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The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: "Stella Dallas" (1937)

Original release poster
Directed by King Vidor, Stella Dallas (1937) tells the story of Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a mill worker in a factory town in 1919 Massachusetts, who is determined to better herself. She sets her sights on Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a minor executive at the factory whose family was once wealthy, and catches him at an emotionally vulnerable time. Stephen has broken his engagement to long-time sweetheart Helen (Barbara O'Neil), fearing that his present lack of money and social position would hinder her. He planned to marry Helen once he was financially able to support her, but, as he reaches his goal, he learns that she is to wed another man. As a result, Stephen decides to marry Stella instead.

After their daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) is born, Stella becomes bored with her life and begins to exhibit social behavior that Stephen finds unsuitable. He also strongly disapproves of her continuing friendship with the vulgar Ed Munn (Alan Hale). Meanwhile, Stephen is transferred to a better position in New York, but agrees to let Stella stay in Massachusetts with Laurel. Years later, Stephen runs into the widowed Helen and the two rekindle their romance. He asks Stella for a divorce, but she refuses, fearing that he and Helen want to take Laurel away from her. She then travels with her daughter to an expensive resort, where Laurel falls in love with the wealthy Richard Grosvenor III (Tim Holt). When Stella makes her first appearance after recovering from a illness, she is ridiculed for her vulgarity and Laurel insists they leave at once without explaining why. However, Stella overhears the cruel comments about her on the train and finally agrees to give Stephen a divorce. She also asks Laurel to go live with Stephen and Helen, pretending that she wants her off her hands so she can travel with Ed. Some years later, the newspapers announce Laurel's forthcoming marriage to Richard. As the ceremony takes place, Stella watches them exchange their vows from the city street through a window (whose curtains have been opened at Helen's orders). Now confident of Laurel's happiness, Stella smiles and walks away in the rain.

Stella Dallas: I feel that I've done all I can for her, so I thought that you being so crazy about her father and she taking after him so much that... Well, if you and Stephen got married, Lollie could come and live with you. Your name being Mrs. Dallas, you see, everybody would naturally think she was your little girl. Then when you went places, you see, well... You see, you're the kind of a mother that any girl would be proud of.

At a dinner party in Boston in the early 1920s, novelist/poet Olive Higgins Prouty overheard a conversation about an aristocratic man who "married someone beyond the pale socially when he was very young" and had a daughter by her. According to the person telling the story, "They have been separated ever since the child was born a girl of twelve or thirteen now, quite lovely in spite of her mother really terrible ordinary. The child lives with her mother in a dreary little apartment out in the suburbs somewhere but spends a month every summer with her father." The next day, Prouty was inspired to write about these three people. For her, the novel was never about "mother love"; it was about "the paths of the sensitive child of separated parents of different backgrounds with the resulting conflict." Entitled Stella Dallas, the book was serialized in the fall of 1922 in The American Magazine and published in April 1923 by Houghton Mifflin Company to immediate acclaim. The New York Herald Tribune, for instance, described it as "a novel of absolutely first rate importance."

In early 1924, Stella Dallas was adapted into a stage play by Harry Wagstaff Gribble and Getrude Purcell, with 67-year-old Mrs. Leslie Carter playing the title role and a young Edward G. Robinson appearing as Ed Munn, her occasional lover and later husband. The show, however, was a huge failure and closed after two months of touring Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Boston, never reaching Broadway. The following year, independent producer Samuel Goldwyn purchased the rights both to the novel and the stage version of Stella Dallas, hiring Frances Marion to write the scenario and Henry King to direct. Out of the 73 actresses tested for the role of Stella, Goldwyn selected 34-year-old Belle Bennett, a supporting player in two of the producer's earlier pictures. Burgeoning matinee idol Ronald Colman was cast as her husband Stephen Dallas; Lois Moran as their daughter Laurel; Jean Hersholt as the uncouth Ed Munn; Alice Joyce as Stephen's socialite second wife, Helen; and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Laurel's upper-class boyfriend, Richard Grosvenor III, in his first adult role. Upon its premiere at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Stella Dallas (1925) was a massive critical success and eventually became Goldwyn's biggest silent moneymaker.

Barbara Stanwyck in a publicity still
Having proved successful adding sound to The Dark Angel (1925) in 1935, Goldwyn figured a talking Stella Dallas woud be a lucrative venture as well. He hired William Wyler, his top director, to helm the picture and the writing duo of Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason to develop the script. When Wyler was loaned out to Warner Bros. to direct Bette Davis in the costume drama Jezebel (1938), however, Goldwyn had to replace him with King Vidor, who had received Academy Award nominations for The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah! (1929) and The Champ (1931).

