Stella Dallas is a very cheesy, predictable, dated film. It’s never hard to watch, but rarely brings something new or refreshing. Its one successful element is Barbara Stanwyck’s performance; and, oh yes: a very good final shot. Just for ‘30s fans.
Stankwyck plays Stella, a stubborn, good hearted white trash beauty who marries out of her league, dreaming of becoming a lady. However, once married, she ignores her husband’s guidance, settling for a lack of good taste. She dedicates herself to raising her daughter, but soon discovers her uneducated manners & image affect her daughter’s future prospects.
There are two opposite sides to her performance. First, there’s Barbara playing an ignorant and stubborn woman, unaware of how embarrassing her lack of taste is. Here is where Stanwyck mostly fails, because often enough she’s unconvincing. She stretches a lot the vulgarity of Stella, which isn’t always bad, but often enough lacks believability. There’s one particular physical scene with her throwing out a drunk, where I felt like she totally pulled out of character for a couple of seconds and almost unintentionally laughed.
Then there’s the real human side of Stella: the mother. She plays this role with a lot of emotion and it’s her face that beautifully suggests love, or shame or regret. There are a couple of scenes which are quite heartbreaking. Not the flashy, dialogue-filled one, but moments of quiet in which Barbara lets us know exactly what Stella feels.
There’s a scene on the train in which Stella accidentally finds out that her daughter was the laughing stock because of the vulgarity of her mother. She feels guilt when suddenly confronted with this truth she hadn’t realized till now. And it’s all in Barbara’s expressive eyes. The second one is the ending in the rain, which I won’t spoil, but it’s the same acting effect, previously used to perfection and same here.
What a confusing performance Barbara delivers. She’s so good when in the emotional area, but kind of fails in delivering a full believable performance. It needs to be all natural to feel right to me. Yet, in those seconds of greatness she probably delivers the best single acting moments of her category. Conflicted as I am, I’m going with .