Monday, 2 February 2015

STELLA DALLAS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX series "Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck". Curated by the inimitable Senior Programmer James Quandt.

Sure, she's a goodtime gal, but she's a great Mom, too!
Unfit to be a MOTHER? Says WHO?
Stella Dallas (1937)
Dir. King Vidor
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley, Barbara O'Neill, Alan Hale, Marjorie Main, George Walcott, Tim Holt

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Yes, Barbara Stanwyck can suffer, but she suffers like no other Grande Dames of the Golden Age of Cinema.

Sure, I can probably imagine Bette Davis in the title role of Stella Dallas, but Madame Davis would have taken the galumphing flamboyance of the role to such extremes that one's response to the character might well have been a belly flop into a vat of pure bile as opposed to a floridly, gleaming receptacle of marshmallows and sauerkraut. Not that the former (if not even the latter) idea isn't appealing, but I suspect the palatability of such a picture, or lack thereof, might have proven far too repulsive (no matter how delectable for hardcore Davis fans) to have been green-lit by any studio, never mind accepted by the general public.

Joan Crawford, however, another great silver screen sufferer, just simply would have never accepted the role, nor would she have been suited it. Even when Madame Crawford played characters below the social station one normally associates with everyone's favourite child abuser, she somehow managed to float far above them in some kind of stratosphere of sheer, almost ethereal black widow elegance.

No, the role of Stella would have not done for Crawford, either.

But Barbara Stanwyck is a completely differently kettle of fish (albeit with the most astonishing gams in movie history). The role of Stella Dallas requires someone who is sexy, funny, frilly, frumpy, plain-spoken and able to run the gamut of social climbing amidst the most provincial of climates and this is precisely what we get with the magnificent King Vidor wash-tub of extra-frothy soap suds.

Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) lives in a relatively sunny, innocuous provincial backwater when she catches the eye of high-class, big city Stephen Dallas (John Boles). She's clearly funny, sharp and gorgeous, seemingly far above the station of her decidedly grotesque working class family (her Mom is played by an extra-haggard Marjorie Main of "Ma Kettle" fame). She wants a swanky hubby like there's no tomorrow and she does everything in her power to reel Dallas in.

They eventually marry, but it's clear the couple, on both sides of the equation, find they've plumb gotten themselves into a pig-in-a-poke partnership. Stephen is devoted and kind-hearted, but a major league dullard who has no desire to cavort with the town's upper-crust. Stella, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to dine, drink and dance up a storm with the same-said highfalutin nouveau-riche of the provinces. And this is the problem; the upper crust in this burgh hovers as close to the lowest class imaginable, only with more money than Stella's former social stratus. Stephen genuinely comes from old money and he has little in common with these yahoos.

The couple does manage to spawn one lovely bit of progeny who grows up into the winning and oh-so comely young lassie Laurel (played by the star of the old Hollywood Anne of Green Gables movies who had her name legally changed to that of L.M. Montgomery's immortal Anne Shirley). Of course, there's no two ways about Stella's devotion to her daughter. She's a great Mom and Laurel loves her dearly.

Alas, Dallas moves to New York to take on a high-end corporate position and while separated, he hooks up with an old upper-crust (and now widowed) sweetheart Helen Morrison (Barbara O'Neill). As Laurel makes more and more visits to be with her Father, she begins to get a taste of what "upper-class" really means - and it ain't the loud, brash, colourfully-dressed, cheaply-perfumed good time gal from the provinces who spends far too much time cavorting with the town drunk Ed Munn (Alan Hale).

When Stella discovers that her daughter might be rejected by high society because she's so "low-class", she's devastated and forced to consider the ultimate sacrifice. And believe you me, the sacrifice is substantial and Stella Dallas proves to be a picture that more than lives up to its stellar reputation as one of the greatest tear-jerkers of all time.

It's Stanwyck, of course, who's primarily responsible for wrenching globs of glistening liquid matter from our oculi. From beginning to end, she creates a character who is as warm as she is frustratingly clueless, as devoted as she is devoid of decorum and as conflicted about her station in society as she is determined to make a sacrifice as bold, selfless and just this side of Jesus H. Christ Almighty.

Stella Dallas is a great picture. You certainly won't be seeing anything like it in this day and age (Yes, please skip the loathsome 1990 Bette Midler remake Stella). Then again, it'd be hard to duplicate the genuinely original approach to telling an immortal mother-daughter story as is told here by the great stalwart studio wizard King (The Big Parade, The Crowd, Northwest Passage, Duel in the Sun) Vidor, the top notch screenplay adaptation by Sarah (Golden Boy) Mason and Victor (Little Women) Heerman of the ludicrously over-ripe Olive Higgins Prouty (Now, Voyager) novel and last, but not least and frankly, first and foremost, the utterly magnificent and one-of-a-kind Barbara Stanwyck.

The Film Corner Rating: ***** 5-Stars

Stella Dallas plays Sunday, February 8 at 3:45 p.m at TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX in James Quandt's amazing series "Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck". The film is presented in GLORIOUS 35MM. For further info, visit the TIFF website HERE. As well, there are many Barbara Stanwyck films from this TIFF series which can be ordered directly from the following links: Buy Barbara Stanwyck movies in Canada HERE and/or Buy Barbara Stanwyck movies in the USA or from anywhere in the world HERE. You can even click on any of these links and order ANY movie you want so long as you keep clicking through to whatever you want to order. By doing so, you'll be contributing to the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.