Stella Dallas: Barbara’s Four-Hanky Smash

#23 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part IV: The Case for Barbara Stanwyck

The greatest actress to never win an Oscar is Barbara Stanwyck.

You may disagree—you may think it’s Glenn Close (7 nominations), Deborah Kerr (6), Irene Dunne (5), Rosalind Russell (4), or even Greta Garbo (3).  

Hear me out.  In Part IV, I make my case.

Stanwyck’s quest should’ve been over before it began in 1937 with Stella Dallas.  

Stanwyck plays the title character, a woman who is pretty and poor and snags a man above her station.  Stephen Dallas marries Stella in a moment of loneliness.  He’s a kind man, but he’s quiet, reserved, and of old money.  He’s used to doing things in the proper manner.

Stella is loud and always ready for a good time.  She’s vulgar in her dress, her walk, her talk. She’s also generous, warm, and fun-loving.

And she’s an excellent mother to their daughter Laurel.

It’s not enough.  Stella, despite her early promises to change, is decidedly low class. 

Her past is in her bones.

The marriage between Stephen and Stella sours as Stephen finds he can’t remake her into the society wife he should’ve married and Stella increasingly resents his attempts to do so.

Soon enough, they are living separate lives, which suits them both.  Stella and Laurel live a charmed existence, doting on one another as Laurel grows into a lovely young woman.  She is Stella’s greatest triumph and best pal.

As Laurel grows up, she begins to understand the differences between the refined society of her father and the slapdash existence of her mother.  

Stella begins to understand that although she could never gain acceptance to the country club set, Laurel can.  

Or could—if she didn’t have a mother her peers see as a joke.

The movie gets a lot of justified praise for its final scene, when Stella makes a grand gesture of sacrifice for Laurel.

But I love the scenes of gradual awakening—Stella realizing that no one showed up at Laurel’s birthday party because she is her mother, and Laurel feeling both incredible embarrassment and overwhelming love for her ill-bred, unladylike, wonderful, gregarious mother.

There’s a scene on a train when Stella and Laurel overhear Laurel’s friends making fun of Stella.  The mutual pain is palpable as Stella protects Laurel by pretending not to hear, and Laurel crawls into bed with her mother and gives her a tender kiss.

In the end, Stanwyck’s Stella walks away heartbroken but satisfied Laurel will have everything she ever wanted.

Everything but her mother.

The film lives or dies on the portrayal of Stella—we have to love Stella despite her flaws.  There’s no easy villain to blame—not Stella or Stephen, not Stephen’s new wife, not even Laurel’s preppy boyfriend.  It’s a film about the way the world is, instead of the way we wish it to be.

Stanwyck had to age twenty years throughout the course of the film, starting out as the pretty wide-eyed social climber and ending in a frumpy, slightly overweight middle age.

Stanwyck delivers.

Stella Dallas is the first film to fully showcase Barbara Stanwyck’s natural and realistic acting.  We take it for granted today that actors want to look and feel like real people on the screen, but that wasn’t the case in the 1930s and 1940s.  Acting was still peeling away from the silent era, when big dramatic gestures ruled the day.  You didn’t actually have to believe the character Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn played was a real person.  You could almost see the actress winking at the camera, letting the audience know it was all just a bit of fun.  You could see the acting.

In this film, you can’t see Barbara Stanwyck.  You only see Stella.

Stanwyck’s films aren’t of the 1930s or 1940s.  They’re films of any time, any place.

Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for Stella Dallas, and widely predicted to win.  She lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth, perhaps a film that was better in 1937 but has not aged as well as Stella Dallas.

Stella Dallas was a commercial success as well, one of the top five box office hits of 1937.  It was so popular that Stella and Laurel’s story continued in a radio soap opera that ran for nearly twenty years.

Stanwyck would go on to receive three more Oscar nominations, and play several iconic characters, but she said late in her life that Stella Dallas was her favorite role.

It’s easy to see why. 

Stella Dallas was Stanwyck’s first tour de force.  The fact that Stella Dallas is the third or fourth best role Stanwyck played is a testament to the brilliance of her long career.  If she had won this Oscar, as she should have, I could easily be writing a blog about how Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest actress to only win one Ocsar.

She’s that good.

Next week Stanwyck trades in her frumpy dresses and weepy endings for elegant gowns and laughs in a film where she is dressed by the legendary costume designer Edith Head and directed by the inimitable Preston Sturges.

The results are biblical.

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