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USA 1937
Directed by
King Vidor
106 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Stella Dallas

In what is a good example of studio era pathos, Barbara Stanwyck plays a poor millworker’s daughter, Stella Martin, with a desire to better her lot in life. The opportunity comes via a once-wealthy young man, Stephen Dallas (John Boles) trying to put his life together after the suicide of his bankrupt father. They marry and have a daughter but quite soon afterwards separate due to irreconcilable differences with Stephen leaving Stella to bring up the child (as a teenage played by Anne Shirley).

Whilst the characters and story are stock standard, the main problem with the film, a remake of a 1925 silent version, lies in its initial set-up. Stella is shown as ambitious and calculating, but with a genuine desire to improve herself. For the rest of the film however, her character lurches between vulgarity and winsomeness with no trace of this core commitment, Stanwyck’s accents and attitude broadening or softeing to suit these two aspects. 

In general, however, Stella degenerates rather than bettering herself, Stanwyck eventually looking and acting like an outcast Harpo Marx in drag.  Whilst we might infer the progression is the result a self-destructive personality, Vidor does not develop this in any evident way as the film jump-cuts across the twenty or so years of Stella’s story, the film rather baldly contrasting her triumph via her daughter marrying into "society" with her own decline into penury, this itself reflecting the upper vs. lower class divide around which the narrative turns.

For all that, Stanwyck is, as always, a strong performer and if somewhat dated as a "woman's picture" Stella Dallas ranks well on the hankie scale.




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