Stella Dallas King Vidor

Barbara Stanwyck would go on to better films, but she never had a greater role than in this classic 1937 melodrama. The titular heroine is a lower-class young woman who dreams of finer things; it looks as if she's hit the jackpot when she marries a rich industrialist, but her tactless vulgarity scuppers any chance of domestic bliss. But as her daughter (Anne Shirley) grows up and gravitates towards polite company, Stella's garish wilfulness will force her to make a sacrifice. In one sense, the film is incredibly unfair to Stella, who rightly resists the strictures of high society and raises her daughter on her own terms; as punishment, it contrives a masochistic ending that cuts her loose from the daughter she loves. But on another level, it charts the downward progress of someone who wants it both ways but can't have it, and in mourning her inability to make things work the film is immensely moving. Stanwyck absolutely commits to the character by refusing to condescend to her, and she makes Stella such a fireball of stubbornness and pride that her final parental hara-kiri seems less ridiculous than it might be. That ending still is a sticking point, and it rightly made my old Women's Cinema prof theoretically apoplectic. As her drinking buddy, Alan Hale — yes, the Skipper himself — is such fun and has such moments of surprising pathos you wonder who's really giving up what? But the vivid portrait of the character that comes before it is so much more thought out than most of today's films that it resonates as if it were Greek tragedy, and will grip you like no mere soap opera ever could. (MGM)