Sunday, April 19, 2015

Barbara Gives Up Everything

Barbara Stanwyck desperately wanted to play Stella Dallas (1937), despite the fact it that it would be the hardest part she had played up til that point.  In Victoria Wilson's epic biography of Stanwyck, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, the author goes into some detail on Stanwyck's remarkable performance as Stella Martin Dallas and Stanwyck's efforts to get the job.  Stella is a working class girl, who lives in the small factory town of Millhampton, Massachusetts.  She is attracted to the new man in town, Stephen Dallas (John Boles), the son of a wealthy family.  His money lost, his father dead, Stephen has escaped to Millhampton, to take a job and try to put his life back together.  In doing so, he has abandoned his fiancĂ©e, Helen (Barbara O'Neil).  Stella and Stephen date, eventually marrying.  At first, she says she is eager to become like him, but after a year of trying to live his life, she wants more fun, with the people she understands.  However, the Dallases now have a little girl, Laurel (who will grow up to be Anne Shirley), and though Stella and Stephen bicker constantly, they agree on one thing - Laurel is the center of their world.

It's interesting that the studio originally wanted Ruth Chatterton for the part, and it is not unlikely casting - she had done a similar role in Frisco Jenny.  But Stanwyck IS Stella Dallas.  She takes a woman who could become unappealing and ridiculous and creates a character with appeal and sympathy.  Her Stella is a lonely woman, stuck between two worlds, unable to find her place in either of them. Her only pleasure is her child, for whom she will devote her life, and for whom she wants the best things in life - the life that ultimately only Laurel's father can give her.
Also excellent is Anne Shirley as Laurel.  Shirley gives us a portrait of a girl who dearly loves her mother, and while she doesn't have her mother's same way of dressing, she sees nothing odd about this woman who is a fashion nightmare.  It isn't until she hears others ridiculing her mother that she realizes how outlandish her mother appears.  Laurel's desire to whisk her mother away from these people is a mix of embarrassment and the desire to protect Stella from hurt.  Even when Laurel believes that her mother doesn't want her around, there is still a deep love on the child's part.  In her heart, she knows that Stella will never reject her.  Interestingly, the studio originally wanted Bonita Granville for the role, but she was deemed too young for the older Stella. 

Another impressive performance is that of Barbara O'Neil; her character is so idealized - the perfect society woman, perfect spouse, perfect mother - that it would be easy to just make her a caricature, but O'Neil carefully makes Helen genuine and sympathetic.  The scene between her and Stanwyck is magnificent, each accomplishing communication with their eyes and body that hearkens back to the silent era, but still retains the subtlety of the conversation.  It's a truly heartbreaking scene.
We can't forget the men - especially John Boles, who is also not afraid of making Stephen a bit unattractive.  Though Stephen tells Stella not to change, ultimately, that is what he is trying to force her to do.  And while we may not agree with Stella's wardrobe or attitudes, she is correct in her comment to him that SHE is the one who always has to change, not him.  And though this is not a pre-code film, there is the slightest implication that he is living with Helen while still married to Stella. 

Alan Hale as Ed Munn creates a character that is a companion to Stella, but clearly not a romantic interest.  Where Stella is over-the-top in her garb and attitudes, Ed is crude, foolish, and finally, a drunk (Stella, interestingly, never drinks).  We can't really like Ed - Hale doesn't let us, and with good reason - we need to understand why Stella will never be with him.  This TCM article comments briefly on Hale's outstanding performance.
Costumes for this film were by Omar Kiam, and he does a good job of defining the characters of Stella and Laurel through their dress.  I also wanted to bring to your attention this excellent salute of Stanwyck by Laura Dern, in which she comments that this is "one of the great performances of all time".  Be aware (if you've not seen the film before) that you WILL see the conclusion in this clip.  If you've seen the film, it will provide a reminder of how stunning Stanwyck is as Stella's story concludes. 

We will leave you with this clip of Stella and Stephen in happier times.  Next time, more Stanwyck! 

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