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Stella Dallas

Stella Dallas is the story of a woman named Stella Dallas, formerly Stella Martin. Stella meets Stephen Dallas, a former millionaire who lost his fortune and is trying to rebuild. Stella dreams of a high society life, the glitz and glam of mingling with the cream of the crop, and she sees Stephen as a fast track to this end. Although their love might be real, Stella still has a goal to accomplish. One year later they have a young daughter, Laurel. Stella is sick of being cooped up at home and wants to go out once more to hobnob with high society again. It is after unrelenting pleas that Stephen finally agrees to take the new mother to a dance where Stella meets Ed Munn. Ed bets on horses and has a loud, forceful personality. Stephen notices Stella’s motives and promptly takes her home. This is the first time we see a confrontation between Stephen and Stella, and the first time that we are introduced to the idea of Stella trying to “dress to impress.” This is not just in her fashion choices (including fake jewelry) but also in her attitude around others. Stephen says he is taking a job in New York, but Stella chooses to stay where she is, with Laurel. Flash forward a few years, Laurel is starting to grow up and Stephen has run into his old fiancée, Helen Morris. There is clearly a toxic relationship between Ed Munn and Laurel, but he plays it off as jovial. Stephen invites Laurel to start staying with him and the Morris family periodically. Although continuing to be separated, Stephen and Stella are still not divorced. Things start to change when Stella notices the impact of her choices which begin to affect her daughter. Ed is becoming increasingly rowdy and Stella’s continued desire to impress the rich with no sense of propriety is causing her to become an embarrassment to Laurel. Laurel remains loyal to Stella after being made fun of for Stella’s choice in clothing. Stella begins to realize the best life that she can give Laurel is to remove herself from the family dynamic. A divorce from Stephen and an intentionally destructive moment with Laurel later solidifies Laurel’s desire to stay at the Morris house. Laurel marries the young boy that she likes as Stella looks on in the rain outside of the building, knowing that she has done the best thing for her daughter.

Wendy and Lucy

This film is about a traveling woman named Wendy who is heading for Alaska with her dog Lucy. The two are somewhere in Oregon when they begin to run low on funds and food, which very quickly drives Wendy to stealing from a convenience store to feed Lucy. Wendy is caught and sent to the local jail where she is charged with petty theft, pays a fifty dollar fine and is let go. The major problem is that Wendy left Lucy tied up to a pole outside the convenience store and after several hours is able to return to find her gone.  Wendy begins looking frantically for Lucy, learning that the pound is closed and will not open until the next day. Wendy goes to the pound first thing in the morning, looking for her dog. When the pound tells her that there is no dog there by that description, they look in the back anyway but to no avail. Distraught, Wendy simply begins her journey looking for Lucy with no resources or transportation. She cannot afford to repair her car, so she begins to travel without any real means. Wendy then finds out where Lucy resides, having been adopted, and jumps on a train as a stowaway to go visit her. Waiting for the home to be empty, Wendy goes and visits Lucy in a nice backyard, playing fetch and speaking to her through the metal fence that physically separates them. Realizing that Lucy’s new family can give her a better life, Wendy chooses to leave Lucy and continue on her wandering way.

Strong Female Roles

Both films are meant to portray women, both effectively mothers, torn between what they want and what they want for their children. This is a kind of “ultimate sacrifice” for the mother, as they realize what is best for their daughter is to get out of their lives. The flourishing of daughters is the highest priority for both Stella and Wendy. For Stella she wants to see her daughter unashamedly in high society, free from the shackles of Stella’s lower class attitude that bleeds out in her daily life. As one author puts it, “Laurel, though initially hurt, moves on and eventually marries up. On the night of Laurel’s wedding, Helen intentionally leaves open the curtains so that Stella can watch her daughter marry from outside of the house. Barbara Stanwyck magnificently portrays Stella’s supreme moment of triumph. Don’t mistake her tears as tears of sadness; Stella cries tears of joy. Stella is not a beaten down figure. She is a hero who has accomplished her purpose, whose plans have turned out just as she planned. Her story reflects the struggle of countless unsung heroic women” (senseofcinema.com).

Wendy takes on a much grittier role, demonstrating the life of a drifter during the 2008 economic recession. Wendy never marries rich and instead tries to do the best she can with what she has left. Although the films are similar, the characters differ in economic opportunity. Stella marries a wealthy man with ambition in order to get out of her economic circumstances. By contrast, Wendy continues to search for work and drift towards opportunity. As far as we know, Wendy never actually finds that opportunity. One of the things that sets Wendy apart is the seemingly never ending barrage of problems that are thrown at her. Including her obviously poor economic circumstance, her family life seems to be on the ropes as well. She calls her sister and brother-in-law simply to talk, and while her brother-in-law seems sympathetic, her sister seems skeptical, assuming that Wendy is calling for money. “Wendy’s ordeal in the film is comprised of just a few days in a longer journey; but that short time slowly develops into systemic uncertainty with increasingly intense vulnerability to invasions by unknown others and explores the bitter circumstances involved in negotiating the mundane details of a marginalized life. In the middle of the film, that pan evokes a sense of alienation and suggests Wendy’s lonely departure alongside an empty space. By the end of the film, Wendy has no safety net, no social network, no clarity of purpose” (btchflks.com).

Whichever character you pick, both Stella and Wendy represent a rarely seen archetype in cinema. Women in these kinds of circumstances are seldom portrayed on screen. Their stories are not glamorous, they are not rags to riches, and they don’t really bring awareness to anything that is necessarily commonplace (although it does happen). There is no feel good ending for these women, who make the toughest choice alone. Unfortunately for these stories they are rarely shown because of the lack of interest at the theater for such a sad and dramatic story with no real redemption. These types of stories do not grow the box office, so their time on screen is rare and short, limited to a handful of movies and now primarily indie films, such as Wendy and Lucy.

Lessons Learned

I think it is important to ask questions and try and find a takeaway from these movies and figure out the lesson that the directors are trying to teach us. One of the first questions we ought to ask is if the directors intention is to venerated these women or not. Should we applaud the choices of these women? It was hard, yes, but was it right, was it moral? I do not seek to answer the question, but it is important to note that the answer is not so black and white. Sure the children may have better opportunities now, a better life financially and opportunistically, but is that worth the separation of the mother and daughter or in Wendy’s case, a dog. Again I wish to emphasize that I do not have an answer to the question, but it is important to state that the point the directors are trying to drive home may not be as simple as it is at first glance. Is Stella a hero for shipping her daughter away or was she still acting with a subconscious level of selfish interest? Is Wendy right in giving her dog to a new home, or is she continually running away from responsibility, just as she seems to be running away from other problems? I don’t think these issues are black and white, so it is important to consider. Both movies give us insight and information to help us appropriately judge these situations. It is left to the audience to decide what is right and what is wrong, whether or not you come to hate Stella and Wendy or if you come to respect them immensely.

 

http://www.btchflcks.com/2016/03/kelly-reichardts-wendy-and-lucy-heartbreak-in-a-panning-shot.html#.XqzuF6hKjIV

http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/cteq/stella-dallas/

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