misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Significant women's films: Letter from an Unknown Woman; Stella Dallas

Dear Friends,

These two reviews are written under the sign of Austen because I watched both to understand the genre of romantic melodrama and archetypes and norms shared by popular commercial drama and costume drama mini-series, as well as high status older novels by and for women (Austen comes in her) and recent popular ones too.

First Max Ophuls's 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman. Screenplay is Howard Koch and it's based on a short story by Stefan Zweig. 

Stefan and Lisas, photographed on their night of make-believe in a train

It is a work of art and in its (maybe very sick) way perfect of its kind. It seems to me to contain all the motifs of pecular subgenre of novel to which Austen's S&S indirectly belongs, or at least its backstories. In brief, a dissolute musician, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is seen coming home one night having agreed to fight a duel & jokes he doesn't mind being murdered, what he hates is getting up early in the morning; he tells his servant to get ready within the hour as honor is too costly.

Then a letter is delivered and the movie is a flashback with voice over as he reads this letter. A woman (played by Joan Fontaine throughout) whose name he could not remember the last time he saw her has spent her life in the grip of a vision of love for him since she was a child. He lived in an apartment in Vienna in the building she lived in as a child; she refused a match for him, and once one hight they met when she was a model for a seamstress and had a long romantic evening (with much make believe like being on a train pretending to go all over the world in a fair) and returned to his flat to make love. He cannot stay the next day to make their appointment but tells her he will be back in2 weeks. She sees him off at the station. He never returns. She is of course pregnant and marries a staid rich man who doesn't mind the child of another man she never married. Then at the opera one night she sees him again and her life is again lost. She puts the boy to school and runs after him. The boy dies on the trains going there of typhoid. She now lays dying (I forget why, but of course she does) and send the letter he will receive after her death. He took all night and it's too late to avoid the appointment, but now he wants to be honorable. Somehow it's conveyed the man he will duel is Lisa's (for she has a name) husband.

In Zweig's story (very likeDavid Lean's 1945 Brief Encounter in this, screenplay Noel Coward, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard), on the second night they make love. In the movie on the second night she flees (it would then be adultery) on the grounds he doesn't remember her, and that he has wasted his wonderful talent. (In the stageplay of Brief Encounter Laura and Dr Alec Harvey, her beloved, make love; in the movie they do not.) One theme important in movie and original story is music: his beautiful playing, her love of it. (In S&S Marianne loves music but it's dangerous; Austen's Brandon appreciates it, but from 81 on Brandon becomes a musician himself of increasing depths.) A set of words occurs in the movie not in the book: at the close of the letter she tells him he "found the love he never lost." "I have found it" is the title of the Tamil film, and one of the episodes (when Willoughby leaves to go to London) in the 81 film is the "love that was never had' or just missed and the word "found" is uttered ironically in the scene where Willoughby flees. Marianne comes near death, and in Montolieu's Caroline de Lichtfield Caroline does.

A silent nameless woman who gives up her life for this man. Pregnancy outside marriage. Death. Repetition. We first see the man coming in the morning after the duel has been set. Then in the flashback with a woman or women in the morning. He returns with Lisa the first time in the dawn, the second, and we end there too. A long night of a life..

Ophuls' films is done with exquisite tact. Despite the overdressing (to me ludicrious but what they did then), it works. The sentimental music works too -- today it would be more robust and classical stuff chosen, but it is there almost through (like the 1995 S&S). The use of soft-focus photography, the use of location (it reminded me of Orson Wells's 1948 The third man); the trains as ubiquitous as in Brief Encounter, from which I take this comparative still of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as Laura and Alec bidding adieu on their second day out together.

An image of England in WW2, from clothes to expression, to lighting and yet utter romance

By contrast, Letter feels like "old Europe."Misogyny is a light hand: Lisa's mother is presented as harsh but understandably and wanting to find a good husband for her daughter and marrying herself for stability. No other women but a fellow seamstress, boss and nuns. She is ever alone and has no girlfriends; never wants to go out, does not enjoy social life. I now know why Joan Fontaine was chosen for Jane Eyre and also Rebecca in 39. In this movie her evasive angular face is strained continually in a way the other movies don't catch. Louis Jourdan is glamor man of the era.

I doubt I'm beginning to do justice to why this is a remarkable film. My instinct is it is because it's madness, over the top with no stops anywhere. It has the courage of its wild convictions, only not allowing the second night of love-making to occur. It has no mother-daughter (wayside) story, nothing of the remorse of the famous Now, Voyager or Stella Dallas (see directly below.

