I admit to a bit of a prejudice against films like Stella Dallas that are all about the mother-daughter relationship. Not for the reason you think, mind you – my mother and I get along fine. But I also get on fine with a single and childless aunt, and I’m single and childless myself, and so are a good number of my friends. There are vanishingly few films about the aunt-niece relationship (or the aunt-nephew one), or the godmother-goddaughter one, or the neighbor-lady-and-kid-who-mows-her-lawn one or suchlike; it’s always mother-daughter held up to this kind of adulation, and I’d just like to see the rest of us once in a while, you know? ….so I went into Stella Dallas with girded loins, and discovered there at least was a little more going on.
Barbara Stanwyck is Stella, who’s the daughter of a Massachusetts millworker at the start of the story. She wants to move up the social ladder, though, and has been taking night school business courses to try to work her way up. But when upper-class Stephen Dallas (John Boles) takes an executive job in the mill to get his mind off a broken engagement, Stella decides maybe she can take a shortcut by marrying up instead. Stephen is surprisingly willing, and in fairly short order they have a baby girl, Laurel.
Both Stephen and Stella are crazy about Laurel – but within a year, they’re not so crazy about each other. Stella is still the brash partier she always was, and rankles at Stephen’s efforts to calm her down. But Stephen clearly took up with Stella as a rebound girl, and Stella would never be able to clean up enough for him anyway. When Stephen gets a job offer in New York City, the pair agree to separate – Stephen will go to New York, and Stella will stay in Massachusetts. Laurel also stays in Massachusetts, spending a few weeks each summer with Stephen.
Things roll on smoothly enough until Laurel is in her teens. She is a sensitive and compassionate young lady with her father’s epicurean taste, but with devotion to her mother’s care. She befriends other upper-class students in her school, but when their parents find out who her mother is, they freeze her out. She turns down a couple of invitations because Stella would be left alone if she said yes.
Mother and daughter hit up a high-end resort during one sequence, and Stella turns heads with an elaborately tacky outfit that draws gales of laughter from Laurel’s friends (unaware that it’s Laurel’s mother they’re laughing at). But instead of defending or confronting her, Laurel simply begs her mother to bring her home, so Stella is spared the knowledge that she was a laughingstock. Stella nonetheless finds out, though, at about the same time she finds out that Stephen has been getting re-acquainted with his former fiancée Helen, now a widow with three sons, a huge inheritance, and the kind of class status she’d always wanted for Laurel. So when Stephen hints he’d like a divorce to marry his old fiancée, Stella shows up for a private meeting with Helen, as she’s had an idea how the situation could help Laurel…
Maybe it’s because I’m not a mother, but I was most affected by Laurel. It would have been all too easy to depict her as being embarrassed by her mother’s background – rankling at having to live in their cheap apartment, lashing out at her when friends didn’t want to come over, attacking her for dressing like a floozy at the resort. But Laurel seems to see past that to her mothers’ soul; when Laurel’s friends make fun of Stella, Laurel wants them to leave for Stella’s sake. Stella may be unpolished and unconventional, but – she’s also loving and devoted, and isn’t that just as important?
On the other hand, though, Laurel could also have responded to her friends’ teasing by defending Stella (“….That’s my mother, guys, so shove it”). There’s a classism in the film that rubbed me the wrong way – because Laurel’s right, Stella may not have had the breeding and refinement of her peers’ parents, but breeding and refinement isn’t everything. So what if she likes to go to movies instead of museums? What’s wrong with that? Well, actually, the movie implies a lot is wrong with that – there is a clear bright line between one’s breeding, the movie implies, and one’s worth as a person. Stella believes that, anyway, and the movie goes along with it – so much so that when Laurel wants to still bring Stella with her into the rarefied upper class, Stella makes a desperate choice to stop her.
So ultimately the “self-sacrificing mother” tropes didn’t bother me as much as I thought – because I was distracted by some “lower class people are worth less” tropes that bothered me even more.