Stella Dallas, screened as part of King Vidor retrospective at Berlinale 2020, depicts a marvelously grey protagonist

Baradwaj Rangan

Mar 12, 2020 11:31:37 IST

In Stella Dallas (1937), Barbra Stanwyck plays the titular character, the daughter of a millworker who wants more from life.

 Stella Dallas, screened as part of King Vidor retrospective at Berlinale 2020, depicts a marvelously grey protagonist

Barbara Stanwyck in a still from Stella Dallas. Twitter

As the film opens – the year is 1919 – she is trying to catch the eye of a rich man, Stephen (John Boles), an executive at the mill. Eventually, she succeeds, with a series of moves that could be called “womanly wiles”. Does this make her a bad person? Or is she simply someone who goes after what she wants? After all, she does not misrepresent herself to Stephen. He knows who she is, what social class she is from. The “womanly wiles” merely help her catch his attention, right?

Because if he had not liked her, no amount of trying on her part would have made him begin to date her. When he makes a move to kiss her on the street, she hesitates – she’s like one of those girls who won’t “do things” unless they are married. So if Stephen agrees to get married, that means he wants to marry her, right? Surely there are many women he could have if a kiss or sex is what he was after. Stella is like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, another ambitious woman who pretends a little to get the man she wants. She isn’t “evil”, either. She’s just a fascinatingly complicated human being, someone incapable of being instantly labelled as “good” or “bad”.

Like its heroine, Stella Dallas is fascinatingly complicated. While returning from a movie, Stella says she wants to be like the folks from high society. Stephen seems to like her as she is. He says, “Don't be like anyone else!” But does he mean it? Because after marriage, when she walks into a high-society event in her own inimitable style, he rebukes her gently for wearing the imitation jewellery he had asked her not to wear. Now, he says, “I want you to give up some things.” Again, Stephen is neither “good” nor “bad”. He’s just a man who’s used to a certain amount of class, which he slowly discovers his wife has none of. He moves to New York on work, and when Stella refuses to go with him, he settles into a life with a “classy” woman who’s more his type.

This is a story about class, though some elements may appear dated – or even controversial – today. Stephen is constantly shown as, well, classy, while Stella reads “vulgar” film magazines and hobnobs with “cheap”-looking men. (She doesn’t have affairs. She just has male friends.) Even after moving to New York, Stephen keeps in touch and when Stella has a daughter, he keeps sending gifts. Only, they are “classy” gifts. After yet another instalment of books, Stella grumbles that their daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley), could get these at the local public library. Why doesn’t he send a fur coat, instead?

The beauty of this film lies in how marvelously grey Stella is. Just as you pin her down as one thing, she shows another (unexpected) side.

You’d think she’d reject her daughter, having to care for someone other than her own self. But she turns out to be a selfless mother, who genuinely loves Laurel. And Laurel genuinely loves her back, even after she starts shuttling between her home with Stella and her father’s home in New York, and discovers what “classy” women are really like. She doesn’t begin to despise Stella, even after the latter makes a fool of herself in front of Laurel’s newfound posh friends.

Stella Dallas was screened as part of the King Vidor retrospective at the Berlinale. (I also saw the terrible Solomon and Sheba, which Vidor directed towards the end of his career.) In a statement, Carlo Chatrian, the festival’s Artistic Director, said, “Vidor is not an auteur in the purest sense of the word. His style adheres to only one tenet: absolute freedom to tell the story he was often entrusted with. He is arguably the American director who did the least to convey a ‘bigger than life’ message. To him, life – the life of the characters from whom the film starts and to whom it returns – was larger than anything else.”

There is no message in Stella Dallas. The film does not judge her or Stephen or anyone else (though in looking at Stella through Stephen’s eyes, or vice versa, a certain amount of judgement becomes inevitable). It just tells their story, in all its complexity. A lot of the film’s style would be considered “broad” today, but there’s so much that lies unstated and makes you think, long after you’ve left the movie. For instance: Stella did seem to want the high-society life, at first. Why, then, didn’t she adapt? Why didn’t she emulate the “classy” women of Stephen’s world? Why did she insist on parading around her definition of style, even after being scoffed at?

Because that’s who she is. In one of the laugh-out-loud passages from the Olive Higgins Prouty novel from which the film is adapted, Stephen asks, despairingly, “Why did you ever marry me, Stella?” She says, “Why, because I was crazy about you. I thought you were perfectly great.” He asks, “How can a woman be crazy about a man – care for a man, and not be willing to adapt herself somewhat to him, to give up a few things for him?” She simply says, “How would it do for you to do a little of the adapting, Stephen, a little of the giving up?” Stella may have wanted a different life, but she never let that make her a different woman. 

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Mar 12, 2020 11:31:37 IST

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