When most people think of villains, they’re envisioning cloven hoofs and murderous intents. Stephen Dallas (John Boles), the husband of self-sacrificial mother, Stella Dallas (1937), would be unlikely to appear on any list of classic villains. Some might even consider him a nice guy—if they weren’t paying attention.
But on my latest viewing of the tearjerker, I wasn’t struck, as I usually am, by Stella’s modernity and her society’s desire to punish her for it. No, this time I kept observing just how completely AWFUL this man is, and how with a less monstrous husband, Stella (Barbara Stanywck) would have spent her middle age in daughter Laurel’s (Anne Shirley’s) sweet company, instead of off on her lonely, destitute own. Let’s review just how villainous this creep is:
- Ummm, Child Support?
Sure, Stephen splurges on his daughter, but only when she’s with him. When Stella and Laurel are on their own, their homespun clothing and Stella’s frequent repairs to it make evident they’re just scrimping by on the arrears of his salary, despite the fact that Stella and he never divorced.
Meanwhile, he’s living it up in fine clothes with his wealthy girlfriend in New York, with his daughter only looking smart when she’s with him.
When Stella decides to experience the high life for a weekend, it’s not just her daughter’s embarrassment at her gauche behavior that’s crushing. It’s that she doesn’t get to enjoy the one time she gets something from her still-married-to-her husband. Watch her satisfaction as she takes care of herself after years of only spending money on her daughter:
And it’s all going to end with her shame, and her loss.
- He Wants to Change His Wife’s Character, But Thinks His Own Stuffy Self Perfect
Maybe going dancing right after childbirth was pushing it, but Stella’s efforts to enjoy herself afterward stem from her love for company and music and fun. Stephen; acting disgusted by the lack of refinement of others, but really stung with jealousy; can’t keep himself from looking down on those who entertain his wife.
The fact that he makes zero effort to amuse her himself doesn’t seem to cross his mind; apparently, his tedious business acquaintances are the only company he’ll allow his wife. Instead, he wants to correct her manners, her clothes, her wording. “I’ll take my usual lecture,” she says when she returns from the brief dance he allows her. As she rightly points out, he could use some correction himself. Surely, everyday kindness is good etiquette, right spoilsport? As she points out after he starts condescending to her (saying she needs to correct herself, “adapt” in order to be someone), apparently treatment she’s been enduring since their marriage: “How would it be for you to do a little adapting for a change? I don’t see you giving up anything.”
- He Invites His Daughter to Stay with Him & His Mistress
Dressed up in finery and wealth or not, Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil) is romancing a married man. Her little boys being around may be intended to make her overtures to adulterer Stephen more palatable, but I found it creepy. And how about the surprise of springing the mistress on his daughter, saying where they were going was a secret, but this place (her home) was “the most beautiful place in the world,” and letting his daughter just take the invitation as a nice time with a nice lady?
Laurel’s utter obliviousness to the inappropriateness of the arrangement just makes her seem naïve, and her gushing about it to her mother afterward unbelievably (if unintentionally) cruel. I’ll admit to some puzzlement here; I don’t know what Stephen and Stella’s arrangement was, and of course I know straying husbands didn’t suffer the societal wrath a woman’s betrayal would cause. But why exactly are we to believe the surrounding society is cool with Helen’s actions, thinks her refined and classy? It’s a mystery to me. Even if her wealth is enough to make her survive the gossip, gossip there surely would be–much more than for Stella after some itching powder jokes! Are Stella and Stephen officially separated? Stella doesn’t seem to act as if they are. Regardless, springing a girlfriend and her kids on a visiting daughter is sketchy at best.
- He Steals His Daughter away at Christmas
Stephen shows up for a surprise Christmas visit to lure his daughter away with an hour’s notice, leaving Stella alone. He has a second of compassion for his wife, even admits he’s selfish.
But then his nemesis Ed (Alan Hale) shows up, and he’s too pissed to be kind anymore, assuming Stella is hooking up with him. Cause Stephen isn’t, I dunno, living with his mistress or anything himself, which is where he’s taking his daughter for the holidays, as he unashamedly admits to his wife. Wow.
- He Doesn’t Dissuade Stella from Giving Up Her Daughter
Laurel may be more refined in dress and manners than her mother, but she’s got a beating heart, unlike her lizard father. And sooner or later, the smugness of this beyond boring classy family she’s marrying into (and seriously, is it possible for these people to be more clichéd and dull?) is going to get to someone who was reared in a very different way. She’ll need her mom then to rip on their airs, and where will that mom be? Gone. Because Stella’s husband has so crushed his wife’s self-esteem over the years, evaluating her for her lack of fashion knowledge and proper deportment rather than for the more important qualities of love and empathy. (Her decision not to move to NYC with this jerk is the only thing that enabled her to retain her self-worth.)
The fact that only his new woman even gets Stella’s stupid lie to conceal her self-sacrificial motives says so much about his small-minded soul. I think psychologists would agree abandonment ain’t exactly for the good of a kid, even an adult one, and Stephen ought to know Laurel well enough to recognize how well Stella’s raised her. But why would we expect that? Or that he’d care? He’s got a pretty daughter on his arm. Why should he bother figuring out what makes her happy, much less spare an once of sympathy for his long-suffering ex-wife?
A villain, plain and simple.