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Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Stella Dallas' DVD: Stanwyck Does 'Dallas'

Stella Dallas (DVD) DVD
Warner's December 10, 2013 DVD release of the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck drama "Stella Dallas" easily is one of the most exciting home video events of the holiday season. The special feature is the 1925 silent film version of "Dallas," starring Ronald Colman as Stephen Dallas. Quick glances at that well-restored version indicates interesting variations from the 1937 film.

Getting into the spirit of the '30s by eating take-out sweet-and-sour chicken from the neighborhood Chinese restaurant added to the fun of watching "Dallas." Only enjoying other nostalgia by preceding this Saturday night viewing with an episode of "The Golden Girls" prevented a double feature with the equally great and similarly themed 1945 Joan Crawford classic "Mildred Pierce."

Stanwyck being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar but losing out to Luise Rainer should be the basis for the expression "she was robbed." The same can be said regarding Anne Shirley, who plays Stella's daughter Laurel, losing the award for best supporting actress to Alice Brady. The fact  that "Dallas" is far from the feel-good film of 1937 may be why Stanwyck and Shirley did not win.

Having "Ma" Kettle herself Marjorie Main play Stella's mother is another good bit of casting.

"Dallas" begins in 1919 in fictional Mill Town Massachusetts, which could be any number of communities in that commonwealth at that time. Stella is then late-teens working-class Stella Martin. She has her eye on the fallen-from-grace Stephen Dallas, who is using an office job at the town's mill as the first step toward regaining the prominence that his father's actions cost the Dallas family.

Stella's campaign to get her man can only be described as charming, and seeing the portrayal of truly old-fashioned values in these opening scenes are so well conveyed that they lack any hokiness.

Stella and Stephen discovering once their honeymoon period ends both that she has not changed as much as he anticipated and that blue collars can clash with blue bloods contributes to a long-term separation. An aspect of this change is that Stephen moves to New York City for a promotion, and Stella and Laurel remain in Massachusetts.

Much of the post-separation strife relates to Stephen's concern about the regular presence of Stella's alcoholic, crude, and very loud friend (and possibly more) Ed Munn. Having Alan Hale, who is the father of Alan Hale Jr., play Munn in a manner that evokes very strong thoughts of his son's Skipper from "Gilligan's Island" adds a fun element to the elder Hale's performance.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of Hale doing his schtick provides an excellent sense of the conflict that Munn creates.

Many of Stanwyck's best moments relate to displaying the outrageous behavior that first costs her her marriage and later jeopardizes her relationship with Laurel; a scene when she goes looking for a teen-aged Laurel, who has become well integrated into Stephen's world, at a luxury resort is equally as "must-see" as the classic closing scene that makes this film so memorable.

Stanwyck does an equally awesome job portraying her angst when either her own acts or the lure of a happier life with her father draw Laurel closer to Stephen. These scenes make us feel for Stella despite her making us laugh at her or cringe  several times.

It is abundantly clear that Stella loves her daughter and deeply cares about her well-being. These scenes in which Stanwyck portrays this should have been the national experience that led to coining the phrase "I feel your pain."

The bottom line regarding this one is that classic film buffs already know about it and likely have ordered the DVD on learning of its release. Folks who have not had the pleasure of seeing it will enjoy discovering it.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Dallas" is highly encouraged to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.