Goldwyn and Vidor immediately clashed on the title role. Barbara Stanwyck, a former nightclub dancer who had starred in 30 films since 1929, had been Vidor's first choice from the start, but Goldwyn refused to hear of it. He considered such lesser stars as Ruth Chatterton, who had just appeared in Goldwyn's Best Picture nominee Dodsworth (1936), and Gladys George, testing several other actresses with even less drawing power. Stanwyck had read Prouty's novel and desperately wanted the role. "She wasn't me, that woman," she said of Stella Dallas. "But she was a woman I understood completely. She was good; cheap but good. And I could play her." Although some of her friends discouraged her from going for the part, Stanwyck was determined: "I would give up everything I own to make Stella Dallas." 

Zeppo Marx, who had left his brothers' act after Duck Soup (1933) to become a talent agent representing, among others, Stanwyck, thought it smarter to have her close friend Joel McCrea join Vidor in pulling for her. McCrea had been under contract to Goldwyn for five years and was the producer's "golden boy" at the time, making successful films for him and also earning a small fortune on loan-outs to other studios. When McCrea selflessly made his pitch for his Gambling Lady (1934), Banjo on My Knee (1936) and Internes Can't Take Money (1937) co-star, Goldwyn objected, "She's just got no sex appeal." At that point, McCrea cleverly pointed out that Robert Taylor, one of Hollywood's hottest new leading men who had been Stanwyck's steady date for a year, was "nuts about her, and he thinks she has sex appeal." Finally, Goldwyn gave in to considering Stanwyck, but only if she would test for the part.

Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley
However much she wanted to play Stella Dallas, Stanwyck refused to make a screen test. Fortunately, McCrea convinced her to do it, saying that she would "win an award for this picture." When Stanwyck went for a meeting with Goldwyn, he told her "that he didn't think she was capable of doing it," that she was "too young for the part" (she was 30 at the time) and that she "didn't have any experience with children." Although she had a five-year-old adopted son, Dion, she had to admit that she had never in fact suffered over a child. "But I can imagine how it would be," she quickly added. With that, Goldwyn finally agreed to give Stanwyck a chance at the role.

Stanwyck's screen test for Stella Dallas was done with Anne Shirley, an RKO starlet who was auditioning for the part of Laurel. Vidor reportedly spent an entire day, as opposed to the usual few hours, shooting the scene of Laurel's long-anticipated birthday party in which mother and daughter await the guests who never arrive. The parents of Laurel's classmates have been warned away by her teacher, who has deemed Stella an improper mother and her house unfit for upstanding children. As it happened, both actresses were sick on the day of the test; they both had a runny nose and Stanwyck had a temperature of 102º F (38.8º C). Still, the results were by all accounts extraordinary. After Goldwyn had 48 different tests edited into a short reeler, Stanwyck's versatility was clearly undisputed. According to Vidor, "Stanwyck's test was undeniable. She put everyone else to shame." Goldwyn told his production manager, Robert Mcintyre, who was then in New York testing more actresses, to return to Hollywood immediately; they had found their Stella Dallas at last.

John Boles and Anne Shirley
The same test also convinced Goldwyn to give the part of Laurel Dallas to Shirley, who was cast over Bonita Granville and Frances Farmer. A New York native, Shirley made her motion picture debut at the age of four, opposite William Farnum in Herbert Brenon's western Moonshine Valley (1922). Billed as Dawn O'Day, she found steady work as a child actress throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, often appearing as the young version of the leading lady, such as Janet Gaynor in 4 Devils (1928), Myrna Loy in Emma (1932) and Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). Stanwyck and Shirley also worked together in The Purchase Price (1932). When she was 15, RKO changed her name to Anne Shirley after the character she made famous in the hugely successful Anne of Green Gables (1934). She celebrated her 18th birthday on the set of Stella Dallas, receiving her first car as a gift from Goldwyn.

The remaining cast of Stella Dallas consisted of a mixture of seasoned actors and newcomers. John Boles, who had starred in some the earliest musicals made in Hollywood, including The Desert Song (1929) and Rio Rita (1929), was cast as Stephen Dallas. Stanwyck and Boles had previously worked together in George Marshall's A Message to Garcia (1936). Stage actress Barbara O'Neil appeared as Helen Morrison, a role originally intended for Mary Astor, who has passed over due to ongoing scandals in her personal life. Veteran performer Alan Hale, a supporting player in So Big! and A Message to Garcia, was given the role of the horse gambler Ed Munn. Hale would later become known for being the only actor to portray Little John in three different Robin Hood films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Up-and-comer Tim Holt, working on loan-out from Walter Wanger, was cast as Richard Grosvenor III, and Marjorie Main, who went on to win fame as the racuous Ma Kettle in a series of films produced between 1947 and 1957, appears briefly as Stella's crude mother.

