Airing on TCM October 11 at 8 PM EST
“Stella Dallas”, directed by King Vidor and based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, is a fantastic film that cements Barbara Stanwyck, a fixture in racy Pre-Code dramas, as a serious leading lady. In the movie she plays Stella Martin, a lower class woman who marries an executive, Stephen Dallas (John Boles) to try to better herself. But once she gives birth to their daughter, Laurel (played by Anne Shirley as an adult) she finds that she wants a better way of life not for herself, but for Laurel. But Stella’s habits lean toward the vulgar, her wardrobe is flashy, and her acquaintances, including Ed Munn (Alan Hale) are obscene. Laurel loves her mother, but as she grows up she is often embarrassed by her, leading Stella to make the ultimate sacrifice for her betterment.
Stanwyck owns her role, fleshing out this complex character throughout her performance. Even when Stella acts inappropriately, her love for Laurel is always evident. Shirley, a great actress who retired from the business in 1946 at only 26 years old, is wonderful as well. Both women were nominated for Oscars for their performances in this movie. Character actor Alan Hale is fun to watch as the vulgar Ed Munn, while the cast also includes Barbara O’Neil as Stephen’s former fiancée Helen and Hattie McDaniel in the stereotypical role of a black maid. Both actresses would be best known for their roles in “Gone with the Wind” a couple years later, for which McDaniel became the first African American actress to win an Oscar.
“Stella Dallas” is filled with heart-wrenching moments throughout, but the real tear-jerker is the final scene, one of the most memorable in Stanwyck’s career. Interest in the characters extended beyond the ending, however; the movie was so popular it was adapted as a radio serial later that year, exploring the characters’ lives further. That program lasted eighteen years.
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