Now why do I outline it: because if made by men and under the aegis of a male hegemony, it is understood as woman's film. It's made for women and I am to suppose they made it a hit. But is is utterly subersive. It gifts the Eliza-Marianne character wih a lifelong worship of Willoughby and makes the Brandon character (who has in the Austen movies increasingly become the rescuer hero) dull (I had almost said again as in Austen), not mean and ugly (as in Wharton's summer).

The orignal story give the central male no honor and no ending of the night with doing something the society can admire him for (though why anyone should admire or the choice of suicide is where we get into sickness).

Anyone else seen this one? Any thoughts? It should be placed with Brief Encounter -- as a contrast for the latter is for repression and realistic, though at the close of Letters the woman has certainly suffered and been punished. By contrast, Laura returns to her husband, her children and she survive in peace. But perhaps we are to think she might spend a little time regretting her choice? Not in the film as constructed.

I do not think I am susceptible to this kind of thing nor really ever was. From the first I thought Marianne made the right decision, Willoughby a false dream, a shallow man. To turn to Little women where in the movies (from 1930s to 1970 to 1995) we get this weeping and women carrying intense emotional burdens, I was for Jo marrying Prof Bhaer. When young I never did think she should not marry as I thought then (and know now still) without a life companion it's veyr lonely and as Austen says old women alone often are very poor too.

Now for Stella Dallas.  directed by King Vidor, screenplay by Harry Wagstaff Gribble and based on a very popular novel by a woman, Olive Higgins Prouty, at the time.

Moment of hopeful love for mother and daughter

It seems harder to put into words than Ophuls' Letters from an Unknown Woman, because in comparison it's uneven. I should start in what is so strikingly moving and relevant about it.  At the center is Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman, working class, vulgar, dresses sexily and pretends to maternal instincts towards her brother (bringing him lunch, to meet and to lure Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a more upper class male in the brother's firm and  her local neighborhood to date and then marry her. Although she appears to want to aspire to be a person in this upper class milieu, after she gives birth, it appears that she cannot get herself to obey his strictures on self-control and repression. For example, she wants to go dancing as soon as she gets home from hospital; while there she embarrasses him with her behavior and her taste for low class humor and men, one named Ed (Alan Hale) especially, and fun.  He argues before they go out, she is in no state to go out and is childish and doesn't know what she's doing; she produces wry and angry remarks about how she learned a lot about life on the maternity ward and especially during the time of childbirth. When he proposes to go to NYC to better himself, she refuses to go with him.

Thus there begins a many year estrangement where she stays with Laurel (Anne Shirley) or Lollie, their daughter and becomes very close to her.  The movie skirts making this set of motives as clear as I did - I think because such a class issue is dynamite in the US.  Much more explicit (though avoiding words like labor in childbirth) is her resentment over what she experienced in giving birth, but this si countered because she is in such good health (no harm) and has this baby which she proceeds to give her life up to. It is a giving up. She never works. She appears to have no friends but Ed, the one rough vulgar uneducated stupid harddrinking man she took up with at the one dance she went to after giving birth.  Her husband, Stephen, apparently sends home tons of money with which she buys herself vulgar clothes and sends her daughter to exclusive upper class schools. What she does not realize is she is educating the girl out of her class.

She loves to sew and spends all her time sewing clothes for this child. Then comes the first devastatnig incident. She wants to make a birthday party for her daughter. She makes a very fancy outfit for her and herself, decorates the house extravagantly, and invites all the friends from school and the teacher.  The teacher has seen her and is horrified and doesn't show, nor does any friend, not one.  Slowly this dawns on them but they hold hands and together at that table celebrate.

Years go by and it's Xmas and we see Laurel has been visiting her father and Helen Morrison (Barbara O'Neil) a very upper class rich widow he has fallen in love with her who has three sons. One Xmas the father comes and asks if he can have Laurel for Xmas; even he sees how cruel it is to take from Stella all she has, and is about himself to spend the day with them after Stella appears in modest outfit and controlled, but alas, Ed has turned up drunk and disgusted and suspicious, he removes his daughter.

He wants a divorce but at first Stella will not give it to him. She determines to bring the girl out herself but when she accompanies her daughter to an upper class holiday place, and the girl fits in, she is a laughing stock, and the daughter, appalled, insists on returning home. Stella overhears people laughing at her and realizes what has happened. 

Throughout Laurel realiznig how much her mother loved her and how happy they have been together when alone is loyal to the mother. But now the mother realizes she stands in her daughter's way. She visits her husband's new wife and offers to give Laurel up to her; the new wife is not fooled by Stella's attempt to hide the self-sacrifice and agrees only to a long visit, but Stella will not hear of just a visit and send the girl away from her without telling her this. When Laurel is brought to stay, she protests and runs home even though she does long to stay.

