You are who you are. If you try to change it you may just be deceiving yourself.
That may well be the message of “Stella Dallas”.
In a way a rather depressing message. “Stella Dallas” is like a “My Fair Lady” story gone wrong. A woman who wants to be more than a blue collar wife, who wants to get ahead in life and be rich with the rich. But when she gets it she does not fit in that role at all, like a shirt three sizes too big. She is a working class woman with the tastes and manners and talk of a working class woman and no money or dress or husband can take that out of her. She is who she is.
It is a good movie, but also a painful movie, because we know Stella will be hurt and we know she is deceiving herself. But Stella is also a strong woman and, like it or not, it also takes strength to remain yourself when things go wrong. But mostly Stella is strong because she does not give up. She fights, first for herself and then when she realizes she must sacrifice her own happiness for her daughter to be happy she willingly does that, not as a martyr but as a winner.
Stella, brilliantly played by Barbara Stanwyck, aims high and sets her eyes on the factory manager Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Stephen moves in the higher spheres of society and so represents all Stella aspires to be. Stella becomes Mrs. Dallas and they get a daughter Laurel.
While Stella goes into this with her eyes set on life in society’s upper stratums she soon turns her gaze the other way. The fun she likes is not the refined sort but the vulgar common kind as represented by Ed Munn, a fun but vulgar sort in the extreme, who starts out wealthy, but drops to the deepest abyss of pathetic misery imaginable. Stella prefers his company to Stephens and they get increasingly estranged. When Stephen is promoted to a position in New York Stella stays back with Laurel and so they live till Laurel has grown into a young woman.
Stephens’s old girlfriend, Helen, has been widowed and now lives alone with her three sons. Stephen and Helen start seeing each other and Stella soon realizes she is the third wheel. Her feeble attempt at winning Stephen back is sabotaged by a very drunk Ed Munn and a turkey and she soon sees herself in a competition, not so much with Helen, but with the life Helen and Stephen lead. Laurel is infatuated with Helen and while she loves her mother she also far more readily fits in to their world. On the other hand Stella is like a dog in a bowling game as is made evident on a holiday resort where Stella’s attempt at opulence, aimed at making Laurel proud of her, end up making herself the laughingstock at the resort.
Finally Stella realizes that she is in the way of Laurels happiness, so she schemes to get out of her life. She gets divorced from Stephen so he can marry Helen and places Laurel in their care with the excuse of going away with Ed Munn. Thus a happy family is united without Stella and when Laurel gets married, Stella watches on the street through a window.
We are not really angry with Helen. It is not as if she is imposing herself on Stephen. They just fit so naturally well together and Stephen actually seems to respect that he is still married even though he lives apart from Stella. It is Stella that does not fit into the picture and it is not a matter of being right or wrong, it is just sad.
Which leads us to the director, because who else than King Vidor, the master of painful, fatalistic accept-your-misery films, is behind this one? He did “The Crowd”, which have some common themes with Stella Dallas. In both cases aiming high just means that you fall deeper and you only get really satisfied when you accept your role in life and sacrifice yourself for your loved ones.
I do not think Stella Dallas is a movie I will go back to very often. Stanwyck is good and there are funny scenes though mostly bittersweet because it is usually the pathetic Ed Munn who is behind them, but the prevailing sadness really takes a special mood to see it. The final scene with Stella watching her daughter’s wedding though a window is heartbreaking in the extreme.
But as a study in culture chock between social stratums “Stella Dallas” is excellent.