Olive Higgins Prouty’s bestselling novel, about a mother who sacrifices everything for her daughter’s happiness, first made it to the big screen in 1926, but it’s this 1937 remake that became the gold standard for cinematic soap opera. Barbara Stanwyck, previously known for her portrayals of brassy, hard-boiled Depression-era dames, earned an Oscar nomination for her dazzling turn as the working-class good-time girl whose dalliance with a wealthy man (John Boles) produces a daughter she raises to be a lady. Years later, when the father again enters their lives, Stella is faced with the difficult decision of relinquishing the lovely young woman (Anne Shirley) to the parent who can best provide for her. Make no mistake about it: Stella Dallas is an unabashed, grade-A tear-jerker, manipulative in the extreme and (to today’s audiences, at least) more than a little outlandish in its assumptions about social mobility. The degree to which it was successful can be gauged not only by its box-office success and Stanwyck’s Oscar nod but also by the fact that it’s been ripped off and parodied countless times -- in 1990 Bette Midler took a crack at updating it in Stella. But this flawlessly produced version, directed with unusual sensitivity and taste by King Vidor, remains the best.
The height of multiple-hankie melodrama, King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937) is also the most affecting screen adaptation of the Olive Higgins Prouty novel. As the ultimate self-abnegating mother, Barbara Stanwyck endows her upwardly aspiring Stella with a potent mixture of crass fashion sense, hedonistic energy, self-aware pathos, and maternal love, while Anne Shirley's Laurel is visibly and poignantly torn between embarrassment and daughterly attachment. Stanwyck's dignity gives Stella's sacrifice to the class system the emotional punch that it requires, as she memorably stands outside a bay window in the rain, watching her refined daughter finally get what Stella always wanted for her. Critically praised for its superior performances, Stella Dallas garnered Stanwyck the first of her four Oscar nominations for Best Actress, as well as a Supporting Actress nomination for Shirley. Previously filmed in 1925, Stella Dallas was remade again in 1990 as the Bette Midler vehicle Stella.