The first version, a 1925 silent film, starred Belle Bennett, Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks. In 1937 Goldwyn produced the movie again, this time starring Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards. The film became an instant classic.
Of more than 200 movies produced by Goldwyn, Stella Dallas was one of two he favored most. (The other was Wuthering Heights.) Near the end of his life he watched it and cried, over and over again.
Now Samuel Goldwyn Jr. has produced Stella, a remake of his father’s film.
The newest version is a noble attempt to update an old theme, but watching it brings an adage to mind: you shouldn’t mess with a classic.
Fans of the 1937 Stanwyck film are likely to be most unhappy with Stella, unless they also happen to be fans of the Divine Miss M., Bette Midler. In that case they win be only mildly disappointed.
Midler, a consistently larger-than-life screen presence, is in top form in her starring role as Stella Claire. AnÂ independent, fun-loving bartender, Stella falls for the handsome Stephen Dallas, a wealthy young doctor, and becomes pregnant. Rather than accept his half-hearted proposal of marriage, she raises her beloved daughter singlehandedly while tending bar or by peddling cosmetics door to door to make ends meet.
With meager finances, Stella still creates an idyllic existence for her daughter, Jenny, who grows up unspoiled and secure in the love of her doting mother. As Jenny approaches adulthood, however, Stella becomes fearful Jenny will follow in her mother’s footsteps and never escape her lowerclass upbringing.
Stella, knowing that Stephen can give their daughter everything she cannot, tearfully makes the greatest sacrifice of her life.
Trini Aivarado plays Jenny, ,the beautiful, daughter, who loves her mother deeply despite her episodes of teenage rebellion. Stephen Collins portrays her father, a man we’d love to hate, but can’t. Marsha Mason is his refined and elegant fiance, a respected book editor. Ed Munn, Stella’s loyal friend and drinking buddy, is played by John Goodman.
The supporting performances are all good, but the characters are rather bland and one-dimensional next to Stella. And Midler, by herself, can’t quite evoke the emotions this story deserves. Unfortunately, without its emotional punch, the story is lifeless.
Midler’s Stella is simply too strong (“It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken” is her motto) to warrant all our sympathy. This is most apparent in the final scene, in which Stella stands in the pouring rain, watching her daughter’s wedding through a window.
Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella was happy for her daughter, but we knew her life was shattered and would never be the same. Midler’s Stella will bounce back tomorrow.
Stella was directed by John Erman, best known for his dramatic television movies, including Who Will Love My Children?, The Two Mrs. Greenvilles, and An Early Frost.