I’m surprised how often this is compared to the 1945 Joan Crawford melodrama, Mildred Pierce, because they’re strikingly different. Sure, they both feature determined mothers yearning to please their daughters, but Stella Dallas is rooted in reality unlike the latter (not to say that I don’t love Mildred Pierce, but it’s sudsy). While I wasn’t fully believing the overall trajectory of the narrative, another attempt to give Barbara Stanwyck freedom only to give her an eleventh-hour taming, Stanwyck overpowered me with her tenacity and adoration for her daughter. It provides melodramatic catharsis which frustrates the viewer but makes for a strong tear-jerker.
Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) comes from a working-class family but dreams of marrying successful businessman Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Her dreams come true, and the couple have a daughter named Laurel (Anne Shirley), but things change once Stella declares Laurel should have the best of everything.
The comparisons to Mildred Pierce aren’t unfounded, but I found Stella Dallas to be just as entertaining as the former film in an entirely different way. Mildred Pierce is pure noir condemning working mothers and the daughters who resent them. Stella Dallas is pure soapy melodrama with the message that money can’t buy happiness; Laurel is also infinitely more likeable than Veda. Stanwyck is earthy and determined, but she’s unbelievable as a “well-bred and refined” woman, leaving the audience to realize right away this role doesn’t look good on her and won’t last. Stanwyck takes the character of Stella and creates a woman given a taste of wealth, and believing that she has to keep validating herself to justify it. There’s nothing malicious or scheming with the characters, and she’s not a gold digger which I appreciated. She simply wants to better herself, and the only way to do that is through a man. She uses opportunity and doesn’t wait for Stephen to come to her. Stephen is also an opportunist, marrying Stella to get over a bad breakup, and in this way the couple are perfect for each other; however, they’re both lying from the go. Stephen believes he loves Stella the way she is, but once they enter society he nudges her to “adapt” and be refined.
Before the story switches to being a tale of mothers and daughters, Stella Dallas is about a woman’s place and identity after marriage. Stella is good enough for Stephen to marry, but once she’s around his type of people she’s no longer on the same level. Once Laurel is born Stella doesn’t understand why she can’t go out and have a good time now and then; she seeks activity, not laying down. These are common issues women were facing all through the 1930s and into the 1950s, and while Stella Dallas drops the plot once Stella discovers her maternal instincts, it must have been a conversation starter in 1937.
The switch to Stella and Laurel is where the movie turns into schmaltz, albeit good schmaltz. Stanwyck may not evoke images of a refined lady, but she excels at playing a mother (interesting considering her real-life relationship with her son). The scenes where Stanwyck plays with the baby are enough to make me want to be a mother like her. You can see a connection between mother and child, and while Stella’s transition from wild party girl to mother feels abrupt, Stanwyck’s personality is believable. I respected the script’s desire not to contain the characters into boxes labeled “good” and “evil,” which happens a lot in Mildred Pierce. Neither Stella nor Stephen are terrible characters. They may have gotten divorced but they still care enough about each other to want the best for Laurel. Since Stella is the main character we watch her make poor decisions, but they stem from her background. She doesn’t believe in education and wants Stephen to buy Laurel a fur coat instead of books. To Stella, Laurel’s interest in culture is a result of being amongst the wealthy, and her greatest fear is that Laurel will come to the realization that her mother isn’t good enough (becoming a Veda). While Laurel never blames her mother for anything, it is society that sees Stella’s ridiculous love of wealth, taking it out on Laurel in a scene where no one comes to the girl’s birthday.
Similarly, Laurel is a decent young girl who believes in what’s really important: family. Where Veda sought material wealth and was willing to eat anyone who got in her way, Laurel seeks domesticity; a normal house with a garden and rooms for everyone. I have to wonder if Laurel is a response to the hedonistic views women were adopting in the 1930s. “Be careful ladies, you’re going to ruin your children if you aspire to wealth. All they really want is a home and someone to love them.” It eventually leads Stella to want to do what’s best and leave Laurel to wealth. I found the ending to be highly disingenuous, effectively stating that if you’re too embarrassing or can’t fit into the right society, than remove yourself from it entirely. Stella is neither the flower or the goddess that Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil) is, and she shouldn’t try to be. The ending leaves nothing for Stella except sadness and loss. She loses her daughter for what? Out of a misguided belief that the child is happier? I don’t understand the “I need to make them hate me so they’ll leave and be happy” endings and it leaves a sour taste.
Regardless of the ending, Stella Dallas is a strong soaper with a stunning performance from Barbara Stanwyck. There’s no outright cruelty from the characters, they’re real and not really ridiculous.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.