Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mothers Love in STELLA DALLAS (1937)

You want to see great character acting in classic films?  Consider this:  In 1937, Barbara Stanwyck aged about 20 years as the unselfish, devoted mother from the wrong side of the tracks.  Stella Dallas was the name of the movie and that sweet social misfit.
In 1941, Stanwyck played a sexy card shark con artist who falls in love with a wealthy bookworm.  This was in the great Preston Sturges screwball comedy, The Lady Eve.
She followed that as one of most cold-blooded film noir dames ever to plot murder by the supermarket canned beans.  She sizzles in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).
By the early 1930s, Barbara Stanwyck was a movie star and a very good actress.  Under the skillful, sharp, caring direction of King Vidor, I feel that her performance as Stella Dallas not only elevated the soap opera material, but elevated Stanwyck from good to one of the greats.  In decades to come, she'd be honored by the American Film Institute and receive an honorary Academy Award.  Stella Martin is the daughter of poor a New England mill hand.  She sets her sights on and marries Stephen Dallas, a man who is above her in education and social class.  A year after the marriage, she's the mother of little Laurel.  She will do everything in her will to give her daughter a better life than she had -- even if it means granting Stephen a divorce so he can marry someone else. No sacrifice is too big for Laurel.  What touches your heart the most is that her daughter is equally devoted and appreciates every single one of her mother's sacrifices.  The Goldwyn Studios had a hit with a silent film version of Stella Dallas in the 1920s.  Vidor finds another heart in the material.  He illuminates the maternal bond between the soon-to-be former Mrs. Dallas and the longtime society friend and widowed mother that Stephen wants to wed.  This section gives the movie its true beauty and lifts Stanwyck to the upper echelon of Hollywood actresses.  Besides the story of mother's love, this is also the story of barriers in America's class structure.  Especially for women.  Stella Dallas is perfect for what became the Barbara Stanwyck image -- the ambitious woman out to get something of her own in a man's world.  The woman who often has to pull a fast one over on the men in order to get it.   She puts up a tough front but we wait for the hidden vulnerability that spills out when she trips over her own manipulations.  The story opens in 1919.  A factory whistle blows.  Stella Martin is in the front yard of her bleak home.  One look at it tells you everything you need to know about Stella's life.  There's a screen door but only one raggedy triangle of the screen still lingers in it.  The rest is gone.  Stella's mother (played by Marjorie Main) looks like "Misery" should be her middle name.  She sets the table for four.  Stella, spruced up, stands behind the fence in her front yard pretending to read a high-tone book as millhands head home for the day.  She plans to catch the romantic attention of the upscale Stephen Dallas.  He's got an office job.
Stella has drive.  She has more ambition that her brother.  Her teases her about taking self-improvement classes.  Stella wants more from life than her mother got.
Stella doesn't smoke and she doesn't drink liquor.  She cooks and makes her own clothes.  The only problem is, she has no fashion sense whatsoever.  Her clothes are gawdy and she lacks social grace in her speech and carriage.  But you couldn't ask for a better, more loyal friend and faithful wife.  She knows her limitations.  She longs to be "well-bred and refined."  Somehow, Stella thinks that marrying upper class Stephen will automatically be the solution.  It's not.  He can enter her lower class social world and be special, be admired as a man of privilege and distinction.  She can't enter his upper class world as she is and feel special.  She's an outsider.  Stephen grows irritated with her reluctance to accept fashion pointers.  Stella argues, "I've always been known to have stacks of style."  She's a good woman but, honestly, she does look like she got dressed in the dark.  Her wardrobe can be an embarrassment.   And he's a company executive.  Stephen gets regular corporate work assignments in New York City.  That's where he'll run into his widowed friend, Helen.  Stella prefers to stay home with Laurel who has her father's class and charm and has her mother's innocent but unrefined friends.  Like Ed Munn.  He's a big boozer who loves pulling practical jokes and loves company.
In that friendship, we discover that Stella just doesn't have sexual feelings for any man other than Stephen and even those feelings are dwarfed by the love she has for Laurel.  Ed would marry Stella if he could.  As it is, he drops by to keep her company when Stephen's away.  They're innocent visits but Stephen is upset at this association.  So are other society types -- women who run Laurel's private school.  Young Laurel is excited about the birthday party her mother is throwing for her.  The table, set for ten people, is festively over-decorated with plates and party favors.  But none of her friends from school arrives.  Instead, calls come in with regrets at the last minute that guests will not be able to attend.  This is because society women involved with the school saw Stella with Ed Munn and assumed she was a little drunk.  They couldn't possibly allow their privileged children to be in a home with Stella Dallas.  One by one, a place setting is removed from the table.  King Vidor shows us a table, once decorated for ten, now looking rather plain and forlorn with place settings for four -- the same number of place settings Stella saw every day with her mother, father and brother in that bleak residence she called home.  With the cancellations, the table place settings and decorations have been pared down of excessive frills.  It's sad but it's exactly the way the clothing that Stella makes for herself and Laurel needs to be pared down of excessive frills, feathers, ruffles and bows.
Laurel's and Stella's dreams for that afternoon were unjustly dashed because of mental social barriers.  Stella Dallas' social roots will always be attached to her, like those chains on the ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.  Laurel enters a pristine, pretty world of privilege and taste when she visits her father.  She meets Helen, a warm and gracious woman with sons to match.  She also meets a boy and will fall in love.  Her father wants her to live with him when he gets married.  He's asked Stella for a divorce.
