Judge Daryl Loomis got married above his station, in his apartment overlooking the gas pumps.
Sure, I like a good time!
I hate rankings, but if I had to pick my favorite actress of all-time, I'm pretty sure I would say her name is Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity). With a career spanning four decades, she made the change from ingénue to femme fatale to wife and mother to family matriarch more successfully than any other actress in history. Her beauty, wit, and sex appeal matched perfectly with a supreme talent for acting, making her the most arresting figure on screen any time she appears. From her scantily clad appearance in Night Nurse all the way to her gun-toting swan song in The Big Valley, there will never be another like her. To celebrate this amazing career for no good reason whatsoever, I present the 1937 production of Stella Dallas, a film in which Stanwyck forged her first of several career-defining performances, one that stands up extremely well 75 years later.
Facts of the Case
Young Stella (Stanwyck) has never been satisfied with her lower class station in life, so she jumps at the chance when the well-bred Stephen Dallas (John Boles, Frankenstein) asks her out. They hit it off, get married and, before long, their family is complete with the birth of Laurel, their beautiful young daughter. While it looks like the happiest of families, when work takes Stephen away to New York, fractures start to show and, soon, Stephen stops coming home. As Laurel grows up (now played by Anne Shirley, Boy Slaves), she splits her time between her well-meaning but rough mother and her well-to-do father, through whom she meets her true love. But Stella sees her coarseness as an impediment to that love and must make the hardest decision that any mother can ever make.
King Vidor (The Big Parade) wasn't the most innovative or stylish director of his era, but nobody of the time was more trusted to deliver a straightforward adaptation of a work with good performances and first-rate production values and there may be no clearer example of that than his version of Stella Dallas. This second version of Olive Higgins Prouty's 1924 novel is solid on every level. The plot spans decades, but Vidor weaves it together nicely. The story moves very well and feels natural without ever seeming forced.
With all the massively heavy emotions, that seems like a tall task, but it all comes down to the brilliant and heartbreaking performance of Barbara Stanwyck. The Stella Dallas character could easily be played as a simpering martyr, but Stanwyck plays her with supreme dignity and strength. She has to play a woman through the decades, from a youth to a broken older woman and does it all with her incredible skill and grace. She has to carry every piece of the movie and is simply brilliant in the part.
Her performance is interesting, as well, because the type of character she plays, the social climber, was generally looked at in a negative light. Instead of being the dirty poor who steals the love of a good rich man, only to ruin his life. All that same stuff happens in Stella Dallas, but Stanwyck plays it so sympathetically that none of those connotations ever come into play. The final third of the film is one heartbreak after another, driving me increasingly toward tears until the genuinely crushing finish that still resonates all these decades later.
But Stanwyck isn't acting alone. Her performance may be one of the best of her or any career, but she's bolstered by a very good supporting cast. It's tough to match Stanwyck's power, but the lovely Anne Shirley does admirable work as Laurel, her daughter. All the emotion of the Stella character forces Shirley to do some pretty hard work of her own and she's more than up to the task. John Boles, as Stephen Dallas, doesn't have a whole lot to do, but is adequate for the role, and in the role most rare during this era of cinema, Alan Hale plays the creepy Ed Munn, whose drunkenness could easily just be played for straight comedy, but is a secret villain. The only way we know this is Laurel's reaction to Stella putting his picture up; it's so full of palpable revulsion that there's no doubt of some darkness below the surface. These extraordinary performances make the movie brilliant to watch and are as good today as they were in 1937.
Stella Dallas comes to DVD from Warner Bros in a decent release. The 1.33:1 image fares quite well; it has strong contrast and almost no dirt or dust to be found on the print. Black and while levels are solid and, while there are a couple of scenes are a little softer than the rest, it's a mostly consistent image. The sound fares pretty well, too, with a clean mono mix. The dialog and music are clear and there's little to no hissing or pops in the mix.
There's only one extra on the disc and, though it's not the one that the box advertises, it's very good. The package claims that the disc contains a vintage featurette about the movie. I wasn't looking forward to it and, thankfully, it isn't there. In its place, however, is the complete 1925 silent version of Stella Dallas starring Belle Bennett (The Iron Mask) and directed by Henry King (Carousel). It's not as strong a film as the 1937 version, but it's still pretty good and the character of Ed Munn is even creepier here than in the later version. The only downside is that it does not come with a musical score, so you'll have to provide your own accompaniment. That's a small price to pay, though, for such a valuable supplement.
Stanwyck's performance is the obvious calling card for Stella Dallas, and it's legitimately amazing, but King Vidor and the supporting cast make for a beautiful, sad drama that is extremely resonant today. With a solid transfer and the inclusion of the silent version, the DVD is an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Silent Version
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