Film Review: “Stella Dallas” (1937) – Ball of Fire: The FIlms of Barbara Stanwyck


Caring. Sleepless nights. Working all day and night in order to create a better future for your child is one of the definitions of motherhood. However, none of the above apply to one lady, Stella Dallas, whose love for her child is most likely the strongest feeling she has ever had for anyone.  Unfortunately, she loves even more than her child, having fun, dancing with unknown men, and making unnecessary acquaintances that will bring more trouble to her already distressed and miserable life. Will she ever learn a lesson from her mistakes and have the life she always wanted to have? In this totally surprising, mesmerizing and touching film, Stella Dallas will make you travel back in time to hate and dislike only one person, who happens to be  the primary victim of her own selfishness and unpleasant life style… But, in the end all that will matter is whether Stella Dallas will take her own daughter down the same path to fall as her mother did, or will she let her go, to have a better life, a life that she could have never given her?

America. 1919. Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) instead of going to school to get a valuable education, stands outside of her house looking for an opportunity… And, the opportunity comes in Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a handsome young man, who happens to be the boss of Stella`s brother. Acting like a naïve and innocent young lady, Stella makes Stephen fall in love with her, and soon after, marry her. One year passes and Stella gives birth to a girl named Laurel. But, as soon as Stella leaves the hospital she gets back to her old life, where she drinks as much as she wants, and meets with whoever she wants, despite her marital status.

Barbara Stanwyck`s Stella is an absolutely unlikable and revolting character, who makes the viewer detest her with all their heart. Stella seems to want to have a life as if from a movie, where a lady acts like a lady, and dresses like a princess. Despite all this wishful thinking, Stella does nothing to improve her life; to get herself up to the level all ladies must be. In the meantime we see something in Stella that is undeniable –her charm, the endless love she has for her daughter, and her kind heart, which keep her from being worse off. After all the trouble and embarrassing situations that Stella causes Stephen, he leaves his wife, but not his daughter. He is a wealthy man who has enough money to buy his daughter`s attention and keep her away from her mother, but the question is, is this what Laurel (beautifully played by Anne Shirley) really wants – to stay away from her troubled mother?

The film Stella Dallas has a certain loveliness that is inherent to The Golden Age of Hollywood, where the writers knew how to present the script to attract the audience’s attention, and also knew how to create a specific cinematography that will amaze us with its inexpressible beauty, as well as the timeless performance delivered by the great Barbara Stanwyck. It`s a very sad story of one woman who just has no idea how to live her life the way it should be. It is also about missing opportunities that would astonish anyone… and, it is an incredible story of how one person, against all odds, will have to make a very important decision in her life, to ensure that no one else’s life will ever be ruined again.

Stella Dallas is one of those films that is hard to watch. Some scenes are ridiculously heavy and will make you cry like a child. This is a film that should be on anyone`s short list to see, because the performance delivered by Barbara Stanwyck is unprecedented. She totally disappears into her character, and makes us believe that she is real. However, the credit must also go to Anne Shirley, who plays Stanwyck`s daughter. Looking at these two actresses, you just simply understand that they were meant to play a Mother and daughter. Saying that, Stella Dallas is a powerful drama, guaranteed to evoke everyone`s emotions with one important life lesson: if you for some reason fail to take the opportunity to have a better life that does not mean that your child must follow same path. The self-sacrifice of a parent is sometimes all that some children need to have a life that their parents could not give them. And, let`s all hope that somewhere in the world it`s already happening…

Note, that TIFF still continues the retrospective for the films of Barbara Stanwyck. You can find the complete schedule following this link.

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