If you had to update a classic tearjerker you couldn’t do worse than Stella Dallas, the Olive Higgins Prouty novel, which gets its third screen treatment with Stella. This weepy saga of a lower-class dame who sacrifices all so her daughter can live with her blue-blooded father is rooted in antique notions of society and the impenetrability of class barriers that were exploded ages ago. Single motherhood is not the scandal it once was, but Stella smacks Bette Midler from one snooty put-down to another as if this were still the way the world works. With a plot that made no sense to modern audiences, Stella faded fast at the box office.
As weirdly out of touch as it is, though, Stella remains a shameless, powerful valentine to martyred mother-love, and is worth a look on video. This is a movie to inspire snuffling guilt pangs in daughters everywhere. And this time Robert Getchell’s eloquent script gives depth to characters that were archetypes in earlier versions: Stella’s loutish pal Ed Munn (John Goodman) is a complex, pathetic hambone, and Trini Alvarado brings spiky substance to the schizoid part of Stella’s daughter Jenny (she’s punk in one scene and prep in the next).
The only person miscast is the star herself. The secret of Bette Midler’s success has been the triumph of an ugly duckling through talent, drive, and joyous vulgarity, but the subtext of this tale is that tackiness is more damning than poverty — Stella’s punished for exactly the qualities this actress celebrates. Barbara Stanwyck’s tough, definitive 1937 performance avoided the issue. But masochism has always lurked beneath Midler’s narcissistic high spirits: Free from the need to be funny, she bludgeons us with sentiment. C+