Basic factual information

  • Director: King Vidor
  • Distribution company: United Artists Corp.
  • Released: 06 August 1937; New York premier: 05 August 1937

 

Main cast:

  • Barbara Stanwyck: Stella Dallas
  • John Boles: Stephen Dallas
  • Ann Shirley: Laurel Dallas
  • Barbara O’Neil: Helen Morrison
  • Alan Hale: Ed Munn

 

2) Stella Dallas was nominated for best actress (Barbara Stanwyck/Stella Dallas) in a leading role and best actress in a supporting role (Anne Shirley/Laurel Dallas) at the Oscars in 1938[1]. A remake, Stella, was made in 1990, but it was not acclaimed by critics.

Plot: Stella Dallas is a 1937 melodrama about mother/daughter relationship. The story is that of Stella (Barbara Stanwyck), a girl from a modest background who marries an upper-class man, Stephen Dallas (John Boles) and a child, Laurel (Ann Shirley) is born of this union. However, the fairy tale is short-lived for Stella proves to be unable to adopt the good manners of her husband’s social class. Because their way of life becomes more and more incompatible, Stella and Stephen live separately yet still married. As Laurel becomes a young woman, Stella realises her background and her lack of education is detrimental to Laurel, especially compared to Stephen’s mistress, a young refined and well-bred widow who is actually his former fiancée. Therefore, she deliberately pulls her daughter away from her, by adapting a vulgar attitude and wearing gaudy clothes. Laurel, despite the love of her mother, joins her father’s new family and social status. She eventually marries a young man of high society and Stella witnesses the scene through the windows, under the rain.

This film is part of a genre called “Woman’s film”, which appeared mostly in the 1930’s and 1940’s. They “centre on a female protagonist whose viewpoint appears to guide the film and deal with feminine concern an experience”.[2] This kind of film, conventionally associated with melodrama[3], as its name implies, appeals to a feminine audience. Melodramas, as related to femininity and therefore weakness are often despised. Here is an example of review of the time on Stella Dallas that reveals the sexist nature of thinking of the time: “The old tearjerker hasn’t stopped fermenting yet, and, like so many other things particularly female, comes around periodically.”[4]

It is not before the 1980’s that the Woman’s Film started to arouse questions amongst the thinkers, notably because of the works of feminist film thinkers such as Ann E. Kaplan, Lydia Williams or Laura Mulvey, amongst others. As says Karen Holliger, “it was not until Linda Williams published her 1984 essay Something Else Besides a Mother: Stella Dallas and the maternal melodrama in Cinema Journal, however, that the film became the centre of intense feminist interest”[5]. (Nevertheless, feminism in film started to be discussed in the 60s and 70s, simultaneously with the hippie movement and women’s liberation.[6]) The case of Stella Dallas was at the heart of the debate for the movie lumps together motherhood, sacrifice, social division and social pressure.

Regarding in psychoanalysis terms, Stella Dallas provides food for thought about the mother/daughter relationship, and the Oedipus Complex of a daughter towards the mother. As Kaja Silverman’s theory about the feminine Oedipus Complex explains:

 

The Oedipus Complex presents a particular problem for the girl, not least because the mother is her first love-object. It demands that she switch her allegiance to the father; by learning to desire him, she acquires the cultural role of femininity. Yet she remains torn between desire for the mother and desire for the father for the rest of her life.[7]

 

This is exactly what happens in Stella Dallas: Laurel lives away from her father a long time, which has forged a strong relationship with her mother. But when she becomes a young woman her father turns out to be more and present and Laurel ends up choosing him, with a heavy heart.

Different theories confront one another regarding the role of women the film gives. Karen Hollinger describes the “Stella Dallas debate”[8] that arose between film theorists.

Ann Kaplan asserts that “the film’s ending is particularly important in leading the female spectator to view Stella negatively”[9].

Linda Williams, on the other hand, “believes the female spectator is not led to disapprove of Stella”.  The spectator identifies with several and opposed point of view, which is contradictory. Contradiction is something that women are accustomed to, torn by the patriarchal society and their desires: “Thus the film appeals to the female spectator by illustrating through its narrative that contradiction is at the heart of the prescribed female roles of daughter, wife, and mother under patriarchy.”

