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Film / Stella Dallas (1937)

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Stella Dallas is a 1937 Melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck, directed by King Vidor. Stella Martin is a young woman in a mill town in 1919. She deliberately attracts the attention of Stephen Dallas, a supervisor at the mill. They hit it off and get married. They have a baby, Laurel, but soon figure out that they have nothing in common—Stella is loud, brassy, and fun, while Stephen is a boring, drippy, narrow-minded scold. Eventually they separate.

Years go by and Laurel grows to be a teenager, living with her mother, seeing her father only occasionally. Stephen strikes up a renewed relationship with Helen Morrison, his old girlfriend, who married another man but is now a widow. Stella for her part pals around with Ed Munn, her alcoholic neighbor, but has no interest in a new relationship, focusing on her daughter. Stephen wants Laurel to live with him and the Morrisons in a mansion, but Stella refuses to give him a divorce. Stella tries to give Laurel the high-society life that Stephen is offering her, but her own tacky brashness embarrasses her daughter.

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Depending on where one falls on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, one may find this movie either a tender story of motherly love and self-sacrifice, or one may find it emotionally manipulative. It was based on a novel, had been made before as a 1925 silent feature, and was made again in 1990 with Bette Midler as Stella. Stanwyck, who never won an Academy Award, received one of her four Best Actress nominations for this movie, and Anne Shirley (teenaged Laurel) got a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.


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Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Ed's always wanting a drink when he pops in to Stella's apartment. By the end of the movie he's a drunken wreck.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Played for tragedy. Stella's outrageous outfits and pancake makeup and general brassy demeanor make her the laughingstock of the fancy resort she took Laurel to, embarrassing Laurel and leading Stella to decide to give her daughter to Stephen and Helen.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Stella has given up her daughter. Laurel gets married to her boyfriend in the parlor of the Dallas/Morrison home while Stella stands outside, in the rain, not wanting to spoil things. But the smile on her face as she walks away indicates that she's content with her choices.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Stella decided that Laurel should live with Stephen and Helen, because they are fancy society folks—and because for some reason Stella is unable to do basic things like stop dressing like a hooker. But she knows that Laurel will never leave her mother. So she pretends that she doesn't care about Laurel and tells Laurel that she's tired of being a mother and is going to marry Ed and have good times. Stella breaks down crying after a distraught Laurel leaves for good.
  • Character Title
  • Chick Flick: Self-sacrificing mother gives up everything for the good of her daughter.
  • Driving a Desk: Super-obvious when Stephen and Laurel are riding around.
  • Gossipy Hens: All the snooty old mothers in the town snipe about Stella. After they see her acting all goofy with Ed on the train, none of them will let their kids come to poor Laurel's birthday party.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Stella's stuck outside, watching her daughter get married. How to make this even sadder? Make it be raining.
  • Let's Just Be Friends: Stella says this to Ed. His slide into alcoholism proves it to be a good decision, but her reluctance to cut Ed out of her life completely makes her look bad in the eyes of both her ex-husband and her daughter.
  • Melodrama: You know it's a melodrama when things like Laurel getting embarrassed at a country resort are elevated to the level of Greek tragedy.
  • One-Person Birthday Party: Well, not quite, since Stella and the maid are there. But Laurel is crushed when neither her teacher nor any of her friends will come to her birthday party, because they don't approve of Stella.
  • Time Skip: Over a decade as toddler Laurel goes to teenaged Laurel.
  • Train-Station Goodbye: Played straight when Laurel leaves Stella to go visit Stephen and Helen.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Stephen didn't marry Helen Morrison in the backstory because his father killed himself after losing the family fortune.
  • Uptown Girl: The class conflict between Stephen and Stella unravels their marriage, as he wants to turn her into a proper society lady, and she doesn't particularly want to be one.
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