Early on, when she is growing up, it seems very easy to read Stella (Barbara Stanwyck). She is a young woman born into a humble background with a family that could at best be called earthy. Still, Stella wants to know what it feels like to live in the lap of luxury. She wants a more refined life and it’s easy for all the cynics to assume she’s making eyes at the handsome mill executive Stephen Dallas (John Boles) for what he can give her.
And such a presumption would not be entirely untrue. She wants to become more like him. She wants to improve herself and gain access to the world that he has known all his life before his father tragically died. But there’s an earnestness about her. She’s not simply an opportunist. She is ready to pursue this life alongside Stephen and an emblem of that very fact is the subsequent birth of their daughter, Laurel. And this is where the film begins to progress towards its main objective.
As it turns out, Stella truly is a wonderful mother. Loving her daughter in every way and giving her all the affection she possibly can. Meanwhile, although still devoted to his daughter, Stephen is away most of the time occupied with work, so in many ways, Stella raises her child single-handedly. Her only company is the housekeeper, the fun but less than desirable Ed Munn (Alan Hale), and, of course, Laurel who soon grows up to be a young woman right before our eyes (Anne Shirley).
In a modern world of celebrity scandal and bitterness, two people such as this would probably have a divorce as soon as possible but there’s a civility between Stephen and Stella. Perhaps they don’t love each other and they hardly spend any time with each other anymore, but they both are devoted to their daughter and by transference, they still care about the other’s well-being.
But as “Lollie” begins to grow up into a sweet, effervescent beauty, the inevitable begins to happen. The upbringing and status of her mother are at odds with the rest of the company that Stephen keeps as well as most of Laurel’s peers. A lesser film would have allowed the chafing between mother and daughter be the undoing of their relationship. But that is a far too easy place to find drama. Stella Dallas is a more audacious film because Laurel could never bare to leave her mother’s side. No matter what her friends might say in passing, she is unswervingly faithful to the end. But it’s the fact, that Stella realizes, in a sense, that she is holding Laurel back (at least in her own estimation). And in the most sacrificial way she knows, she does everything she can to set Laurel up with the best future.
Ultimately, this life means moving back with her father, Stella divorcing Stephen so that Laurel might have a proper mother (Barbara O’Neil) to fit her upbringing, and finally driving her beloved daughter away so that she might truly find happiness. Stella Dallas gives so much of herself and as a viewer, it’s easy to question the validity of her actions. But I can only imagine, that as a parent you are willing to give up so much for the happiness of your children without even blinking an eye. So it is in this film.
Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal, undoubtedly giving one of the greatest dramatic performances of her illustrious career. You would think for a woman so young and vibrant she couldn’t possibly pull off the role of a maternal figure convincingly but Stella Dallas repeatedly proves any doubters wrong. It’s an excruciatingly painful picture for the very fact that it is full of such an overwhelming amount of love — love of the highest order — the sacrificial love of a parent. And it turns on this axle so beautifully. We initially view Stella Dallas in one light and by the end of the story, our entire perspective has evolved. I cannot recall another scene in recent memory that has moved me so much as watching this mother observe from a distance as her daughter is wed.
It’s a searing portrait and Stanwyck and the equally sympathetic Shirley lend so much credence to the dynamic. We believe them because there is an obvious sincerity — an inherent honesty — in their word and deed. To simply label King Vidor’s film a “Weepie” is a major disservice to the entire cast involved. This is a heart-wrencher with an overwhelming ability to move. There is little shame in tearing up. They don’t come much more poignant than this.