Anna Siomopoulos agrees with the fact that the film leads to a feeling of empathy for all the characters.  However these multiple identifications are not positive because there is no blame against class and gender inequalities:

 

Multiple identification represents a sentimental indecisiveness over political inequities. (…) In Stella Dallas, the spectator is led to the conclusion that Stella’s reintegration into society requires not a restructuring of class or gender relations but a little more empathy, a little more sharing of the wealth.[10]

 

Another issue, which is not obvious at first sight, is raised by the film: the question of race. According to Allison Whitney, Stella’s “problematic motherhood” is associated with blackness. The blackness represents Stella, who tries at the beginning to pass for a member of the upper class (the whiteness). Moreover, the three Black women (“playing a mammy or aunt Jemima role”) who appear in Stella Dallas “appear at crucial points in the narrative, and their presence reflects directly on the evolving state of Stella’s motherhood.”[11] The representation of these women transcribes the racism of the society at that time and it echoes the fact that Stella will never be integrated.

I already mentioned the question of spectatorship with the notion of Woman’s Film (nowadays called Chick Flicks). More broadly, Laura Mulvey (a feminist film theorist) studies this issue by analysing the way Hollywood tries to appeal to the male spectators thanks to “visual pleasure”.[12] According to her, the spectator has to adopt a male’s point of view: “The spectator identifies with the powerful look of the male character on the screen, and his position in relation to it is produced by the camera(man)’s/director’s look.”[13]

I had difficulties finding reviews and articles contemporary to Stella Dallas (1937). I found two contemporary reviews (The Billboard), however their references are incomplete.  I also found a review from the New York Times which deals with both 1937 and 1990 Stella Dallas versions: Janet Maslin affirms that the 1937 version of Stella Dallas is from far the best.

 

Bibliography:

3) Reviews

  • Ackerman, P. “Stella Dallas.” The Billboard, 14 August 1937.
  • Maslin, J. “Shed a tear for Stella, Still Noble but Senseless.” The New York Times, 11 February 1990.
  • S W. “Program Review-Stella Dallas.” The Billboard, 18 June 1938.
  • Segond, J. “The Bad and the Beautiful: sur Stella Dallas et The Wedding Night”/ “The Bad and the Beautiful: on Stella Dallas and The Wedding Night.Positif, no. 163, November 1974.

 

4) Bibliography of scholarly articles on Stella Dallas:

  • Articles on Stella Dallas:
  • Bick, Lisa J. “Stella Dallas: Maternal Melodrama and Feminine Sacrifice.” Psychoanalytic Review 79, no. 1 (1992): 121-145.
  • Gallager, Tag. “Tag Gallagher Responds to Tania Modelski’s ‘Time and Desire in the Woman’s Film’ and Linda Williams’ ‘Something Else Besides a Mother: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama.’” Cinema Journal 25, no. 2 (1986): 65-66.
  • Gledhill, Christine. “Christine Gledhill on Stella Dallas and Feminist Film Theory.” Cinema Journal 25, no. 4 (1986): 44-48.
  • Kaplan, Ann. “Ann Kaplan Replies to Linda Williams’s ‘Something Else besides a Mother: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama.’” Cinema Journal 24, no. 2 (1984): 40-43.
  • Siomopoulos, Anna. “I Didn’t Anyone Could be so Unselfish: Liberal Empathy, the Welfare State, and King Vidor’s Stella Dallas.Cinema Journal 38, no. 4 (1999): 3-23.
  • Williams, Linda. “Something else beside a mother: Stella Dallas and the maternal melodrama.” Cinema Journal 24, no. 1 (1984): 2-27.

 

  • Chapter on Stella Dallas:
  • Hollinger, Karen. “Film in Focus: Stella Dallas and The Devil Wears Prada.” In Feminist Film Studies, 49-63. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.
  • Books:
  • Kaplan, Ann. The Case Of The Missing Mother: Maternal Issues in Vidor’s Stella Dallas. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990.

