Stella Dallas (1937): King Vidor’s Sublime Maternal Melodrama, Starring Barbara Stanwyck in her first Oscar Nominated Role

With sensitive direction and discreet taste, King Vidor succeeds in elevating this melodrama of mother-daughter relationship. Barbara Stanwyck gives a stellar performance as the eponymous heroine, Stella Martin Dallas, who cannot change her working-class habits of speaking, dressing, and behaving.

The film is the story of a lower-class woman from the wrong side of the track, the daughter of a poor mill worker who marries into the upper class but cannot adapt to its lifestyle. Stella snares her husband Stephen (John Boles), a handsome, well-born man, whose family had lost its money when his father committed suicide.

Stephen moves to a small New England town, where he meets Stella. He had been engaged to Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil), a woman of his class, but when his fortune was lost, he left and she took up with another man.

Socially inferior, Stella is tough, a bit vulgar, and loud-mouthed but completely devoted to her one daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley), determined to secure a better life for her. Stephen is offered a job in New York and asks Stella to come with him, but fearing the reaction of his society friends, she opts to stay in the mill town. However, when Stella realized that she is an obstacle in her daughter’s chance to rise out of their poor milieu, she sends her to her husband, who in the meantime has remarried into his own class.

Meanwhile, Stella socializes with the rough-hewn, hard-drinking friends of her youth, but she remains a good, devoted mother. When class equal Ed Munn (Alan Hale) wishes to marry her, she refuses, because her life is devoted to Laurel.

When riding a train, Munn gets abusive and offends many of the townspeople, who associate him with Stella and Laurel. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Stella throws a birthday party for Laurel, but no one shows up. The film’s key, most touching scene occurs when Stella and Laurel visit a posh resort courtesy of Stephen’s generosity, and Stella hears the comments of Laurel’s friends about her coarse behavior and garish clothes.
At the end, close to dying, the adoptive mother lets Stella watch her daughter’s wedding to a fine man through the window in a pouring rain pushed along by the police along with the other viewers.

“Stella Dallas” offers an idealized portrait of one aspect of female adolescence. For the female viewers in particular, the film experience compliments and then mirrors the narrative–the daughter’s separation from, ambivalence about, and choices concerning her mother become the viewer’s own. Scenes considered to be the key in the delineation of the process are highlighted, focusing specifically on the synergism between structure and meaning, style and content.

“Stella Dallas” contains at least half a dozen moving scenes that have retain their emotional impact 70 years after the film was made. One such scene includes the two mothers: the adoptive, Helen Morrison, and the biological sitting together in Morrison’s elegant drawing room, showing the latter’s slow realization of the unselfishness of Stella’s crude, unschooled woman. Helen’s aristocratic mode and reserve gradually changes into a genuine expression of concern of one mother for another, going beyond social class. Hence, when Stella tells Helen how wonderful her daughter is, Helen gently replies: “I know she is–and I know she didn’t get it all from her father.”

Screening of the film in various university classes, students always comment on the harshness of Stella’s treatment, particularly the aforementioned train scene, when Stella is lying in a sleeping berth on a train listening to cruel, thoughtless girls laughing about her grotesque appearance and behavior at the fashionable resort. Laurel, positioned in the berth above, fears hat her mother has heard, comes down to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Stella, pretending she has been asleep, holds her girl in her arms, her eyes, wide-open, stricken, staring, groping toward the ultimate sacrifice, finally realizing that she has become a, liability rather than asset to her beloved daughter.

Over the years, what was considered a routine studio soap opera, a movie made just for women, has increased in stature due to its reevaluation by two groups of scholars: Auteurists, who singled out King Vidor’s masterly touches, and feminists, who contextualized the movie with the help of psychoanalytic theory.

It also helps that Stanwyck, who was only 30 when shooting the picture, which required her to age, always defended “Stella Dallas,” often singling it as her favorite picture and the one in which she was able to show her dramatic chops.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Barbara Stanwyck
Supporting Actress: Anne Shirley

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1937, the winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Luise Rainer for “The Good Earth,” a weak performance that must have won due to Louis B. Mayer’s campaigning for the Viennese-born actress. Another possibility is that the two frontrunners, Stanwyck and Garbo (for the fabulous “Camille”) split the votes. Vet Alice Brady won the Supporting Actress Oscar for the adventure-melodrama, “In Old Chicago.”


Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck)
Stephen Dallas (John Boles)
Laurel Dallas (Anne Shirley)
Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil)
Ed Munn (Alan Hale)
Mrs. Martin (Marjorie Main)
Mr. Martin (Edmund Elton)
Charlie Martin (George Walcott)
Carrie Jenkins (Gertrude Short)
Richard Grosvenor III (Tim Holt)
Mrs. Grosvenor (Nella Walker)


Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Directed by King Vidor
Screenplay: Harry Wagstaff Gribble and Gertrude Purcell, based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty
Camera: Rudolph Mate
Music: Alfred Newman
Editor: Sherman Todd