...of poverty and the sacrifices of women
Stella Dallas (1937)
King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), is a remarkable portrayal of the lesser used genre of "maternal melodrama". This film refines the genre and makes a breakthrough with its feminism, emotion, and powerful acting.
The noir film Stella Dallas features Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, John Boles, Alan Hale, and Barbara O'Neil. There were a lot of maternal melodramas in the post recession era in the twentieth century, but most are largely forgotten.
Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove. -Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, on Senses of Cinema
The unique and revolutionary story was in fact written by a women. Olive Higgins Prouty, along with being. a poet, was the successful author of the novel Stella Dallas, in 1923. Vidor felt the need to use the popularity of the novel and the common familiarity of Prouty's work and abridge the novel with cinematic usage. The film highlights the best remembered sentimental moments from the novel, which led to a large female audience to resonate with the story of Stella. The film was indeed a great example of the staggering concept of self-sacrificing love, which is motherhood. The acting, the screenplay, and script, bring the entire story and its narrative to live and to resonate within the audiences heart. The cinematic effects and camera angles piercing into the in the maternal character's reactions, allows for this piece to be a real gold winner.
Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the lead of Stella, won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Anne Shirley, who plays Stella's daughter Laurel, too won an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress for this role.
The film comes into play with a strong central claim: feminism, or the lack thereof. The film comes out during a major economic crisis, The Great Depression, therefore the character of Stella can be symbolic to hope and perseverance. The jolly and cheery personality of Stella was a tribute to all of the women during those times that had very little rights to freedom. The message of the film delivers very strong in this piece. The story of judgement, society, and motherhood was given light and life when coupled with cinematography, film, and characters.
"The sacrifice is the main theme in the movie...But the noblest sacrifice will be made by Stella only. She is the maximum example of the mother who lies and endures suffering in order to see her daughter triumph." -Leticia Magalhaes, on Medium
The official filming for Stella Dallas started in 1937 in California at the Goldwyn Studios owned by the producer Samuel Goldwyn. The director, Vidor was confident in the film, he said "We had a good cast, great photography and everything seemed to work well." Goldwyn did not like the shots at first but reran them only to say "they were wonderful", and so the production of the film continued.
Vidor had a very successful career as a director, specifically "silent movies", in which the impactful scenes would be boosted by the characters acting. Now that is film in art form! The very intimate moments between Laurel and Stella were done so well cinematographically that if the audience were to mute the film, they would still be able to feel the ambience that was created with the acting, camera angles, and soulful acting. The train scene and the final scene of the film were so powerful. The literature of the story being showcased so tremendously, was truly a work of art. The directors visions were displayed so well that even about 80 years later, one can admire the careful cinema work. Take another look at the train scene, and if we look closely at Stanwyck's deep expression, we can feel the hurt and guilt she may have felt. This scene stands out, the ambience, lighting, set, and of course Stanwyck's expressions, all so heartful. The ending scene, too, gives off an array of deep emotion, solely by the cinema work and acting of Stanwyck. The film naturally emotes more feeling than the novel.
"The audience reviews attempt to express, in simple cognitive terms, the emotive power of the film, which becomes the dominant catalyst to reading Stella Dallas. The narrative of the film presents Stella as a person with a zest for life. She enjoys meeting people, dancing, and above all, being herself"- Anis Pervez, from Off Screen
The final scene was put in a side-to-side comparison, by Catherine Grant, with the two other film adaptations of Stella Dallas, click the button below to view the cinematic differences.
The film centers around Stella, who is the daughter of a poor mother played by Marjorie Main, who seems to represent the lower class home mother. Stella lacks education, class status, and societal prestige, but this does not stop her from dreaming and being determined. She is too confident to end up like her mother. Stella fixates her eyes on a wealthy mill owner, Stephen Dallas, played by John Boles. She ends up taking advantage of his vulnerability after losing his love interest, Helen, to someone else. Stella and Stephen marry and Stella gives birth to their daughter, Laurel. Stella marries for the perks she gets with marriage, as did many women in the 1900's. Marriage was not necessarily romantic, rather a way for women to move up and access freedom and status, so Stephen was not much more than a source of income for Stella.