The final scene in Stella Dallas
Stella Dallas began production in early 1937 at the Goldwyn Studios in Santa Monica, California. To make the picture, Vidor wanted to go back to the aesthetics of the silents and highlight the sequences that showed deep love between mother and daughter as focal points of emotion without the use of dialogue. These include, for instance, a tender moment after Laurel has become upset with her mother for getting cold cream on a treasured photograph of Helen. Stunned by her daughter's rebuke, Stella begins to touch up the dark roots of her blonde hair and Laurel, ashamed at her outburst, silently takes over the coloring stick and proceeds to gently do the job herself. An even more moving silent sequence occurs in a train berth after both of them have overheard some catty girls ridiculing Stella's appearance and Laurel crawls into bed with her mother, comforting her by curling up wordlessly beside her. The famous final scene, when Stella walks away from her daughter's wedding happy to realize that she has a good life ahead, also was filmed mostly without dialogue.

From the beginning, Stanwyck saw playing Stella as a "double challenge"; she understood that she had to portray the character "on two levels, almost making Stella two separate women." To create her own Stella Dallas, Stanwyck drew on memories from Bennett's "beautifully played" performance and her own concept of a character whose exterior crudeness masked a warm and generous heart. "On the surface," Stanwyck said, Stella "had to appear loud and flamboyant with a touch of vulgarity. Yet while showing her in all commonness, she had to be portrayed in a way that audiences would realize that beneath the surface her instincts were fine, heartwarming ad noble." The only constant in this "great woman in spite of jangling bracelets and bobbing plumes" is the love she feels for Laurel, a love that, for Stella, suplants all others.

Stella Dallas as an older woman
For Stanwyck to age 20 years as Stella, she had to wear five pairs of hose to make her ankles thick, use padding to fill out her girth and stuff her cheeks with cotton. She refused to wear a wig in the film and decided instead to bleach her hair, which she did for the first and only time in her career. She said that wigs would have prevented her for doing anything with her hands, "like running them through my hair. Furthermore, in her in her home Stella's hair was neglected, unkempt and that just can't be done realistically except with one's own hair." In addition, Goldwyn's head designer, Omar Kiam, outfitted her with some outrageously tacky costumes that reflected her character's lack of taste.

On the set of Stella Dallas, Stanwyck and Shirley were frustrated by Vidor's lack of direction; he seemed more interested in complicated camera angles than in their performances. There was little creative rapport between Vidor and Stanwyck and he reportedly never spoke to Shirley or said whether she was doing well or not. When Shirley tearfully complained to Goldwyn, the producer 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." Shirley found comfort in Stanwyck and the two eventually became good friends. After production closed, Stanwyck inscribed a photo to Shirley that said, "For Anne, whose loveliness helped so much during Stella Dallas. My love, always, Barbara."

For his part, Vidor's memories of filming Stella Dallas were painfully bitter. He hated working with Goldwyn and struggled to endure the producer's temperamental outbursts and sudden mood shifts. One day halfway through production, Goldwyn stormed onto the set and angrily scolded Vidor and everyone else, calling the performances bad. He was apparently so dismayed by the daily rushes that he wanted to fire Vidor and Stanwyck and close down the picture. Late that night, he called Vidor at home to apologize; he had seen the rushes again and "they looked wonderful." At the end of principal photography, Vidor wrote a note to himself which he kept in his desk drawer for 30 years. It read: "NO MORE GOLDWYN PICTURES!"

Poster for Stella Dallas
Released on August 5, 1937, Stella Dallas went on to gross more than $2 million, yielding a profit over $500,000 for Goldwyn. Reviews were equally as favorable, with Variety calling the film "chiefly a tear-jerker of A ranking." Although Frank Nugent of The New York Times deemed the Prouty drama terribly outdated for 1937, he neverthless found "Miss Stanwyck's portrayal is as courageous as it is fine. Ignoring the flattery and makeup and camera, she plays Stella as Mrs. Prouty drew her; coarse, cheap, common, given to sleazy dresses, to undulations in her walk, to fatty degeneration of the profile. And yet magnificent as a mother." Shirley also received much praise for her performance as Laurel Dallas, with critics hailing her unexpected depth in the role and insisting that she had stolen the picture. Prouty herself felt that Shirley's "interpretation of the shy sensitive Laurel was exactly as she had written her." The success of Stella Dallas gave life to a radio serial based on the characters which would run on the National Broadcast Company's network for close to 20 years, with Anne Elstner playing Stella.

Both Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley received Academy Award nominations, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Stanwyck attented the 10th Academy Awards presentation on March 10, 1938 at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel with Robert Taylor as her escort. Early in the evening, Shirley lost to Alice Brady for her performance in Henry King's In Old Chicago (1937). When it came to the Best Actress award, the winner was Luise Rainer for The Good Earth (1937). Stanwyck was crushed. "My life's blood was in that picture," she said. "I should have won." Although nominated three more times after that for Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) she regretted most losing the Stella Dallas Oscar. For my part, I regretted it too.


This post is my contribution to The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE.

 

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SOURCES:
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (2013) | Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg (1989) | Stanwyck by Axel Madsen (2001) | TCMDb (Articles) | Variety review

Comments

  1. Enjoyed this tribute to Barbara and Stella Dallas, especially the backstory and quotes! I always forget John Boles is in this one. He's one of my underrated faves!

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