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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

STELLA DALLAS (1937) -- Movie Review by Porfle

Barbara Stanwyck demonstrates why many film fans tend to think so highly of her talents in 1937's weepy classic STELLA DALLAS.  She's a great deal of fun to watch in the role of a blowsy blue-collar girl who tries to better herself by marrying a rich man but ultimately finds only heartbreak.  The "crying in your popcorn" kind, that is.

John Boles, burdened with the useless role of Henry Frankenstein's friend Victor in 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, gets to play somewhat less of a stiff here even though his "Stephen Dallas" is a proper upper-class twit.  (Boles was good at playing such a character, though, and manages to make Stephen about as sympathetic as anyone could.) 

Having lost the love of his young life, Stephen has left his former pampered existence to make it on his own as an executive in a large factory where Stella's brother works.  This is where she gets the idea of pursuing him with as much wild charm as she can muster until he's ready to turn sappy and stumble into the marriage trap. 

But when Stella retains her lowbrow ways and fails to evolve into the proper society girl Stephen envisioned, they drift apart romantically and are kept together only by mutual love for their sweet little daughter, Laurel.  Stephen moves to New York for business reasons and runs into his former love, Helen (Barbara O'Neil, GONE WITH THE WIND), now a widow with three sons and suddenly available again. 

As their love is rekindled, Stella devotes her life to raising Laurel with her only other friend being a boisterously obnoxious drunkard named Mr. Munn (Alan Hale, Sr.), whom Laurel can't stand. Laurel (Anne Shirley) loves visiting her father and Helen at her mansion, wishing that she could have the kind of life they offer, but refuses to leave her needy mother alone and unloved despite their threadbare lifestyle.  This becomes increasingly embarrassing for Laurel when her friends and other townspeople begin to shun and ridicule Stella for her tacky clothing, oddly eccentric behavior, and apparently improper relationship with Mr. Munn. 

Stanwyck's impeccable acting skills really shine through here.  She has a field day in the role, seeming to revel in how unglamorous she can be as her character becomes more and more pathetic. Her Stella is blowsy, frowsy, crude, and sometimes downright loony--I began to suspect the onset of mental illness and perhaps even schizophrenia at times--yet she never overdoes it or comes off as maudlin or unconvincing.

I like the way Stella undergoes an almost clownish transformation when dressing to impress Laurel's new society friends and the havoc she wreaks at their summer resort simply by flouncing her way through it.  Laurel's reaction when she discovers that her mother is the laughingstock of all her friends and their parents is heartrending, setting up the film's final headfirst plunge into pure, industrial-strength bathos.

Several scenes in the film's latter half stand out as the kind of aggressive, borderline-maudlin tearjerker stuff that many viewers will devour like a sumptuous dessert.  Nowhere is this more so than in the final scenes, which (although they failed to move me quite as much as intended) are calculated for maximum cry-inducing potential.  Stanwyck plays these to the hilt, and her final smile right at the fadeout is the perfect topper to such a manipulatively heart-tugging yarn.

The film's snappy pace whisks the viewer through the story with barely a moment to catch our breath.  King Vidor's direction is straightforward and lean, just what this streamlined, uncluttered yarn needs. 

STELLA DALLAS has but one purpose, and that is to move us to tears over a mother's desperate love for her child and the selfless sacrifice she'll eventually be forced to make to ensure her happiness.  Thanks mainly to Barbara Stanwyck's richly watchable performance, it's more than effective at doing just that.


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