Stella falls deeply in love with her daughter Laurel. She aims to give Laurel everything that she had not gotten for herself. Stella is extremely selfless when it comes to Laurel, she protects her and sews her clothing even if she can afford the clothes. They become very close and deepen their bond and even sleep in the same bed. Stephen does not live with Stella, as they are not in love particularly. As Laurel grows up she spends more and more time at her father's house. Her father is wealthy and privileged and so is the company he keeps, therefore, Stella does not fit in. Stephen wants to get married to the women he fancied, Helen, as he hears that she has been widowed. Stella refuses a divorce but eventually agrees seeing that it would be more fit for Stephen. Helen is kind and respectful, not a typical extramarital affair. Laurel and Stella are not exactly high society so they have to endure degrading remarks.
Laurel eventually starts to give into society and becomes anxious of her mothers class status, feeling self-conscious, Laurel can no longer ignore the way her mother is seen. Helen and Stella come to conclusion that it is better for Laurel to stay with her father and join the upper class. Stella knows that Laurel would not leave her willingly, so she sacrifices her self-respect and stages a scene with Ed Munn acting like she does not love her daughter but loves Ed instead. This hurts Laurel and she moves on to her father's home and eventually marries her love interest Richard.
Helen asks her worker to open the curtains, intentionally, knowing that Stella will come to watch her daughter marry on the night of her wedding. Stella watches her daughter's wedding and asks to stay until the groom kisses the bride. We see her pining and tearing but tears of joy of course. Stella proves to be the ultimate self-sacrificing mother. She does not take defeat, rather glorifies a moment of triumph.
The film adapted from the 1922 novel titled Stella Dallas, by Olive Higgins Prouty. The genre of maternal melodrama comes from the the subgenre of "women's pictures", or movies that are catered towards passionate feminist women. Prouty's novel became one of the first radio soap operas, creating a melodramatic mood that continued onto cinema and television. The story mainly inspired three adaptations: a silent film in 1925 directed by Henry King, then the 1937 version with Barbara Stanwyck, and a 1990 version starring Bette Midler.
Because of its innovative and atypical storyline, Stella Dallas went on to a lot of success and lived in various forms. This specific film, the 1937 piece, was so popular that it inspired a radio series that adapted the same year. It was a fifteen minute show in New York, and then later it was picked up by NBC Radio, where it ran on weekday afternoons all the way until 1955. Although the radio show did show success, the author was not pleased with the adaptations and reinventions.
"Prouty was not happy with the radio show because she did not like the treatment of her characters and had not approved the sale of broadcast rights." -TCM
The novel was very successful, as were the adaptations, but in particular Vidor's 1937 adaptation of Stella Dallas was quite a piece and definitely a cinematic work of art. The actresses did a wonderful job placing emotions on the screen and the screenplay was phenomenal in capturing the essence of the despair. Film is a cultivation of a lot of aspects in order to make it art, the scripted literature, skillful acting, and careful direction, all made this film exquisite and wonderful.
Wendy & Lucy (2006)
While keeping in mind the context of the film, The Great Recession of '08, another maternal melodrama is given way with this contribution by Kelly Reichardt, called Wendy and Lucy. The film follows a similar structure to Stella Dallas, of perseverance and sacrifice. Wendy and Lucy is a 2008 drama film adapted by Jon Raymond's short story called Train Choir. This film stars Michelle Williams, as Wendy. The film did get a lot of attention and screened at several film festivals. The premise involves a homeless women trying to travel to Alaska in hopes of opportunities, but is faced with a heart wrenching dilemma. This film was so American and so real. It was as if the film was in fact filming the recession itself.
The film posed many similarities to Stella Dallas. Stella is a maternal figure to Laurel, and Lucy is analogous to Laurel in the sense that she brings out the maternal instincts in Wendy. Both films have heart wrenching endings in which the "mothers" make the ultimate sacrifice due to the division caused by their socioeconomic status. The striking resemblance in both the narratives is in the triumphing ending scene. One can compare the scene in which Wendy gazes at Lucy, touching her face, but not able to hold her from the other side of the fence to the scene in which Stella lovingly watches her precious Laurel wed, insisting on watching the newly weds kiss. The hope for better future leaves both women walking back empty handed but strong. Wendy makes her decision after seeing Lucy's foster homes conditions, and decides then that her precious canine partner deserved better, just as Stella rests assured knowing that her daughter is in the hands of a upper-class, well respected family. The maternal instinct knows that the best is security and shelter.
Kelly Reichartd keeps it extremely simple with this piece. The cinematography was astonishing and real. Realism is an underrated genre of filming in which the view can resonate with the experience that the protagonist is enduring. The cinematography was skillfully captured by Sam Levy with Reichardt's careful examination and requirements.
