This post is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, where we set the consensus on its head by defending a maligned film, performer or director or toppling a beloved one!
Stella Dallas is still much beloved 78 years after it was made, and a favorite to many lovers of old films. The source material was a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote Now Voyager, a very different take on motherhood and one of my favorite movies. The 1937 version was its second film adaptation, following the 1925 version that starred Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett. It was directed by the great King Vidor, one of my favorite directors, with a pitiless eye for human contrariness, blindness, self-sabotage, exclusion, and devotion. It earned Barbara Stanwyck the first of four Oscar nominations, none of them resulting in a win. She clearly deserved that nomination for her exquisitely painful portrayal of the title character, by turns compelling, irritating, perplexing, grotesque, and in the end so fully convinced of her own total worthlessness that she finds her only triumph in abandoning her daughter, cutting herself off forever from the only person she has ever truly loved.
So what’s my problem with Stella Dallas?
I hate stories that put or keep women in their place, like this and Woman of the Year. I hate movies that reinforce the very worst tropes about what makes a woman worthwhile or good and then strand their female protagonists without any decent choices—or clothes, for that matter. I hate this beautifully made movie because it satisfies emotionally while selling me a load of clams, a Trojan horse of poisonous ideas about what is required and offered to women (particularly mothers) who try to improve their lot and fail—nothing less than the Phyrric victory of total self-annihilation.
Because poor Stella is set up. Her fate is presented as inevitable—character is destiny and all that. But she is blocked from every alternative by her creators, who meticulously eradicate every possible escape and resource. In a parallel universe Stella uses her formidable talents as a dressmaker to start a successful business. She gets rich and joins the ranks of the moneyed and powerful. But in that world she becomes a different kind of maternal failure because she neglected Laurel for her career (even though the career was for Laurel’s sake).
That’s a central narrative in the 1959 Imitation of Life, in which Lana Turner has the support of her friend Juanita Moore to keep the home fires burning while she is following her dream, using her formidable drive and ambition (which totally overshadow her minimal talent) to become a star. But Turner still gets caught in the movie motherhood trap, just not in the way Stella does. In the movies, motherhood as a problem—”bad” mothering—is generally expressed in terms of too much or not enough: The bad mother is either too attached, too close, suffocating, standing in the way of the child establishing an independent life, or she is not close enough, preoccupied with her own career or social life, ignoring the child’s emotional need for her and leaving her starved, forever seeking the love she didn’t get from Mom. But these alternatives hang on a cultural assumption so common that we rarely question it: that motherhood is properly the defining aspect of a woman’s life, her reason for existing.
And so back to poor Stella. Stella would bristle at the adjective, not being one for self-pity—she’s a chin-up gal, proud, looks the world in the eye. But her bravado can’t hide how she really feels about herself. Stella is friendless except for Ed Munn (Alan Hale), and with a friend like Ed, good-hearted but a lout and a drunkard, she needs no enemies beyond the face she sees in the mirror. Stella lacks perspective; she doesn’t see herself as others see her, and she has no family or friend or trustworthy authority figure to guide her. In her working class family she was the ambitious one, the one who saw the bleak future in her mother’s exhausted shuffling from stove to table to sink. Stella’s yearning is shaped by the enchanting images she sees in movies and magazines, and that’s where she finds out that the handsome, slightly distinguished young man who walks past her house every day between his rooming house and the factory is the scion of a once wealthy, now disgraced family, who is working at the mill, determined to succeed on his own.
Stella has been taking a business course to broaden her horizons, so she is not without aspiration or initiative. And she sees in Stephen Dallas a better way out of her dead-end life. She is certainly not dumb; she is pretty and knows it; she dresses simply but attractively. Stella is calculating, setting out to attract the lonely Stephen and succeeding. And he marries her, which in some movies would be the happy ending. In other movies the poor girl and the blueblood marry, and the upstart has no significant problems fitting into her new environment. But Stella, the ambitious girl from the factory town, is written as completely incapable of adapting to the world she so longed to join.
