Friday, April 22, 2011

Stella Dallas

Stella!!!If you've been watching TCM lately, you've probably seen the nice little piece on Barbara Stanwyck narrated by Jennifer Jason Leigh. I think last week it was being run because Ball of Fire was last week's TCM Essential; this week it's being run for the 1937 movie Stella Dallas, which is finally airing tonight at 10:00 PM, in which Stanwyck plays the title role.

We see young Stella at the start of the movie before she's Mrs. Dallas, as the younger daughter in a family in one of those old New England mill towns, who dreams of moving up in the world. She gets her chance when she brings her brother's lunch to the mill and meets one of the supervisors, Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who had a bit of a past in which an inheritance was lost. They're incompatible, of course, but it's love at first sight, so they fall madly in love and get married. Stephen is more reserved, as he feels befits his station in life, while Stella wants to live, and thinks she has the chance when she meets horse trainer Ed Munn (Alan Hale) at the country club. Stephen knows Ed is all wrong for Stella, and eventually it leads to their divorce.

But not before Stephen and Stella have a daughter Laurel together (who grows up to be a young woman played by Anne Shirley). The two separate, but Stella keeps custody of Laurel. Laurel spends time with Stepehen and his rich set, which comes to include a widow (Barbara O'Neil) with three sons. Dad thinks daughter Laurel would be better off living with him and the widow, especially because Laurel seems to like all of the eldest son's friends. However, Laurel is also devoted to her mother, and doesn't want to devastate Mom by leaving her for Dad. Mom goes to visit Laurel and the smart set, realizes she can never fit it, and makes the decision to give up custody of Laurel, although Laurel doesn't understand why....

Jennifer Jason Leigh's piece says something to the effect that this is melodramatic, soapy material, and that in the wrong hands (ie. not Stanwyck's) it could fail by going over the top in its maudlin nature. Leigh implies, of course, that Stanwyck keeps it from doing so. I'm not quite sure I agree with Leigh, but that might be because I'm a man. Stella Dallas is certainly a "women's picture", although I don't think it's quite as much so as some of the movies of Bette Davis (Dark Victory comes to mind) or Joan Crawford (tonight's TCM lineup stars off with Crawford's tedious Daisy Kenyon at 8:00 PM). It's certainly worth watching, even if like me you begin to find some of the scenes unintentionally comic.

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