A Mother’s Sacrifice in Stella Dallas (’37)

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Children rarely understand the sacrifices their parents make for them. Nor should they. The difficult decisions and problems that parents often have to deal with aren’t ones that should be the concerns of a child. In my own life, my parents made sacrifices that I didn’t fully realize or understand until I became an adult. Both my mom and dad worked long hours to put me through school, pay for my extracurricular activities and provide me with opportunities that would’ve otherwise been unavailable without their support. Like most kids, I took all of this for granted until I was old enough to realize the extent of what they did for me. Now, that’s not to say that my parents didn’t teach me the value of money or time, but they tried to shield me from many of the struggles and decisions that adults are faced with. And now that I’m a parent, I finally appreciate how difficult it is to raise children, especially when you want to give your child everything they need and want, ensuring they have a fair chance at every opportunity in life. Parents not only want the best for their children, they also want to provide things a little better than they had.

This notion of a parent’s sacrifice for their children is perfectly demonstrated in Stella Dallas (1937), directed by King Vidor, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Barbara Stanwyck in the title role. Based on Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel, this three-hanky picture was the second adaptation of the story, with the first being a 1925 silent film starring Belle Bennett and Ronald Colman. Prouty’s novel was adapted for the screen a third time in 1990’s Stella, starring Bette Midler. But it’s Vidor’s 1937 film, “the Stanwyck version,” that is considered by most to be the definitive interpretation of the text.

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Raised in a poor, blue-collar home, Stella Martin (Stanwyck) is determined to have a better life. She falls for Stephen Dallas (John Boles), one of the managers at the mill where her father and brother work. After a brief courtship, Stephen and Stella marry, and the door opens for Stella to work her way up the social ladder. Stella has quite the social life and enjoys a lively, party atmosphere much more than Stephen. And while Stella is fascinated by the sophisticated upper class, she can’t shed her no-nonsense personality, slang-filled, thick Massachusetts accent and over-the-top sensibilities. But even if she could change, she doesn’t want to; she is fairly confident in herself and has no intention of ever being anyone but her true self. So, when Stephen is offered an impressive promotion in New York City, one which would require Stella to behave in a certain way in order to travel in the prestigious social circles surrounding her husband’s new job, Stella refuses. She insists on staying in their home and raise their one-year-old daughter, Laurel (played by Anne Shirley as she grows up).

Stella and Stephen become estranged, but they are amicable. They both adore their daughter Laurel, and really try to make the best decisions on her behalf. While Stephen is involved in Laurel’s life, Stella is effectively raising her as a single mom. Stella labors over beautifully handmade dresses for Laurel, who is a polite, eager and appreciative child. Stella has raised a beautiful daughter in Laurel, both inside and out, and Laurel quickly makes friends, many of whom come from upper class families. The difference in social class doesn’t appear to affect Laurel, until she overhears her friends making cruel comments about Stella’s garish make-up and over-accessorized, loud clothing. Stella soon realizes that her way of life and her uneducated, blue-collar upbringing, is standing in the way of Laurel’s future. She makes the difficult decision to sacrifice everything to guarantee her daughter’s happiness–and does so without Laurel’s knowledge. A selfless gift to a daughter from a mother whose love knows no limits.

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Stella Dallas is a beautiful film that still resonates today. Despite the crippling restrictions of the Production Code, along with the overbearing, obsessive behavior from studio head Samuel Goldwyn, director King Vidor made a powerful, heartbreaking story of a mother’s love and sacrifice. The film also gave Barbara Stanwyck the opportunity to really demonstrate her range as an actress, earning her first Academy Award nomination. More importantly, it proved her detractors wrong—including Samuel Goldwyn, who initially refused Vidor’s request to cast her as Stella. Goldwyn originally wanted Ruth Chatterton for the title role. And while Chatterton would’ve been a fine choice, it’s clear that Stanwyck was born to play Stella. Stanwyck has a way of conveying strength, courage, love and loss like no other actor can. And it’s her genuine, unique performance that makes Stella Dallas so special and emotional for audiences…especially for those of us who had better lives and opportunities because the sacrifices made by our parents.

Jill Blake

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2 Responses A Mother’s Sacrifice in Stella Dallas (’37)
Posted By Susan G : August 19, 2017 1:15 pm

Stanwyck is on of the greats. And I loved this movie.

Posted By mdr : August 19, 2017 5:24 pm

Terrific essay as always Jill, a great movie and performance by Stanwyck, one of my favorites of hers. It’s a wonder she didn’t win the Oscar, except for the fact that she faced brutally tough competition from Dunne, Garbo and Gaynor. My guess is they all knocked each other out, enabling Rainer to sneak through for a second consecutive year.

I really liked the supporting cast as well, especially the perfectly bombastic Alan Hale and sweet Anne Shirley. I don’t remember reading about all the backstory regarding Goldwyn in A. Scott Berg’s biography … anything more to share?

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