Her husband is a rather colorless young man, honorable and “nice,” apparently devoid of imagination beyond his sexual fantasies about Stella. He tells her not to change or try to be anyone but herself, then does nothing but cast reproving glances and offer gently worded but painfully patient “suggestions.” We get all this in movie shorthand, but it’s very clear. A more mature and compassionate man wouldn’t expect his bride to seamlessly transition between worlds; he would compliment her pretty evening gown and indulgently allow her to wear the cheap necklace that apparently is a touchstone with her old self, instead of being…disappointed. Nothing more withering than that sort of disappointment.
Perhaps she would have responded to love instead of correction. We’ll never know, because while Vidor shows us Stephen’s priggishness and lack of generosity, the movie dumps everything square in Stella’s lap, and she is too bristly and defiant to crumple under his polite but dismissive treatment. She’s also too insecure not to be profoundly damaged by it, even if she isn’t self-aware enough to know it, which is where Stanwyck’s acting astounds. She conveys it all, all those layers and flashes. One of the effects I most admire, on the page or the screen, is when a character reveals things about herself that the character does not know. Stella is not exactly a poster girl for self-realization, but Stanwyck knows all about her and embodies it.
Stephen, as played by the stiff-necked John Boles in the movie’s only less-than-compelling performance, isn’t exactly a villain, but he comes close. His infatuation with Stella rapidly curdles into polite hectoring, nagging, a thousand small cuts reproaching her for her behavior (vulgar and flirtatious) and just as crucially and harder to watch, for her bizarre, degenerating taste in clothes. Mary Ann Doane refers to Stella’s unfolding style tragedy as a “misread”—Stella thinks that climbing socially is a process of addition; one’s rising state is indicated by escalating sartorial chaos…more pattern and more ornament, culminating in the “Christmas tree” ensemble that is her final social undoing, at the resort, when Laurel sees Stella for the first time as others see her and is filled with embarrassment, shame, and pity.
Let’s stop right there. Why are all avenues of success closed to Stella except the martyrdom of sacrificing the one thing that has given her life meaning—her identity as a mother (and in so doing, perversely “proving” her fitness as a mother by cutting herself off from her child)?
What is Stella’s crime, anyway?
Let’s do the checklist:
Q: Is she an unwed mother, the most common crime in maternal renunciation movies, like in Madame X or The Sins of Madeleine Claudet.
A: No. Stella and Stephen were totally legal.
Q: Is Stella sexually transgressive, having affairs outside the sanctity of marriage?
A: No, though Ed is obviously warm for her form, Stella tells him that “There isn’t a man alive who could get me going anymore,” because all her love is wrapped up in Laurel.
Q: Is she an alcoholic or drug addict, like Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match?
A: Absolutely not. Matter of fact, Stella never drinks anything stronger than sarsaparilla, though judgmental Stephen, always ready to believe the worst, sees Ed drinking at Stella’s flat and assumes that she’s drinking, too.
Q: Is she involved in any kind of dishonest or criminal activity, like Ann Dvorak (again, bless her) in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain?
A: Another no; Stella is a law-abiding stay-at-home mom whose world is her child.
We’ve run out of crimes from the conventional list. Stella is a sanctified, celibate, teetotaling, devoted mother. But our story has to end with her knocking herself out to renounce her maternal rights. So she has to be convinced of her own unfitness, and to some degree so does the audience, or at least we have to buy the idea that on some level it makes sense for her to give up her daughter.
In A Woman’s View, Jeanine Basinger writes that there are four episodes, descending steps that lead to Stella’s self-sacrifice, all of them leading to increasing disapproval from society. Three of them involve Ed Munn drinking and being a lout, and the fourth, at the resort, is when Stella’s style dementia peaks, and both Laurel and Stella realize they bar her from polite society. Thing is, the clothes get so strange that they go way beyond disqualifying her for Asquith—a couple of her later get-ups are so bizarre they wouldn’t pass without comment in any social setting, high or low brow.
