Many people, including Barbara Stanwyck, felt that Stanwyck was robbed at the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony when Luise Rainer walked away with the Best Actress Oscar for The Good Earth (1937); referring to producer Sam Goldwyn’s 1937 version of STELLA DALLAS, Stanwyck later said, “My life’s blood was in that picture. I should have won.” This morning a 35mm print screened at the Multiplex—an absolutely gorgeous print, in fact (courtesy of the Academy Film Archive).
Stanwyck’s taking on the title role was a risk; some thought that Goldwyn was crazy to revive the property in the first place. The dramatic story of a mother sacrificing for her daughter began life as a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923 that was soon adapted as a stage play and then as a film by Goldwyn in 1925. The movie version, which starred Belle Bennett in the lead role and Ronald Colman in support, was an enormous hit at the box office. By 1937 there was a danger that the story was terribly dated, but the sensitive efforts by Stanwyck and by director King Vidor paid off.
Famously (not to mention amazingly), Stanwyck had to audition for the part. Goldwyn originally wanted Ruth Chatterton, but she turned down the role for being “unpleasant.” Stanwyck wanted the part and went to friend Joel McCrea, then one of Goldwyn’s prime assets, to pitch her to the producer. Goldwyn agreed to consider her, but only on the condition that she shoot a screen test—something of an insult to an actress of Stanwyck’s caliber. She reluctantly agreed and filmed a scene with Vidor and not-yet-cast Anne Shirley as her daughter. Though he had also tested dozens of others for the part, including unknowns, Goldwyn had to admit that Stanwyck “…was undeniable. She put everyone else to shame.”
Stanwyck knew that there was the possibility of the story becoming a hackneyed tearjerker, but she wisely noted that “one must distinguish between sentimentality and honest sentiment.” She went on to say that it “was a double challenge because the role had to be played on two levels, almost making Stella two separate women. On the surface she had to appear loud and flamboyant — with a touch of vulgarity. Yet, while showing her in all her commonness, she had to be portrayed in a way that audiences would realize that beneath the surface her instincts were fine, heartwarming and noble. Part of her tragedy was that while she recognized her own shortcomings, she was unable to live up to the standards she so painstakingly set for herself.” For his part, King Vidor loved the film but hated working for the strong-willed and mercurial Goldwyn. He never worked for him again.
Today’s screening was introduced by versatile author, film historian, man-about-town and fellow TCM Classic Film Fest blogger Jeremy Arnold (Hey Jeremy!), who made note of many of the film’s production highlights and had much praise for Stanwyck, quoting Frank Capra who once said she was “…the greatest emotional actress the screen has ever known.” Jeremy also advised the audience to watch for a clip of the 1925 version of Stella Dallas, seen when characters go to the movies at one point, and to keep their eyes peeled for a 16-year-old Laraine Day, making her film debut.