There are women's pictures and there are women's pictures, but Stella Dallas has to be the mother of them all. Remade several times and loaded down with tear-jerking sentiments "only women" are supposed to be able to appreciate, the ironclad plot has as much to say about class division in America than An American Tragedy. At least it would have, if its entire argument wasn't a stacked deck from the word Go.
Samuel Goldwyn knew there was gold in this fossil and Barbara Stanwyck finds every nugget through the efficient direction of King Vidor. The result is both enduring and as dated as Hell, and is capable of starting heated discussions about human relations, both mother-daughter and upperclass-working class.
Stella Martin is trouble. She finds herself a vulnerable gentleman, puts on a sweet act, and maneuvers him into a marriage in record time. She's serious and sincere but incapable of changing her basic nature, which isn't oriented in the direction of gentility. At first the situation just seems unfair - her nurses and husband don't want her dancing so soon after having a baby - but Stella can't help but ruffle feathers. She laughs like a dance hall girl and comes off as completely vulgar in comparison to her husband's reserved, conservative associates.
Stella Dallas really knows how to lay class distinction on thick - it buys into the proposition that affluent people know how to behave and those below simply do not. Stella's dance partner Ed Munn is a fat loudmouth who smokes cigars and leaves hard liquor around the children, and Stella does nothing about it. The story doesn't really explain why Stella isn't willing to follow her husband to New York - it's clear that she isn't Ed Munn's lover - and gives no evidence why she would want to be separated from Stephen. But the separation moves them farther apart, especially when the rigged plot arranges for Stella and Ed to be found in some faux-compromising situation every time husband Stephen comes home.
Stephen becomes re-acquainted with his original sweetheart Helen, who is now a widow with three boys, gentlemen all. In the world view of Stella Dallas, a prosperous upbringing means impeccable manners and gentility, and these adolescents are next to ridiculous, acting as if brainwashed by some etiquette cult.
But Stella's daughter Laurel is a patrician gem herself, sweet and adorable and possessed of better manners than Jackie Kennedy. The film doesn't say so, but we're to assume that its because her father's blue blood is dominant; as soon as she's a teenager Laurel realizes that her mom is a frumpy embarrassment, wearing loud and obnoxious clothing. We're meant to think that he rich kids who ridicule Stella aren't snobby jerks, but merely honest. That type of woman has no place in proper society.
As for Stephen and Helen, they're living together but supposedly remaining chaste; we never hear an angry word toward Stella for blocking a divorce that would let them remarry. Stephen and Helen (and eventually Stella) are so selflessly noble that they almost cease to resemble recognizable human beings.
Stella becomes a good egg once she knows the score, even though everyone wrongly believes her to be a tramp and a horrible mother. Although she's really done nothing wrong, she sacrifices her life with her daughter and her personal future. She grants Stephen his divorce and sees her daughter married to a good boy (played by a young Tim Holt) without the liability of a unpresentable mother putting the curse on her high-toned lifestyle. She accomplishes this by driving Laurel away, pretending she doesn't love her or need her around. This behavior is of course contrary to 99.99999% of human mothers, but what's one more absurdity in a story like this one?(spoiler)
The famous kicker ending has Stella, dressed in frowsy rags, watch her daughter be married from the street, through a window. She's been invited to the ceremony but doesn't dare show up, as Helen is now Laurel's mother in the society columns. The moment is pure corn and trumped-up flimflammery, but it's worked with female viewers for a century now.
Anne Shirley is the young, pure-as-driven-snow Laurel, and John Boles (Frankenstein) is fairly good as her father; notice in his first scene how dismissively he treats the factory clerk (Olin Howland of The Blob) while glad-handing his boss. Hattie McDaniel and her sister Etta play the maids that give a family the mark of distinction, while Ann Doran and Laraine Day are said to be two of the princesses in the society tennis set. A feeble-looking Marjorie Main plays Stella's mother. Barbara O'Neil, as Stephen's second Mrs. Dallas has a pivotal role - she intuits when Stella is faking being uncaring, and understands Stella's sacrifice for her daughter's sake. However, her only return gesture to her husband's first wife is to have the curtains open so that Stella can watch the wedding with the rest of the riffraff on the street. There are limits, you know.
MGM's DVD of Stella Dallas looks fine. I've seen the end of this one several times and it always looked pretty beat up, but the picture here is clean and sharp right down to the opening card titles that could belong to a silent movie. There are no extras, not even a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stella Dallas rates: