Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stella Dallas (1937)

Director: King Vidor

Very few things in the world are more powerful than the love a mother has for her child. Samuel Goldwyn’s 1937 feature film Stella Dallas is an adaption of a story that captures the pain and drama that encapsulates that very notion of a mother that sacrifices everything for her daughter. It is an emotional tale that led to both lead and supporting actresses who played the mother and her daughter to receive nominations for Academy Awards. The film would reach to the cores of many audience members both parents and children as the story dives deep into the complicated love between a mother and and her dear child.

Stella Dallas is a drama about a woman who sacrifices her own happiness for the sake of her daughter.
Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) was an unrefined woman who marries an executive, Stephen Dallas (John Boles), and although she wishes to polish and better herself socially she is still tempted by the more crude, fun-first ways on living. After giving birth to their daughter, Laurel, Stella discovers a heavy natural maternal instinct, but her attraction to the vulgar Ed Munn (Alan Hale) leads to Stella and Stephan separating. As Laurel grows up (portrayed by Anne Shirley) Stella attempts to supply her daughter with the finer things in life, but her unrefined ways makes Stella stand out to the point of embarrassment for Laurel. Wanting a better life of Laurel, Stella puts up a careless, selfish fa├žade that forces Laurel decide to continue on without her mother in her life. This heartbreaking move by Stella sadly separates her from her daughter, but leaves her joyful as Laurel is able to lead a more enriched life. Our last image is of Stella with a tearful smile watching her daughter on her wedding day through the window as she knows Laurel’s future is brighter by sacrificing herself.

Stella is left watching her daughter's wedding through a window.
The film is an emotional tale about a mother and her daughter and the painful losses that come from the unconditional love of a mother for her child. Most children remember a time where their mother was the cause of embarrassment and can relate to Laurel, but the most emotional moments are the mothers who care so much that they sacrifice so much of themselves for the sake of a better life their children. Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shiley’s performance become Academy Award worthy because of a tale that reminds audiences of the pain of real life, making Stella Dallas a moving feature.

Directed by one of Hollywood’s longest working filmmakers in King Vidor, who transcends the silent era into the talking picture age so seamlessly because of his understand that it is the story that is the most vital to any motion picture. The film is so simple, yet so raw with its characters and storyline. The picture depicts the world surrounding Stella in many different ways, first as a humble mill worker’s daughter dreaming of a better life, to an uncompromising wife, then shifts gears to Stella as a very loving mother juggling her own joys in life, to seeing Stella from the point of view of her daughter as an embarrassment. It’s the unrestricted love between a mother and daughter that tugs on the heart strings of the feature as the characters and plot are grounded in real emotions within a realistic world in the place of the grandiose spectacular Hollywood films usually manifested in their storytelling.

At the time of Stella Dallas Barbara Stanwyck was one of the busiest and more versatile actresses in Hollywood. This one time showgirl and member of the Ziegfeld Follies was known for playing deeper roles and taking chances with her performances. Here Stanwyck plays a woman out of place, attempting to fit in with the members of higher society, but falls short as her own style clashes greatly with people that are more polished than her. Her portrayal of a loving mother is dead on as her depiction of Stella is most sympathetic as she dreams and provides for her child to the very end when she decides what is best for Laurel is to not have her mother holding her down. It is a truly heart wrenching performance and some of the finest acting by Stanwyck as she received her first nomination for Best Actress as the film’s title character.

Shirley plays Stanwyck's happy daughter as a youthful child.
Playing Stella’s daughter Laurel is Anne Shirley who also heard her name nominated at the Academy Awards, but for Best Supporting Actress. Born Dawn Paris, Anne Shirley was her second stage name she took for herself after appearing as the title character in Anne of Green Gables. Shirley’s performance at many times is very over the top, almost as if she was playing a fairytale princess with the enthusiastic happiness she expresses, especially when depicting the 13 year-old version of Laurel and an older teenager falling in love with the boy who would be her future husband. This would play a stark contrast to the devastation as Laurel becomes embarrassed by her visually and socially awkward mother. This contrast builds to the moments when Stella intentionally makes herself unbearable as a mother to Laurel, breaking the young lady’s heart as she is essentially losing her loving mother in the process. It is in these precious scenes that Shirley will be recognized and honored as an actress.

Despite his name being named so prominently, John Boles is rather forgettable in the film as his performance could have been performed by a score of other actors in Hollywood with just as good results.  Bole’s fatherly gentleman demeanor allows him to be a solid actor; just not a memorable one is such roles.

Alan Hale as Ed Munn
As a contrast to boles there is Alan Hale who plays Ed Munn, the loud, boisterous, and crude man that represents the world that pulls Stella away from being the refined woman she originally sets out to when marrying Stephan. His performance starts out as being merely a loud, fun loving gentleman, but evolves into a drunkard as Stella realizes just how sad this kind of life is for her daughter. A strong character actor, Hale provides the push this story needs at the right times for Stella Dallas.

Stella Dallas was a well-received picture for its day, honoring its too actresses with Academy Award nominations. The film was actually the second screen adaption to the novel of the same name, the first released in 1925 also by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett. The story was so well liked that it spawned a radio drama that aired daily for eighteen years and is often credited as the first soap opera. The story would continue to touch audiences for years as a third film adaptation would emerge in 1990 starring Bette Midler, simply entitled Stella.

This picture makes for one of those movies that make audiences reflect about their own lives and ponder about one’s own mother or children and the sacrifices and pain that comes with love and parenthood. Stella Dallas is a gem of a motion picture, transcending time as a story that can touch many who view it.

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