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Prior to Joan Crawford's star turn as the ultimate in self-sacrificing mother in Mildred Pierce (1945), there was no better martyr for motherhood than Stella Dallas, the tragic heroine of Olive Higgins Prouty's novel which inspired several film versions. When Samuel Goldwyn announced plans to re-make his classic 1925 silent film with Barbara Stanwyck in the role, most of his contemporaries laughed, believing the story would be hopelessly out of date. Instead, Goldwyn scored a box office bonanza with Stanwyck delivering a powerhouse performance as a single mother who drives her daughter away so the girl can find a better life.
Prouty's novel, Stella Dallas, had been a best seller in the '20s, whenGoldwyn bought the screen rights for a then-impressive $15,000. The storywas quite timely in its day, dealing with the rise of divorce in Americanlife and the growing prevalence of single-parent homes. With Henry Kingdirecting a cast headed by Belle Bennett as Stella, newcomer Lois Moran asher daughter and Goldwyn contract star Ronald Colman as her estrangedhusband, the film was a smash. In fact, it grossed more than any otherGoldwyn silent and helped build his reputation as a producer of qualityfilms.
When Goldwyn scored a hit with a 1935 re-make of his silent tear-jerkerThe Dark Angel, he decided to create a new version of his biggestsilent success. And though most of Hollywood predicted the re-make wouldfail, almost every actress in town was fighting for the title role.Goldwyn was leaning toward Ruth Chatterton, who had made a major comebackas the shrewish wife in his production of Dodsworth in 1936. Aslong as William Wyler was slated to direct the film, she had the insidetrack. But when Goldwyn realized that Wyler's work on loan to Warner Bros.for Jezebel (1938) would drag on longer than anticipated, he hired KingVidor instead. Although he had never worked with Stanwyck, Vidor felt thesimple realism she'd mastered working with such directors as Frank Capraand William Wellman would keep the story fresh and contemporary. He had anally in Joel McCrea, a frequent Stanwyck co-star, to whom she had appealedfor help in landing the role.
But when McCrea tried to convince Goldwyn she was perfect, he objected thatStanwyck had no sex appeal. McCrea pointed out that Robert Taylor, one ofthe handsomest men in movies, obviously didn't think so; he had been hersteady date for some time. Finally, Goldwyn agreed to meet Stanwyck, onlyto tell her he didn't think she had sufficient experience with motherhood.Although she had an adopted son, she had to admit that she had neversuffered over a child. "But I can imagine how it would be," she quicklyadded (recounted in Stanwyck by Axel Madsen). That convinced Goldwyn to ask her totest for the role. Though such a move was unprecedented at the time for astar of her caliber, she agreed.
By that point, RKO starlet Anne Shirley had been cast as Stella's daughter,so she joined Stanwyck. They tested with the birthday scene, in whichplans to throw a lavish birthday party for her daughter are ruined whennone of the guests show up, forbidden to attend because of the mother'sscandalous behavior. After screening the test once, Goldwyn realizedStanwyck was perfect for the role.
During shooting, Stanwyck and Shirley were frustrated by Vidor's lack ofdirection. He seemed more interested in camera angles than in theirperformances. Stanwyck at least had the experience to develop theperformance on her own, She drew on memories of Belle Bennett's silentperformance and her own concept of a character whose surface commonnessmasked a warm and generous heart. Shirley, however, felt lost. Finally,she complained to Goldwyn, bursting into tears during their meeting.Goldwyn reassured her kindly, but as soon as she left he called Vidor. "Idon't care what you tell the kid," he screamed. "Tell her she'slousy if she's great or great if she's lousy. Tell her any damn thing youplease. I just can't cope with hysterical females, and I don't want to bebothered again." (from The RKO Gals by James Robert Parish).
For his part, Vidor hated working with Goldwyn. He couldn't take themercurial producer's temperamental outbursts and sudden mood shifts.Goldwyn would turn up on the set, screaming at everyone that the rusheswere the worst he had ever seen, then call Vidor that night to apologizebecause he'd watched them again and realized he was wrong. When thedirector finished shooting, he posted a sign over his desk reading, "NOMORE GOLDWYN PICTURES!"
But once the picture opened to rave reviews and a strong box office all the frustrations and headaches experienced on the Stella Dallas set were forgotten. Stanwyck waspraised for her no-holds-barred performance and her decision to foregomakeup for some of her character's older scenes. Other critics hailedShirley's unexpected depth in the role and insisted that she had stolen thepicture. And everyone agreed that Vidor had kept the old fashioned storyfrom drowning in bathos. Both Stanwyck and Shirley were nominated forOscars®. Though she would score three more Best Actress nominationswithout ever winning, Stanwyck would always regret her loss for StellaDallas the most, feeling that it was her best work.
Vidor would stay true to his vow never to work for Goldwyn again, butStanwyck, who admired the producer's commitment to quality, would be happyto return to his studios for a change-of-pace comedy role in Ball ofFire four years later. The success of Stella Dallas inspired along-running radio serial about the further adventures of Stella, as shecontinued to fight for her daughter's happiness. It would also inspire onemore re-make, Stella, with Bette Midler in the title role, StephenCollins as her husband and Trini Alvarado as their daughter. By the timethis version came out in 1990, however, the story really was hopelessly outof date. It was the only film version of Prouty's novel to fail at the boxoffice and even brought Midler a Razzie nomination as Worst Actress of theYear.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman
Based on the Novel by Olive Higgins Prouty and the Play by Harry WagstaffGribble and Gertrude Purcell
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas), John Boles (StephenDallas), Anne Shirley (Laurel Dallas), Barbara O'Neil (Helen Morrison),Alan Hale (Ed Munn), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Tim Holt (RichardGrosvenor).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller