Barbara Stanwyck plays Stella Martin, a working class girl who has a thing for factory executive Stephen Dallas (John Boles). The class difference would pose a problem, but Stephen’s family isn’t as wealthy as they once were, which had just resulted in Stephen having to end his engagement to another woman. After running into Stella one day, the two of them begin seeing each other and they soon are married. Things are great at first, but eventually Stella gets bored with her new life and starts reverting to some of her old low-class behaviors, which Stephen doesn’t like at all. Even though they’ve recently had a baby girl, Laurel (Anne Shirley), Stephen begins spending more and more time away on business. When they do officially separate, he lets Stella have custody of Laurel because even though he could offer Laurel a better life, Stella loves her more than anything. And it’s true that Stella can’t give Laurel everything that Stephen can, but she does what she can to give her the best and builds an excellent relationship with her daughter as she grows up.
But despite Stella’s best efforts, the class differences between her and Stephen become more and more apparent as Laurel gets older. After Laurel goes to visit his father, she gets a taste of the high life and likes it. When Stella finds out that Stephen wants a divorce so he can remarry, she refuses and demands more money from him so she can keep Laurel happy. One of the things Stella does for Laurel is take her to a very upscale resort. Unfortunately, Stella is ill during part of their stay and stays in her room, but Laurel has a great time and makes lots of friends. When Stella finally does make her grand appearance, she wants to look her best, so she goes all out for the occasion. Only she goes a little too far and ends up looking horribly tacky and winds up being the talk of the resort for all the wrong reasons. Laurel had never been embarrassed by her mother before, but she can’t take listening to everyone talk about her mother like that. After Stella overhears some of the things being said about her, she realizes the only way to give Laurel the best in life is for her to step out of it.
Even though I wouldn’t call Stella Dallas one of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck movies (it’s awfully hard to beat Double Indemnity, Baby Face, and The Lady Eve in my book), it is one of my favorite performances of hers. I can’t think of any other actress from that era who could have played that part as well as she did. Even though Ruth Chatterton was the original choice for the role (and she wouldn’t have been a bad choice), Barbara Stanwyck was the queen of playing women who were rough around the edges. She delivered a perfect mix of that lack of refinement and her signature toughness, but also brought a lot of softness and sentimentality. Not only that, I loved her chemistry with Anne Shirley. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable movie. Just beware that the ending is a total tearjerker.