came to creating a melodrama. Thank you King Vidor for creating the blueprint for all Lifetime Channel movies. Like sands through the hourglass…..

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