Warning: Spoilers Ahead
I finally forced myself to watch Stella Dallas, a movie I’ve occasionally ranted about sight unseen. I did see the Bette Midler 1990 remake, though, and was so appalled it took me all these years to rent the original—which differs subtly but substantially from the remake. Maybe it’s because Bette Midler as trailer-park trash sails over the top with little effort, or maybe it’s the melodrama inherent in almost any part she plays—but her version of Stella has a definite POV, while the earlier film leaves space for the viewer to decide if Stella does right by her daughter.
At its heart the film is about class warfare. Stella is a young woman living with her dirt-poor family of Massachusetts mill workers, the only one among them with ambition. She’s taking business courses while Dad and baby bro work as mill hands and Mom schlepps around their tiny shack. Mom’s always hunched over, her hair a mess: the only thing missing from her slutty image is the dangling cigarette. Stella daydreams and watches the people come and go to the mill, her sights set on big shot “swell” Stephen Dallas (John Boles), whom she cleverly arranges to meet and manipulate into marriage. Trouble arises when Dallas realizes he took the girl from the mill but can’t get the mill out of the girl. Stella has a “vulgar” side she’s not even aware of herself. Imagine Midler as vulgar: piece of cake, right? Stanwyck’s Stella, though she talks tough and loves to dance, comes off so sweet it’s hard to sympathize with Stephen. I’m sure I’m not the only person who couldn’t stand his smug, weak-chinned visage—which is just as well, since he’s gone most of the time, all but abandoning Stella after their daughter’s birth when he moves to New York, ostensibly for business purposes.
In one scene Laurel (Anne Shirley) is a toddler, and in the next she’s a teen. In the intervening years, Stella has all but given up her partying ways to devote her life to her daughter. She sews the kid’s clothes by hand, monitors her social life, and pushes her to be like the snobbish bluebloods Stella used to want to know herself. At a Hampton-like resort, Laurel’s friends—spoiled brats one and all—cruelly mock Stella, not knowing she’s their pal’s mom : “That wasn’t a person, it was a Christmas tree,” they say, referring to her allegedly tasteless fashion sense (which isn’t half bad in black-and-white 2012). Stella wears heavy makeup, has a loud mouth, a brassy style, and…you get the picture. While Midler pulled this character off without a hitch, Stanwyck, except for the Brooklyn-ish accent, seems fairly “normal.”
Whether Stella’s vulgar or not, when she hears the rich kids making fun of her she has an epiphany: Laurel, she fears, will never be able to get very far as long as she’s stuck with her mother as an albatross around her neck. She hatches a brilliant plan, and asks hubby to let Laurel come live with his new family; by now he’s married the woman he loved before he met Stella – a boring uptight blueblood who knows a salad fork when she sees one by god (crucial information for a mother dontcha know). When she tells Laurel what she’s decided, however, the kid, bless her gold-digging little heart, finally rises to the occasion. She declares undying loyalty to Stella, and refuses to leave her.
This is the Big Moment in Stella Dallas, when Laurel acknowledges her mother’s devotion. Laurel doesn’t give a shit what the bluebloods have to say about Mom, she’s going to stand by her in love and loyalty. As I recall, this does not happen in the Bette Midler version.
Unfortunately, Stella subverts Laurel’s attempts to stay with her by feeding her a heroic lie, making it seem as if she wants to get rid of the kid and be free to have fun at last. Laurel buys the lie and moves in with Daddy, into the kind of household that makes her appear ever so presentable. She eventually marries the blueblood man of her dreams and lives happily ever after. Oh, yeah: She never sees Mama Dallas again.
I’ve compared the Stella Dallas story to the movie Spanglish, an immigration tale in which the mother refuses to let her daughter become “someone so different from me.” The values presented in each of these movies express directly opposing viewpoints of the mother/daughter relationship. Stella Dallas declares that the daughter is better off gaining entry into the upper-class, even if it means cutting off the most important, loving relationship of her life. In Spanglish, by contrast, the mother-daughter relationship is paramount and worth preserving, even if it means giving up what might be a superior education and other so-called opportunities. Guess which reflects my own POV?
You I Ever Wanted to Know About Barbara Stanwyck
• In 1944 she earned $400,000, and was listed as the nation’s highest-paid woman.
• She was nominated four times for Academy Awards, including for Stella Dallas, but never won any of them. In 1982, however, she was given an honorary Academy Award for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”
•When she died on January 20, 1990, she left 93 movies and a host of tv appearances.
• Her stormy marriage to Frank Fay finally ended after a drunken brawl, during which he tossed their adopted son, Dion, into the swimming pool.
• Despite rumors of affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, Stanwyck wed Robert Taylor, who had gay rumors of his own to dispel. Their marriage started off on a sour note when his possessive mother demanded he spend his wedding night with her rather than with Barbara.
• Her Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement was presented to her by John Travolta, who later confessed that the experience was his supreme Oscar moment, and that Stanwyck had been a Travolta family favorite for years.
• She is the Godmother of Tori Spelling.
• Her favorite role, she said, was Stella Dallas.
• A Grand Dame. Alas, she was a staunch conservative Republican.
- Saturday Night Cinema: Stella Dallas (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)