But when she gets home, Stella pretends to want to get rid of her, to be waiting for Ed, says she has a life to live beyond mothering and we see her suddenly smoking, in a sexy nightgown, reading a remarkably stupid magazine called Love. We have seen her so dressed throughout the film and reading things like True Confessions (she has no respect for the books Stephen would send the girl over the years), but never before was this pointed in a way to make her look like a frivolous sexy woman who had no concern for her daughter. Lollie's reaction to believe this act is one of the false notes of the film.

Lollie does run back, remeets and marries an upper class male and the famous last scene ensues where Helen leaves the curtain open so Stella, now dressed very plainly (for once) comes and watches behind an iron fence her daughter married away. A policeman tries to push her on, but lets her stay just to watch Lollie give her groom the final kiss. Lollie has shown disappointment that Stella never even showed up for the wedding, but as helen couldn't know for sure that Stella was out there (and anyway how could she explain that), Lollie is left to believe her mother cares nothing for her for real and deserted her.

The last scene shows Stella walking away, now alone and in triumph.

I suggested it has scenes of astonishing heartbreak.  These include when no one shows up for the party, during the Christmas Stephen takes Lollie from Stella (she had planned a dinner and exchange of gifts and then hoped Stephen would stay after all), and especially when Stella realizes that she is an incumbrance on her daughter and resolves to give her up.  I think the truest moments of the film are these quiet ones where Stella realizes she is excluded by virtue of her class, manners, talk, and instead of raging or becoming resentful or hitting out, becomes abject.

The film has true feeling at a gut level I rather think Letter from an Unknown Woman doesn't have. Ophuls' film is about a fantasy that doesn't exist, and the story is improbable throughout. Stella Dallas shows profound human feeling violated by social status, and while there is exaggeration and crudity in the way the story and circumstances are presented, I know from experience, that such violations occur all the time, and believe (have known of) where they can be central and wreak irremediable damage on a psyche and a life.  This is not just a woman's issue, but it can be more likely for a woman, especially as Stella is working class and appears to be a woman with a low class lover, Ed.  In fact she's not interested in Ed or any man, only her daughter, and I've seen this: woman who are mothers first, last and foremost.

Where it's uneven is in the way the class issue is glided over. The sets are unconvincing, the movement of the scenes jerky. It's just not probable that Stella would give up Stephen just like this and refuse to go to NYC and he accept that. It's not probably Stella and Lollie would be so alone.Also the men are emasculated. I read an article about pre-code movies in a recent issue of the NYRB, "When Hollywood dared," by Geoffrey O'Brien (July 2, 2009, 56:11) where he suggested after the code was set in most depcitions of men were absurd. Stephen is ludicrously gentle and would not have made a dime; he walks about in absurd suits and in the house elegant bathrobes and does not make any gesture about sex that is in the least suggestive; Stella's brother is child-like as is Ed.  The depiction of men this way allows for Stella's unreal decisions and also her chastity all the years she is along with her daughter growing up. Also that Stephen is superrich as is Helen and everyone dressed in these simpering glamor clothes (including Stella even if hers are vulgar). I realize pop movies were presented this way, but NOT Letter from an Unknown Woman where the dress was consonant, the men believable and sets persuasive, direction of scenes felt real.

Nonetheless, I think Stella Dallas is if possible a more important movie for women than Now Voyager which is at once sickeningly sentimental over motherhood, presents a mother as a vicious harridan (I wrote about it on my old blog as I did Brief Encounter, but it seems both blogs were not retrieved), and Bette Davis as a lonely terrified spinster turned into beauty queen when Paul Henreid condescends to fall love with her on board ship and she becomes a glamor queen:




It's a fashion show. It is also based on another popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. I suppose I ought to look up Prouty and read about her novels.  Both Now Voyager and Letter from an Unknown Woman are about fantasies, pernicious fantasies but compensatory, consoling, and supportive of the male hegemony and class system, and marriage and children as the be-all and end-all of women's existence, with fatherhood and running a family and commercial success and achievement in society for men.

Stella seems to me as crude and unacknowledged as it is, about something that happens still and all the time: violation of people's deepest and best instincts and the game of exclusion as cenrtral to human groups. Had the men been realer and the code not there, and sex allowed to be presented as it probably would have been experienced, it could have been a profound indictment of the way motherhood is experienced by many women. The tearing apart of the daughter and mother for the girl's marriage as the crucial scene.

Stella asked to move on

Important articles are: Maria LaPlace, "Producing and Consuming the woman's film:  Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager," Linda Williams, "'Something Else Besides a Mother;" Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama," Tania Modleski, "Time and Desire in the Woman's Film," Christine Gledhill, edd. Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film (London: BFI, 1987):138-166, 299-338.
Pam Cook's books, Fashioning the Nation (London:BFI:1966) is the book to read on Brief Encounter and Gainsborough Costume Drama.

Tags: women's films

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