Stella Dallas (1937)

stella-dallas-37Early 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.

4/5 Stars

Japanese War Bride (1952)

Japanese_War_Bride_VideoCoverMuch like Sam Fuller’s Crimson Kimono (1959), Japanese War Bride’s title carries certain negative stereotypes, however, its central romance similarly feels groundbreaking, allowing it to exceed expectations.

The film opens during the waning days of the Korean War. A man lies incapacitated in a hospital bed, but he couldn’t be happier because he’s met the love of his life. Maybe it’s war fatigue or something else, but he simply cannot take his eyes off the pretty young nurse Ms. Shimuzu (Shirley Yamaguchi).

And although prospects don’t necessarily look that promising, since duty calls, Jim leaves that hospital bent on getting that girl for his wife. He’s serious. So serious in fact that he goes straight away to convene with Tae’s grandfather (Philip Ahn) that he might persuade him for Tae’s hand in marriage. Although warning that the road ahead will be a difficult one, the sagacious man, relents, reluctant to stand in the way of this blossoming love.

It’s after the happy couple is picked up at the train station by family and settle into the old family home, that it becomes obvious that things aren’t quite the same. They’ll be more difficult than they first appeared.

Jim’s parents and brother are welcoming enough, but there is still a necessary period of gelling as they get used to their new family member. Even Jim encourages his petite young wife to be more assertive and embrace American culture fully. She does her best.

japanesewarbride2Jim looks to build up a happy life with her as he looks to take some of his father’s land to keep a home of his own and raise crops. Tae begins to acclimate to her new life and gains the respect of the Taylor family while making a few friends including the kindly Hasagawa siblings (Lane Nakano and May Takasugi) who work at a factory nearby. The icing on the cake is when Tae announces she’s pregnant and Jim could not be more ecstatic.

Still, what crops up are the subtleties of racism through slight snubs and bits of insensitivity. First, the skeptical sister-in-law (Marie Windsor) drops pointed remarks towards Tae. At first, they are so veiled, they seem only a passing wisp of a word, hardly worth acknowledging. But following one of the neighbors confessing how much she hates all the Japanese, it becomes evident that all is not right in Monterrey.

One moment Tae is getting accosted by a drunken merrymaker at a party who jokingly calls her a geisha girl. Then the family is scared, rightfully so, when Mr. Taylor receives a threatening letter. It voices the opinion of an unnamed “friend” about the fact that there are rumors floating around that Tae’s baby looks fully Japanese and she has been spending time with Shiro Hasagawa. A scandal of this kind will ruin Mr. Taylor’s reputation among his fellow growers. It will ruin him period.

But most important to this story, it infuriates Jim with a fiery rage. He’s angry at all the narrow-minded folks he used to call friends. He’s mad at his family and most of all Fran for her part in Tae’s distress. It’s in these most tenuous moments that  Tae decides to take her baby and seek asylum somewhere else to get away from the cultural chasm that has formed. Of course, they are reunited and there is a version of a happy ending, but it does not take away from the bottom line. They’ll still have to struggle against societal pressures and flat-out bigotry. However, if you’re in love, there are many rivers you are willing to ford and the same goes for Jim and Tae.

japanesewarbride1Japanese War Bride is continuously fascinating for the presence of Japanese within its frames. First, we have a rather groundbreaking and relatively unheard of interracial romance between the always personable average everyman Don Taylor and stunning newcomer Shirley Yamaguchi. Their scenes are tender and hold a great deal of emotional impact. It’s the kind of drama that has the power to make us mentally distraught but also imbue us with joy.

The film carries even more sobering underlying tension given the relative freshness of World War II. Mothers are still bitter about the deaths of their sons and that righteous anger is not discriminating between people. It only sees race. Meanwhile, Shiro and his sister reflect the times as Nisei, who were affected by internment and increased amounts of prejudice. While Shiro was imprisoned in Japan during the war, his family was interned at Tulare near Sacramento and his resentful father nearly had all of his land taken. Many other Japanese farmers were not so lucky.

For her part Marie Windsor plays her prime role as the antagonistic woman to the tee, effectively embodying all the small-minded, underhanded folks out there that live life without a genuine kindness for their fellow man. Poisoning other people’s mind just as they are poisoned, and it’s this type of rancor that leads to fear and bigotry. A breeding ground for hatred. In some shape and form, it still rears its ugly head to this day. What makes this film special is how it reflects the realities as it pertains to Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Veteran director King Vidor’s effort is a generally authentic and nuanced tale that pays his subjects the ultimate respect even in its more melodramatic moments.

3.5/5 Stars

The Crowd (1928)

220px-Crowd-1928-PosterThe Crowd is a true piece of urban Americana, setting the standard when it comes to your average everyday American. King Vidor’s film lacks big-name star power and plays on a universal story similar to Murnau’s Sunrise. Our protagonist is Johnny Sims, who was fittingly born on the 4th of July. He’s the quintessential stand-in for anyone who has ever pursued the American Dream. He faces the death of his father at an early age and grows up getting lost in the masses of New York. With wall to wall skyscrapers towering above and a hopping city life, it’s easy to disappear.

This film is not Metropolis, but it is about a metropolis with the same behemoth sets swimming over the top with extras. In fact, at his job, Johnny looks like the original C.C. Baxter from The Apartment. He’s a cog in the giant mass of humanity, a little stop in the ever-churning conveyor belt.  Like Baxter, Sims becomes smitten with Mary, a lovely girl he meets on a double date with his joking colleague Bert. A lively night at a carnival and going through the tunnel of love cements their relationship. Soon they are married and heading off to the perfect honeymoon destination: Niagara Falls. This is where the love story is at its peak, riding on a wave of euphoria since these two are loved and in love. They feel indestructible, and there’s no one in the world that they would rather be with.

But as per usual, life happens to get in the way of love. Johnny isn’t too fond of Mary’s brothers and her mother, and the feelings are mutual. They just don’t see eye to eye, and they are skeptical of his prospects as a breadwinner. Matters are made worse during a tiff where Mary threatens to leave, and Sims does little to object. Their house is slowly falling apart, although they keep it together momentarily since she announces her pregnancy. That is the thin thread that binds them together.

Following their baby boy, comes a little girl, and finally, the raise that Johnny has been hoping for, but it’s not much. Things continue to be difficult as Johnny still waits for his ship to come in. His wife is annoyed with him and the meager prospects ahead. We are reminded that it’s not the big things but often the little ones that cause the most damage. Like little biting remarks that cut to the quick. And yet somehow, Johnny and Mary hang onto their romance.

In one scene she gazes down from the windowsill at him on the street below and they make up after a row. It’s rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, reflecting that they still care about each other. But matters are not helped by the fact that Johnny seems pretty useless. On a beach holiday Mary struggles to get everything right, and despite her best efforts, it all turns out wrong.

Only a few years before Johnny laughed out loud at a man forced to humiliate himself carrying signs masquerading as a clown. How embarrassing! And yet a desperate Johnny winds up with a similar lot. It doesn’t help that personal tragedy strikes his family where they are most vulnerable. In its day it was actually considered obscene (for featuring a toilet), and it was far from a success due to a downbeat ending. This is a Pre-Depression world, and yet life is still far from easy.  And that allows The Crowd to stand the test of time fairly resiliently because it’s still possible to relate with its patriotism, its tragedy, and its resolute optimism.

4.5/5 Stars