 

5) Bibliography of articles/books/chapters on wider topics:

  • Article/chapters on the race issue in Stella Dallas:
  • Whitney, Allison. “Race, Class and the Pressure to Pass in American Maternal Melodrama: The Case of Stella Dallas.” Journal of Film and Video, no. 59.1 (2007): 3-18.

 

  • Articles on womanhood/sexuality in cinema:
  • Gordon, Bette and Catherine Texier. “Motherhood and Sexuality.” Bomb, 70 (2000): 24–27.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

 

  • Chapters on male/female spectatorship/psychoanalysis:
  • Chaudhuri, Shohini. “The ‘Homosexual-Maternal Fantasmatic’.” In Feminist Film Therorists, 56-58. London and New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006.
  • Chaudhuri, Shohini. “The Female Spectator.” In Feminist Film Theorists, 39-44. London and New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006.
  • Hollinger, Karen. “Women and Genre Film: From Woman’s Film to Chick Flicks.” In Feminist Film Studies, 35-48. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Stacey, Jackie. “From the Male Gaze to the Female Spectator.” In Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, 19-48. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

 

  • Books on feminism in cinema:
  • Cavell, Stanley. Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Women. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silvermann, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. London and New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006.
  • Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.
  • Hollinger, Karen. Feminist Film Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • McCabe, Janet. Feminist Film Studies, Writing the woman into cinema. London and New York: Wallflower Short Cuts, 2004.
  • Rich, B. Ruby. Chick Flicks, Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

 

 

 

Appendix

General information:

  • Production company: Howard Productions, Inc.
  • Distribution company: United Artists Corp.
  • Released: 06 August 1937; New York premier: 05 August 1937
  • Produced: early April/late May 1937
  • Copyright information: © Samuel Goldwyn; 24 August 1937; LP7358
  • Length: 104 min; 12 reels
  • PCA Certificate number: 3558; passed by the National Board of Review
  • Physical properties: Black and white; sound: Western Electric Noiseless Recording

 

Production credits:

  • Presenter: Samuel Goldwyn
  • Associate Production: Merritt Hulburd
  • Director: King Vidor
  • Assistant director: Walter Mayo
  • Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman
  • Dramatization: Gertrude Purcell, Harry Wagstaff Gribble
  • Photography: Rudolph Maté
  • Art director: Richard Day
  • Film editor: Sherman Todd
  • Costumes: Omar Kiam
  • Music director: Alfred Newman
  • Sound recording: Frank Maher

 

Cast:

  • Barbara Stanwyck: Stella Dallas
  • John Boles: Stephen Dallas
  • Ann Shirley: Laurel Dallas
  • Barbara O’Neil: Helen Morrison
  • Alan Hale: Ed Munn
  • Marjorie Main: Mrs Martin
  • Tim Holt: Richard Grosvernor III
  • George Wolcott: Charlie Martin
  • Ann Shoemaker: Miss Phillibrown
  • Nella Walker: Mrs Grosvenor
  • Bruce Satterlee: Con Morrison
  • Jimmy Butler: Con Morrison (grown)
  • Jack Egger: John Morrison
  • Dickie Jones: Lee Morrison
  • Edmund Elton: Mr Martin

 

[1] IMDB page on Stella Dallas, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029608/.

[2] Shohini Chaudhuri, “The Female Spectator,” in Feminist Film Theorists, (London and New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006), 40.

[3] Karen Hollinger, “Women and Genre Film: From Woman’s Film to Chick Flicks,” in Feminist Film Studies, (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 35.

[4] P. Ackerman, “Stella Dallas,” The Billboard, 14 August 1937.

[5] Hollinger, 49.

[6] B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks, Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 13.

[7] Hollinger, 57-58.

[8] Hollinger, 49-55.

[9] Hollinger, 50.

[10] Anna Siomopoulos, “I Didn’t Know Someone Could Be So Unselfish: Liberal Empathy, the Welfare’s State, and Stella Dallas,” Cinema Journal 38, no. 4 (1999): 19.

[11] Allison Whitney, “Race Class, and the Pressure to Pass in American Maternal Melodrama: The Case of Stella Dallas,” Journal of Film and Video 59, no. 1 (2007): 7.

[12] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6.

[13] Jackie Stacey, “From The Male Gaze To The Female Spectator,” in Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 20-21.