Stella Dallas (1937)
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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film with Barbara Stanwyck in the role, most of his contemporaries laughed, believing the story would be hopelessly out of date.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, when Goldwyn bought the screen rights for a then-impressive $15,000. The story was quite timely in its day, dealing with the rise of divorce in American life and the growing prevalence of single-parent homes. With Henry King directing a cast headed by Belle Bennett as Stella, newcomer Lois Moran as her daughter and Goldwyn contract star Ronald Colman as her estranged husband, the film was a smash. In fact, it grossed more than any other Goldwyn silent and helped build his reputation as a producer of quality films.
When Goldwyn scored a hit with a 1935 re-make of his silent tear-jerker The Dark Angel, he decided to create a new version of his biggest silent success. And though most of Hollywood predicted the re-make would fail, almost every actress in town was fighting for the title role. Goldwyn was leaning toward Ruth Chatterton, who had made a major comeback as the shrewish wife in his production of Dodsworth in 1936. As long as William Wyler was slated to direct the film, she had the inside track. But when Goldwyn realized that Wyler's work on loan to Warner Bros. for Jezebel (1938) would drag on longer than anticipated, he hired King Vidor instead. Although he had never worked with Stanwyck, Vidor felt the simple realism she'd mastered working with such directors as Frank Capra and William Wellman would keep the story fresh and contemporary. He had an ally in Joel McCrea, a frequent Stanwyck co-star, to whom she had appealed for help in landing the role.
But when McCrea tried to convince Goldwyn she was perfect, he objected that Stanwyck had no sex appeal. McCrea pointed out that Robert Taylor, one of the handsomest men in movies, obviously didn't think so; he had been her steady date for some time. Finally, Goldwyn agreed to meet Stanwyck, only to 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 never suffered over a child. "But I can imagine how it would be," she quickly added (recounted in Stanwyck by Axel Madsen). That convinced Goldwyn to ask her to test for the role. Though such a move was unprecedented at the time for a star 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 which plans to throw a lavish birthday party for her daughter are ruined when none of the guests show up, forbidden to attend because of the mother's scandalous behavior. After screening the test once, Goldwyn realized Stanwyck was perfect for the role.
During shooting, Stanwyck and Shirley were frustrated by Vidor's lack of direction. He seemed more interested in camera angles than in their performances. Stanwyck at least had the experience to develop the performance on her own, She drew on memories of Belle Bennett's silent performance and her own concept of a character whose surface commonness masked 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. "I don't care what you tell the kid," he screamed. "Tell her she's lousy if she's great or great if she's lousy. Tell her any damn thing you please. I just can't cope with hysterical females, and I don't want to be bothered again." (from The RKO Gals by James Robert Parish).
For his part, Vidor hated working with Goldwyn. He couldn't take the mercurial producer's temperamental outbursts and sudden mood shifts. Goldwyn would turn up on the set, screaming at everyone that the rushes were the worst he had ever seen, then call Vidor that night to apologize because he'd watched them again and realized he was wrong. When the director finished shooting, he posted a sign over his desk reading, "NO MORE 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 was praised for her no-holds-barred performance and her decision to forego makeup for some of her character's older scenes. Other critics hailed Shirley's unexpected depth in the role and insisted that she had stolen the picture. And everyone agreed that Vidor had kept the old fashioned story from drowning in bathos. Both Stanwyck and Shirley were nominated for Oscars®. Though she would score three more Best Actress nominations without ever winning, Stanwyck would always regret her loss for Stella Dallas the most, feeling that it was her best work.
Vidor would stay true to his vow never to work for Goldwyn again, but Stanwyck, who admired the producer's commitment to quality, would be happy to return to his studios for a change-of-pace comedy role in Ball of Fire four years later. The success of Stella Dallas inspired a long-running radio serial about the further adventures of Stella, as she continued to fight for her daughter's happiness. It would also inspire one more re-make, Stella, with Bette Midler in the title role, Stephen Collins as her husband and Trini Alvarado as their daughter. By the time this version came out in 1990, however, the story really was hopelessly out of date. It was the only film version of Prouty's novel to fail at the box office and even brought Midler a Razzie nomination as Worst Actress of the Year.
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 Wagstaff Gribble and Gertrude Purcell
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas), John Boles (Stephen Dallas), Anne Shirley (Laurel Dallas), Barbara O'Neil (Helen Morrison), Alan Hale (Ed Munn), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Tim Holt (Richard Grosvenor).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller