Where to begin? I’m bestowing upon Stella Dallas, which many generally agree is an undisputable classic American movie, an unfavorable review. Such critics may intend “classic” to mean “grand,” “timeless,” or “memorable.” However, the movie is more like the video-store-genre definition of “classic”: any old movie. The ending of the movie is sad, and a few of the emotional actions seem genuine. However, some of the scenes in the movie have too many leaps of logic, and the reasoning of the theme itself of the film is irrational.
I am not trying to insinuate this is a completely terrible movie or even glad to report a negative review. I really wanted to like this and went into the movie with an open mind, and there is at least one element to admire in the movie. Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely great in this movie, and it’s the best performance of hers I think I’ve seen yet. Considering Stanwyck has played luscious femme fatales (like her role in Double Indemnity), mouth-watering babes (as she did in The Lady Eve) and ballsy women, it’s surprising to see her portray a common woman and, at times, be unattractive.
This is pretty much the plot: Stella, a common and simple woman, falls in love with an affluent man. He loves her for who she is, and she wants to be part of high society. They marry, and her common ways embarrass her husband. They have a child, and he wants to keep the child from her, for she regularly has a drunken man over while taking care of her baby, which Stella’s husband finds to be negligent. Stella dedicates herself to her daughter, even after her husband divorces her. Then Stella later embarrasses her daughter with her common ways and prevents her child from doing certain things or meeting particular people. When Stella realizes this, she basically forces her daughter to live with her father, where Stella is practically invisible and not able to embarrass anybody. At her daughter’s wedding, Stella stands outside the window, looking in at her daughter bride. She doesn’t want to invade but still wants to see her daughter be happy. The end.
So, a few issues here. If Stella’s husband loves her for whom she is, what’s wrong if she’s not exactly “high class?” I can understand the feeling, but it sounds like a matter of pride and letting society run your decisions. We’ve seen how society can affect a relationship (see All That Heaven Allows or its beautiful remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul); while it may be difficult for polarized individuals (whether different in age, race, or class) to maintain a stable romantic relationship, they fight and struggle to keep it going. In Stella Dallas, however, the characters of husband and wife seem weak. The husband doesn’t seem to try hard enough to keep the marriage together, and Stella seems to be too extreme a level of lower-class, which is not hinted at earlier on in the film. One could argue we finally see her true colors, but I think not. After the two marry, I began to downright dislike her, and I assume the audience is supposed to sympathize with Stella just a little bit.
The upper-class individuals act in a very condescending manner toward Stella and hurt the daughter in the process. For example, Stella’s daughter invites some people to her birthday dinner. However, after seeing Stella on a train with the soused gentleman, one woman refuses to show her face at Stella’s home. This consequence snowballs till the point that nobody shows up. She’s laughed at in public because of her chosen garb. Yes, her accessories are gaudy, and her dress isn’t very attractive. But so what? When Stella’s daughter hears her friends mocking a cheap-looking woman, she sees they are talking about her mother. She isn’t angered and does not jump to her mother’s defense (“This is my mother, and if you don’t like that, then tough!”) No, she cries and runs from the place so her mother wouldn’t identify her in front of her friends. She wouldn’t even admit to her fiancé that it was her mother! (Another matter of pride.)
Psychologically, it’s perfectly natural that, among a group of “her own” (upper-class types), Stella’s daughter would go along with the crowd. Once, there was a psychological experiment in which a “doctor” quizzed a few people about whether the line that they saw was straight. Most of the time, the lone subject (who thought he was in a room of “subjects” but was accompanied by actors) got to the point that he would regard a non-straight line as straight simply because everybody else did! So I don’t blame Stella’s daughter for feeling the way she does, but I do accuse her of not being strong enough. She should have stood up to her friends, not letting them get her down. However, as I said earlier, these characters are weak. As hard as it is for characters (or people, in a real-world context) to be really good, they should at least try.
At the end, it’s as if Stella is trying to make herself appear to the audience to be some kind of martyr. When Stella is asked to move along by a cop but she begs to watch her bride daughter kiss the groom, or when the orchestral music swells in the final frames, one may feel moved. I can honestly admit that much. However, this doesn’t make up for everything else in the movie. I don’t know about you, but reason and logic is a big thing for me. If a movie doesn’t have at least that, I can’t possibly enjoy it and be willing to recommend it to others.
Yes, my outline for Stella Dallas is a string of simple sentences that doesn’t go into depth of the nuances of the performances or some of the other complications of the story, but I can’t write the entire script of the movie (or even a transcript of the way the actors say and do certain things). It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the movie, so I can’t remember all the things I actually liked about it, unless Stanwyck’s performance is actually the sole likable component of the film. You could always watch the movie yourself and draw your own opinions. However, I wouldn’t put this at the top of my Netflix queue if I were you.