If King Vidor’s Stella Dallas isn’t quite a masterpiece of Hollywood melodrama, it only misses by a few inches. It has all the energy it needs–and all the cruelty, too. Melodramas don’t just thrive on exaggeration, they thrive on agony, and this tale of class and maternal sacrifice makes the most of Barbara Stanwyck’s luminous humiliation and self-immolation. It’s a film where the domestic and the social realms are the only ones that matter, and it can stage an unattended birthday party that looks as desolate as a smoke-laced battlefield.
Where it falls down, just a little, is in filling out its world. It’s fine for Stella to be the only real character in a world of symbols, but those symbols need to be vividly and colorfully drawn. When they’re not–as in the case of Stella’s milquetoast husband, Stephen (John Boles)–it saps the movie’s vitality, and since the story starts with the (brief) Stella-Stephen courtship, it means the movie is front-loaded with its worst scenes. Anne Shirley is stuck with a similarly limp role as Stella’s beloved daughter, Laurel, but Laura’s shiny-eyed perfection is at least a side-effect of the genre. She’s what Stella has to give up, so–in a story that believes in maximum impact–she must be the best daughter ever, precision-made to fit her role in the plot. (Laurel’s own prize–the husband Stella has to ensure she wins–is equally dull, from what little we see of him. He has lots of money and good hair.) The writing for Stephen, on the other hand, is needlessly weak, and Boles doesn’t do anything to improve upon it.
But the movie does supply two supporting characters who are more forcefully embodied than they need to be, and when they share scenes with Stanwyck, sparks really fly. One is Alan Hale’s Ed Munn, a brash gambler and prankster, wistful and vulgar, whose life slowly hits the skids in the background; the other is Laurel’s eventual stepmother, Helen (Barbara O’Neil), who gracefully radiates a genuine dignity and compassion. They’re not necessarily well-developed–though Munn comes close–but they have presence, and just enough complexity to suggest three dimensions.
Of course, while Stella Dallas is both hampered and helped by its supporting cast, it’s only about its title character. In fact, it’s often hilariously willing to ditch characters the second they stop affecting her: whither her family from the first act, or at least the mother she was close to and the fiery brother who both teased and defended her? No idea. Is anyone going to actually drag Ed Munn out of that flophouse? Who can say. Let’s call this ruthless trimming of the fat part of the movie’s cruelty–Stella has to be alone in her crucial moments, without anyone to rely on. Even if it just misses absolute, unequivocal greatness, it’s still a very good, absorbing watch, and you can’t say it lacks for commitment.
Stella Dallas is streaming on Amazon Prime.