Another key characteristic of this film that can be picked up is the music, and the lack of. The films only music is really quiet, and sometimes humming by Wendy. Since it is essentially a train choir, there is a lot of background sounds of trains. Reichartd says this is because during those times, in most of America you can hear the sound of a train when you are traveling. Since the film depicts Wendy on a journey, the director deemed it appropriate to film multiple train shots and sounds to give it that travel film feel.
The setting of the film is mostly natural with little to no set, rather using real and actual locations to present a realism sense of ambience. The colors are rather muted, the scenery is mild and natural, and the actresses acting is simplified and considerably reduced for the most part. The director's usage of unusual panning shots gives it a heart breaking feel with the slow camera angles. All of these elements come together and add to the depth of the cinematography and film appreciation. Loud music and flash elements would have distracted the audience from the seriousness of the tone and the day in the life of an actual recession survivor.
The film is focused on the Great Recession and from that, a victim of poverty, Wendy Carroll. Wendy has decided she wants to travel from Indiana to Alaska in hopes for employment opportunity at a cannery. They unfortunately become stranded in Oregon as Wendy's car breaks down. Wendy seems to come from a background of poverty and with not a lot of family support.
Lacking the funds to repair her car or feed her dog Lucy, she decides the only way to go about the situation is to shoplift. She goes to a convenient store and leaves Lucy outside as she attempts to shoplift some food for Lucy. She gets caught by the young clerk at the store, who enforces law regulation and calls the manager. She is then taken to the police station where she gets finger prints, and taken to settle a fine. After she pays the fine, which she could barely afford, she is released from police custody and hurries back to the grocery store to retrieve her dog Lucy, but to her despair, Lucy was no longer there.
She fails to find Lucy despite her many attempts. She keeps trying but has very limited resources. She meets this kind security guard and he lets her borrow his phone. They talk a little bit about how the American system is flawed and designed in a way where jobless people will struggle to get a job and homeless will be homeless. Wendy then discovers that Lucy has been taken to the dog pound, but has been rehomed and fostered by a family.
Wendy then goes to pick up her car from the mechanic but learns that against her luck, her cars engine needs to be replaced, which will end up costing more than the actual value of the car. She decides to leave her car which was a very hard choice, but the car was not worth it. Now she is truly homeless and without any support. She calls her sister but does not ask for help, which shows that she does not have good connections with her family. She is nearly penniless but still goes to the lengths to find her dog. She reaches the home where Lucy now resides, she notes how well the home is compared to what she herself can offer Lucy and makes the hardest decision. She sacrifices her security and happiness to give Lucy a home that can show her a brighter future and not one filled with uncertainty and further poverty. The heart wrenching scene was captured so beautifully that it leaves the eyes dewed. The film ends with Wendy boarding a train headed to Alaska. With pain of departure in heart, she did what she had to do as a caretaker and provider.
Although not much is said about Wendy's background, a lot can be inferred. She has family contact but does not reach out to them for help, which shows that she may have had a troubled home, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or a rebellious youth? She is easily startled and hesitant to place her trust in strangers or intermingling with the mixed gender gatherings. This could lead back to her mistrust in men. She also keeps a dog, despite her financial conditions. This heavily indicates the need for security, which goes back to being possibly sexually harassed or abused. She has her hair cut short, or boy-like, as if she intends to appear unattractive or not feminine enough to be the object of someone's eye. There is very little we know about Wendy, but with the ending of the film, it is more than certain that she is a maternal figure to Lucy and has a heart heavy with love.
The film was an adaptation of a short story by Jonathan Raymond called Train Choir.
The theme of a the film was sacrifice and very close to maternal melodrama, similar to Stella Dallas. Wendy and Lucy was an updated version of the earlier maternal melodrama that posed a similar ending. The inspiration of the film also comes from simply the reality of an American's life during the Great Recession of 2008. The film depicts "man-made true events" and portrays them in the light of an emotional drama film. The genre can be realistic fiction as it is adapted from realistic events that could happen to anyone. A car stopping, being abandoned, the Walgreens parking lot, shoplifting, losing a pet, and the list goes on. A lot of the film was adapted from real life events, making it an authentic work of art. Filming this movie was budget friendly and simply put. The theme can be put as economic status cause a drift between loved ones, just as in the case of Stella Dallas.