Laurel, remaining the devoted daughter, wants her mother to come visit so she can meet the sophisticated Helen and her sons.  And the boy Laurel likes.  Stella makes the trip....with a new wardrobe that would've gotten her shot on sight by the fashion police.
Laurel narrowly escapes being publicly humiliated by Stella when she happens to show up in the drugstore diner where Laurel is having a soda with her upper class sweetheart.  Her mother's outfit and etiquette have redefined "gauche."  Stella is unaware that she's a laughingstock.  Laurel is relieved by this until the train ride home.  Stella is in a lower berth.  Laurel in the upper.  Here's where Stanwyck starts her ascent to Hollywood legend.  In the scene, Laurel hears three society girls get on and start making fun of the woman with the loud clothing and accessories.  They're fond of the poised, charming Laurel and aghast at the news that the woman with no taste is Laurel's mother.  They snicker and one remarks that she can't believe Laurel has that "common looking creature for a mother."  Stella hears all this.  Laurel prays that she doesn't.  But she does.
She sits up.  In that moment, the medium shot on Stella's face as she realizes that her inability to become "well-bred and refined" may have ruined Laurel's chance to move up in society and be happy, is a moment that illuminates how gifted an actress Stanwyck was.  She needs no dialogue.  We know and feel the heartbreak of all her well-intentioned plans.  We feel Stella's disappointment with herself.  She can't win her class struggle.
Stella rallies for one more street smart trick.  If she grants Stephen a divorce, he'll marry Helen.  She'll be the new Mrs. Dallas.  If Laurel moves in, people will think Helen is the lovely, elegant mother of Laurel Dallas.  To make sure all of this could happen,  Stella pays Helen as visit.  This scene has a new heart not seen in the silent version.  Helen Morrison is a woman who considers her privilege and position to be good luck.  She is kind with her advantages.  In her mind and in her manner towards Stella, there are no social barriers.  They are equals.  In fact, it seems as though she would have been a better partner for Stella than Stephen was.  Helen and Stella are bonded in maternal love for Laurel.  Here, the movie could be called Stella Dallas or Laurel Has Two Mommies.
Barbara O'Neil plays Helen beautifully in this scene.  Helen sees through to the love and self-sacrifice in Stella's visit.  She sees what Stephen doesn't.  This leads up to the most famous part of the movie -- Stanwyck's final scene.  When I was a kid and this film aired on local TV when my mother was off from work, she'd always smile and mention "that walk" Barbara Stanwyck took at the end.  "That walk" was mentioned when the actress was honored by the AFI (American Film Institute) in a 1987 special CBS telecast. Laurel marries.  Stella was victorious in her scheme to force her devoted daughter to move in with her father.  At the wedding, both mothers are present.  Helen is inside with Stephen.  Stella is outside in the rain looking through a window at the ceremony.
As he did in the night time train scene, King Vidor lets the camera rest on Stanwyck's face so we can see all the emotions wash over it.  The business with the fence is rhymed visually from the movie's opening scene.  Stella stands, as she did at the beginning, behind a fence and looking at upscale Stephen on the other side of it.  Once again, there's that barrier between her and Stephen.  But there is the bond between the two women -- the mothers of Laurel Dallas.  Helen will make sure Stella sees what she needs to see.  The men in Stella Dallas' life -- Stephen and Ed Munn -- disappoint her.  It's the second Mrs. Dallas who sees the extraordinary quality in that ordinary woman.
There's a reason why Stanwyck's tearjerker last scene became famous.  You just have to see "that walk" for yourself.  This performance deservedly brought her the first of four Best Actress Oscar nominations.  She never won a competitive Academy Award.  Her honorary one came in 1982.  Barbara O'Neil, the new Mrs. Dallas, was just two years away from her most famous role.  She was Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone With The Wind (1939) and Reverend Mother, one of the war-time hospital superiors to Audrey Hepburn's convent character in The Nun's Story (1959).  Radiant work by Anne Shirley as Laurel put her in the Best Supporting Actress category.  Like Stanwyck, she hoists the material above its soap opera level by bringing a Uta Hagen Respect For Acting-esque realism to the role.  Notice her reaction to Stella smoking.  It's as if she caught her mother partially clad with a drunken sailor.  She complements the working class modernism of Stanwyck's performance.  They're wonderful together.  Starchy John Boles played Stephen, the Harvard grad and son of a wealthy father who wasn't left a penny after his father's sudden death.  (Ronald Colman did the role in the 1925 version.)  Alan Hale, one of the best and busiest character actors of the 1930s and '40s, does solid work in the difficult role of Ed Munn.  It's difficult because, if the actor went a fraction of an inch too far in his avuncular teasing of teen Laurel, it would've seemed like a creepy sexual overture instead of just good-natured, clueless joshing.  Hale's son, a big bear like his papa, also became a skilled character actor in films.  TV made him a star as "The Skipper" on the sitcom, Gilligan's Island.  Director King Vidor had sympathy and regard for working class and low income folks.  That shows in his The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah! (1929), Street Scene (1931) and The Champ (1931).  Social barriers, ambitions, the strength of a mother's love and the power of female bonding -- add to all that a superb performance by 29 year old Barbara Stanwyck and you've got King Vidor's Stella Dallas.

Barbara Stanwyck:  "The task was to convince audiences that Stella's instincts were fine and noble even though, on the surface, she was loud, flamboyant and a bit vulgar."

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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