That her clothes are a class marker dooming her to exclusion from society is underlined by the fact that her maid admires the outfit she wears for Laurel’s party. In Jezebel, Julie’s maid covets the infamous red dress. Mae West’s maids are crazy about her clothes in I’m No Angel. The message is clear: If your servants like what you’re doing, you must be doing it wrong.
I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at the costume conferences for this movie. The designer was Omar Kiam. I imagine him bringing in costume sketches and Vidor and Goldwyn tilting their heads, squinting, picturing them on Stanwyck in particular scenes. Kiam, perhaps not very comfortable designing such monstrosities, asks himself if it will have a negative effect on his reputation… Vidor looks at the costume for the resort scene, saying, “More trimming, more ornament—think Christmas tree!”
What does Stella do that dooms her? She tries to escape her class, and while that was occasionally possible in movies during the pre-Code era, that sort of social mobility pretty much disappeared in movies made after the advent of strict Code enforcement.
For comparison Basinger contrasts Stella Dallas (1937) with Blonde Venus (1932), another maternal renunciation yarn. In Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich goes from wife and mother to cabaret singer (and adulteress, but only to save her husband’s life), to on-the-lam Mom (avoiding priggish and ungrateful husband Herbert Marshall’s detectives), telling Dickie Moore to finish his orange juice and locking him in flophouse rooms while she promotes basic expenses by whatever means necessary, to bereft Mom after she gives Dickie up, to international cabaret sensation. We know that her life is meaningless without her son, but she not only doesn’t waste away in a garret, she takes the world by storm, fully in possession of her own power.
And she gets a happy ending—reconciling with Marshall so that she can be with her son. No punishment, no literal or figurative death. It is almost as if the story in the movie never happened and life returns to normal, with Marlene again spending her days feeding and bathing Dickie and keeping their tiny flat tidy. She doesn’t miss her glamorous life, she doesn’t miss her gorilla suit or her blonde Afro. Apparently she doesn’t miss Cary Grant (mmm-hmm…). And she’s able to forgive Marshall for doing everything he could to destroy her.
But that was 1932, and five years later Hollywood had become a sober and priggish presence. We tend to focus on the obvious effects of the Code, but there was an underlying commitment to defending the status quo that too often goes unnoticed. After the chaotic years of the early Depression, when not just the economic but the social fabric was strained to the brink, stability was welcome and Hollywood was one of its advocates. Social mobility was still lauded as an ideal, but in practice the movies discouraged it. Social and sexual morés had been up for grabs in the ’20s, then the Crash and the Depression further eroded any sense of order, and I think the country was intensely relieved by a sense that there were some boundaries, that it was possible to tell how things were supposed to be, who people were and where they belonged.
Four years later, Citizen Kane used a maternal-renunciation narrative in its story, and for me it’s one of the great mysteries of that ever-unfolding film. I can understand why Charles’s mother, Mary (Agnes Moorehead), thinks it best to send Charlie away to prepare for his life as a vastly wealthy and powerful man. (And the shot of Moorehead at the window, looking out at the child she is sending away forever, saying “I’ve got his things packed. They’ve been packed for a week,” is indelibly burned in my memory.
But as with Stella, I don’t understand why Mary cuts her boy loose entirely, why she never sees him again. It’s so cruel—to both of them. And I believe that both Stella and Mary believe they are doing it for their children’s good. I believe they believe it, but it horrifies me. These beliefs come out of some vile cultural schema, and that’s what I hate.
Often I wonder what happens to the characters in a movie after THE END scrolls. What becomes of Stella—what is there for her? Is there any chance she will ever reconcile with Laurel, who believes her mother has moved to South America with Ed (and is completely unreachable, which is a stretch)? Can Stella pull herself together and find another man, or more to the point, can she find some children who need her, employing the missing-motherhood solution found in movies like Lydia? I don’t see it. I think Stella’s completely done for. I don’t see her as a suicide, but living an anonymous, tortured life in a flat she’s too depressed to keep clean, dreaming of her daughter, no longer with any reason to keep up not just her appearance but her strength, because she has no purpose in this world.
Because she had bad taste? It’s a bum rap.