Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stella Dallas

I had wanted to see this 1937 Barbara Stanwyck classic Stella Dallas directed by King Vidor starring ever since I read about it in Molly Haskell's book of feminist film history, From Reverence to Rape. She wasn't very happy about the way male critics and viewers regularly dismissed the "weepie" genre wholesale and often pandered and condescended to them calling them illogical and ridiculous.

Stella Dallas is good but only because of Barbara Stanwyck who is in her elements, as she always is in fact. She actually won her first of four Oscar nominations for this role. She plays a working class girl who manages to find a rich guy to marry but is not able to get away from her background. When her daughter grows up she realizes that she needs to sacrifice all she has if she wants her to go farther in life. I will admit, the final scene with Stanwyck in the rain smiling after witnessing her daughter's marriage from a distance did get to me but ultimately it wasn't anything profound. The film also seemed to be confused about the main issue - whether it was about gender or class. It begins with feminism - even going so far as showing Stella as a negligent or at least unhappy mother - but slowly she becomes a idealistic mother and the film becomes more about class.

Still I think it is worth watching, just for Barbara Stanwyck's performance. Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce gives a very dark and nasty spin to the same sentimental mother-daughter story. King Vidor seems to have quite some reputation among cinephiles and classic buffs but my experience with him has been pretty bad so far. I had earlier seen Duel in the Sun which was hilarious, in a totally unintended way.

Coming back to melodrama, I actually agree with Haskell. There is definitely a tendency in male critics and viewers to dismiss anything which is emotionally overwrought and "hysterical" (itself a category full of prejudice and bias). Letter from an Unknown Woman was a sublime but still it was a "weepie" and in fact now that I am thinking about it, I had to actually defend and justify it to myself against sentimentality and the ridiculousness of its plot. (After all, The out-of-wedlock pregnancy might seem a ridiculous cliche to a male audience but it does resonate deeply with women.) Fassbinder made some pretty good weepies (most of them reworking of Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Michael Curtiz). My favourite of all his films is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Another great recent melodrama and a personal favourite is Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven.


Jabberwock said...

Stanwyck is indeed magnificent in almost everything. But dude, don't tell me you didn't love all that sultry pouting and heavy breathing in Duel in the Sun? And Jennifer Jones in the pond, if I recall right.

Puccinio said...

''Duel in the Sun'' is a David O. Selznick film not a King Vidor film. See King Vidor's ''Ruby Gentry'' starring the same actress with the late ocassionaly great Charlton Heston in a pre-Moses role(it's like a whole new Heston). It's excellent.

''Stella Dallas'' is a good film. Very popular in Japan. Remade 100s of times there. But then Japan in it's classic age was definitely in the women's film tradition - Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse. The obvious exception is the most famous Japanese director in the Occident(no prizes for guessing who!).

King Vidor isn't just respected by cinephiles. In his day he was thought of as the greatest American director after Griffith. A real artist of cinema. Sadly his career got hampered because he had to make commercial films to fund his personal films. So he'd make two or three hack films for every great film or good film.

See ''The Crowd'', ''Our Daily Bread'', ''The Big Parade'', ''Show People'', ''War and Peace''(no Tolstoy but excellent and beats the Soviet film 7hr snoozefest to bits), ''Hallelujah'', ''Man Without A Star'' and some others.

What many people don't get about women's films are that they often allow for the best possible social analysis. Women being emotionally more honest than men and more rational also allow for clarity. But then it's a mistake to think that men don't like these films.

Many women weepies of the commercial variety are made by men in the first place hoping to make money of girls but any money they get is from macho men who can't hold their tears.

Alok said...

jai: hehe, yeah I was thinking I should have seen it when I was a kid> I would certainly have liked it then or may be I should have been there in 40s and 50s when it first came :)

puccinio: that's a long list :) Only recently I was reading about The Crowd. Will try to see it soon..thanks for the pointers.

Completely agree with your point about women's films containing some of the most astute social and political criticism of the status quo. Actually there are still women's dramas ... most of it has only moved to TV. But even the most intelligently scripted and directed dramas lack the bite that these old Hollywood melodramas had.. Films like far from heaven are pretty rare. In the name of women's films we get "chick flicks" symptomatic of our so-called "post-ideological" and "post-feminist" age when all problems and conflicts seem to have been resolved or at least even if they exist the cinema has no business dealing with them...