Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas
Ann Shirley, John Boles and Barbara Stanwyck

'Stella Dallas' is a stylish and emotionally powerful film made in 1937, directed by King Vidor and starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles and Anne Shirley. The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty and was a great commercial and critical success, earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Stanwyck and a Supporting Actress nomination for Anne Shirley. The movie's popularity was such that it became a radio serial which lasted for eighteen years, continuing the later lives of the movie characters.

In a sense 'Stella Dallas' is a very straightforward movie-there is no underlying moral to be drawn-it is simply a tale, well told, of unselfish love, and extremely well acted by a talented cast, particularly the marvellous Barbara Stanwyck, and sensitively directed by a top class director. The film is an unashamed tearjerker - even Louis B. Mayer admitted to crying through it - but it is not obvious or cliché-ridden. It is a wonderful, heart-rending and heart-warming film. Hollywood at its very best.

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The film is set initially just after the end of the First World War, and follows the life of Stella Martin, a loud and brassy working class girl who has a taste for fast living and is ambitious to better her status in life. Her mistake is that she thinks she can marry into it and her problems will be solved.

She marries the ambitious Stephen Dallas, played by John Boles and the two have a daughter, Laurel, played by Anne Shirley. As Laurel grows into a beautiful young woman, Stella realises that her upbringing conflicts with the high society world of her husband. She and Stephen divorce and Stella eventually decides that her beloved child would be better off without her as a mother.


Olive Higgins Prouty's novel "Stella Dallas" was written in 1922 in response to the death of her three-year-old daughter. It was adapted into a stage play in 1924, and first made into a movie in 1925 starring Belle Bennett and Ronald Coleman and with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his first adult role as Laurel's beau. Sam Goldwyn had produced the first movie version and he wanted to reproduce its success with a Sound version.

For director he chose King Vidor, who was already regarded as one of Hollywood's top directors and who had been nominated three times for the Best Director Oscar. Vidor's career had started in silent movies and he chose to film some scenes in 'Stella Dallas', such as Laurel crawling into bed to comfort her mother, without dialogue. The final scene, justly famous when Stella walks away from the window showing her daughter's wedding also was filmed almost entirely silently.

For the pivotal role of Stella, Vidor first considered Gladys George, Ruth Chatterton, Bernadine Hayes and Miriam Hopkins. He decided on Barbara Stanwyck after she did a screen test - the daughter's birthday party scene - with Anne Shirley.

The screenplay was written by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, who had previously worked together on 'Little Women' in 1933 and 'Magnificent Obsession' in 1935. The 1925 movie version was followed in many places, but Vidor cut out parts of the story dealing with the early life of Stephen Dallas.

Main Cast

Barbara Stanwyck ... Stella Dallas
John Boles ... Stephen Dallas
Anne Shirley ... Laurel Dallas
Barbara O'Neil ... Helen (Morrison) Dallas
Alan Hale ... Ed Munn
Marjorie Main ... Mrs. Martin, Stella's mother
Tim Holt ... Richard Grosvenor III
George Wolcott ... Charlie Martin
Hattie McDaniel ... Maid

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-90) Barbara's long screen career of over five decades spanned the early history of screen acting, starting as a novice in the Silent era, becoming one of the major stars of the 1930's and 1940's and ending with starring roles on the successful television series 'The Big Valley' in the 1960's and 'Dynasty' in the 1980's.
She was able to adapt to any role and was comfortable in all genres, from melodramas such as 'Stella Dallas', to thrillers and comedies. She was nominated four times for Academy Awards but, surprisingly, did not win any in competition. Though she would score three more Best Actress nominations without ever winning, Stanwyck would always regret not winning for 'Stella Dallas' the most, feeling that it was her best work. In 1982 she received an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Academy for her "creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting." In 1987, aged 79, she was also the recipient of an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
Anne Shirley (1918-93) She lights up the movie with her delightful portrayal of Laurel Dallas. She began her career as a child actress under the stage name of Dawn O'Day, changing it to Anne Shirley after the name of the character she played in 'Anne of Green Gables' in 1934. As an adult she became successful in a series of clever performances in supporting roles, as in 'Stella Dallas'. She retired from acting at the age of 26, in 1944.
John Boles (1895-1969) Boles studied singing in New York and became famous originally for his singing ability, becoming an established Broadway star during the 1920's. After several successful Silent movies he became a big Talkies star with 'The Desert Song' in 1929 and 'Frankenstein' in 1931.
Alan Hale (1892-1950) After studying to be an opera singer, Hale made his first movie in 1911 and became a well known character actor supporting most of the leading actors of the early Golden Age including playing Little John to Errol Flynn's Robin Hood in 1938.


Director ... King Vidor
Producer ... Sam Goldwyn
Screenplay ... Harry Wagstaff Gribble, Gertrude Purcell, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, Joe Bigelow (uncredited)
From the novel by ... Olive Higgins Prouty
Music ... Alfred Newman
Cinematography ... Rudolph Maté
Distribution Company ... United Artists
Release date ... 6 August 1937
Running time ... 106 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Barbara Stanwyck
Best Supporting Actress ... Anne Shirley