Buckets. Rivers. Oceans of tears. King Vidor’s STELLA DALLAS (1937) is a twelve hanky weeper that stars one of the greatest of the great actresses of all time, Barbara Stanwyck, in the title role. I think Stanny might be my all-time favorite, and Stella is a fantastic, fascinating character because she is over-the-top and garish, but also incredibly generous and loving; there is something completely lovable about her and she is someone that you want to root for. However, she doesn’t realize that she is too much (too loud, too unsophisticated, too ambitious) for the refined, upper-class peeps that she wants to associate with, and they are certainly not rooting for her. One of the many things that makes this film so devastating is that from the beginning, we (or at lease I) see where things will most likely end up, yet we are powerless to stop it, even by shouting at our tv, computer screen, or iPhone as we slowly cry our eyelashes off. No one does heartbreak like Old Hollywood, so I give you:
Five Ways To Channel Your Inner Stella Dallas
- Aspire to a higher station in life, when we all know it’s going to be a train wreck when you get there. Young Stella has her eye on the finer things in life; as we might say today, she has champagne tastes on a beer budget. Her ticket to the good life comes in the delicious package of Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a rich, eligible bachelor who is smitten by Stella and marries her after a whirlwind courtship. He whisks her away to an elegant home, dresses her in fine apparel, takes her to high-society events, and dotes on her after their baby girl is born.
- While your husband is in New York working most of the time, have the inappropriate guy (Ed, played by Alan Hale) you recently danced with in front of your hubby over to the house, serve him a drink and then make sure he is holding your precious baby girl as your husband WALKS IN THE DOOR from NYC. Surprise!
- Get dressed up in your “fancy” clothes, the ones you have made yourself because you are no longer Mrs. Stephen Dallas and money is tight, put on lots of makeup, wear high heels and a ginormous hat and stroll through the high-society crowd at the ritzy vacation spot looking for your daughter (Laurel, played by Anne Shirley) and the mother of the boy she likes. Look around as the crowd makes fun of what they consider your vulgar appearance.
- After your daughter hustles the two of you away from the ritzy resort without telling you why (Laurel has a heart of gold and doesn’t want you to be hurt by the nasty comments), settle into your berth on the train for some much-needed rest. Be wide awake as you hear some young girls that know Laurel ripping you to shreds, and let the realization that this crowd will never accept you play out on your face in a subtle way. When your sweet daughter looks into your berth so see if you have overheard, pretend to be asleep.
(In order to NOT give away the ending, I am going to omit a scene that should be here. If you have seen the film, it is where Stella meets with Helen to pitch her an idea, followed by what Stella does when Laurel comes home.)
- Stand in the dark with the other peasants outside the big, beautiful house in your sad coat and hat, tears streaming down your face, as you look through a window at your only child with the man she loves. Make sure your face is perfectly framed between the pointy iron bars of the fence that are a physical reminder of a class line you can never cross, and as you walk away, change your face subtly from longing and sadness to relief that your sacrifices were worth it, as your daughter will have the life you always wanted.