falderal : a moving images blog
Stella Dallas ; 1937  ·  Posted by Tallulah

Director: King Vidor
Actors: Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley, Barbara O’Neil
Country: U.S.A.

Film adaptations of Olive Higgins Prouty’s novels seem to have a way of making me into an emotional wreck. Now, Voyager gets me every time and has me clutching onto napkins and wringing them while watching the film but Stella Dallas made me emotional to the extent that I could not even watch the film straight through. I don’t know what I would have done if I watched it in a theatre because the emotions that I felt were much too great to handle. I am a sucker for melodramas and usually cry through most of them but there was something about Stella Dallas that was almost painful for me to watch and it reminded me of an essay I had to read for class about female spectatorship in regards to melodramas. If I remember correctly, it was about the masochistic relationship that women have and how they enjoy seeing other women in pain (disclaimer: I could be remembering this all wrong), and the reason I thought this was because I continued watching the film when at times I almost became physically ill from watching this film. Even though I paused the film at times to catch my breath, I kept on watching it until the end. Why did I do this? The answer could be as simple as “Because I wanted to know the ending.” but somehow I don’t think it’s quite that.

While watching it, I wondered why I had such a violent reaction while watching this film to the extent that I had to get away from it at times and why I started feeling sick and couldn’t breathe properly. After thinking a bit after watching this film, I think that my fear (of sorts) with maternal melodramas stem from Mildred Pierce. While Mildred Pierce is a film that I like a lot, sometimes I have a hard time watching it due to how hateful Veda is and another melodrama that I have a hard time watching is Imitation of Life because of how Peola acts towards her mother. In both these films, the daughter character has traits that can be seen as despicable (why they act this way can be analyzed and be a wholeeeee ‘nother entry) yet in Stella Dallas, the daughter: Laurel, is not a character to be hated. She is a likable character and quite noble as can be seen in the scene when she finds out that her friends are making fun of her mother. Even though in the beginning she was embarrassed by her mother, she realizes that she loves her mother very much and does not want to leave her mother’s side, even for the chance of being seen as an upper-class, respectable young woman. I was so terrified that Laurel would hate her mother and had to pause the film and take a break for a few minutes before watching the scene when Laurel finds out that it is her mother that her friends are ridiculing. To be honest, I didn’t even really watch it and closed my eyes and ears and looked sporadically to see what happened but I couldn’t take the scene in fully. I didn’t want to because Veda from Mildred Pierce haunted me and I was frightened that Laurel would turn out to be just like Veda.
This was why the ending was particularly hard to watch and why I cried through the whole end sequence. There was no blame to be put on a specific character as to why the ending happened the way it did and the excess emotions that I felt weren’t filtered into how I felt towards various characters. Instead, all I felt was pity and frustration throughout the whole film and there was no cathartic moment or an outlet for these emotions. In Mildred Pierce, I felt anger towards Veda and pity towards Mildred but in Stella Dallas, there wasn’t any division or displacement of my emotions and my feelings just kept on rolling into a ball. Maybe after a few months, I should do a “Stella Dallas Revisited” sort of blog entry and analyze WHY I felt as if there wasn’t an outlet for emotion, at least for me.
While some people may view Stella’s actions to be annoying and that Stella was “asking for it”, she did the ultimate sacrifice by giving up her daughter so that her daughter could have a life that is different from her own. What perturbed me though was Stella’s smile as she watches her daughter get married and then walks away. Sure she is happy that her daughter was able to marry the man she loved but why is it necessary for Stella to be out of the picture? It was obvious that Laurel loved her mother very much and that Laurel would have found a way to have her man and keep her mother close to her. What was the force that drove Laurel and Stella apart? Is it because social image is so important that a mother has to give up her daughter in order for the daughter to be happy? Is image that important that Laurel’s father and stepmother would support Stella’s decision even though they are aware of Stella’s ulterior motives? Would Laurel truly be happy without her mother? I think that there is a very bittersweet undertone to the wedding scene because Laurel still remembers her mother and I don’t think that Laurel will ever forget her even as years pass by despite how they ended their communication with each other. Both characters are trapped within circumstances that they couldn’t fully control as can be seen with both Laurel and Stella being behind bars and I strongly believe that neither character will truly be happy by the trappings that society made for them and the trappings that they themselves made for themselves by accepting the pressures of society.

Finally, I just wanted to say how surprised I was by this film in regards to King Vidor. While I do associate King Vidor with Show People, somehow I expected this film to use the film medium more effectively than the traditional classic Hollywood style. I know of King Vidor’s potential and his interest in cinematography and somehow I expected something a little more from Stella Dallas. Although I DO admit that this film did remind me of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany because of the film didn’t look glamourous like Now, Voyager, but at the same time, many Hollywood films had this look of even lighting. Also, Stella Dallas didn’t really call for glamour like Now, Voyager did. I guess what did most of the legwork in this film for its emotional intensity was Barbara Stanwyck, but I’m not surprised by that. She is an amazing actress, no doubt about it!

IMDb Link: Stella Dallas
Where to buy: Amazon.com

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