31 Days of Oscar – The Snubs: Barbara Stanwyck in STELLA DALLAS

This chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces.
— Frank Capra

It’s difficult to consider Oscar snubs without thinking of Barbara Stanwyck. I remember reading a few years ago that she had never won an Academy Award. “That can’t be right,” I thought. One thing about this modern world, no one ever has to wonder about any factual information. In a couple minutes, I had confirmed without a doubt that, though Stanwyck received an honorary Oscar for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting” in 1982, she had been nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar, and indeed had never claimed the prize.

The four nominations were for her work as: the title character in Stella Dallas (1937), Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), and Leona Stevenson in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Of these, the Stella Dallas loss is the one that Stanwyck herself apparently regretted.

Stella posterThis film had the kind of source material that still draws nominations today. It was based on an acclaimed novel about a woman who marries up and can’t fit in. Eventually she gives up her daughter, whom she loves more than anyone or anything else in the world, so the latter can have a better life. The role required the actress to age 20 years. It was a plum, and Stanwyck wanted it. However, producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted a screen test. Stanwyck felt she’d proven her abilities over seven years working in Hollywood, and refused to make it.

She was not a sure thing to play Stella. The director, King Vidor, wanted her to, but Goldwyn was remaking his own 1925 version of the film, and he maintained that Stanwyck didn’t have enough sex appeal. He favored, among others, Ruth Chatterton, who turned it down.

One of many things I’ve learned from reading Victoria Wilson’s comprehensive Stanwyck bio, Steel-True, is that Joel McCrea, a frequent co-worker and friend of Stanwyck’s, was enlisted by her agent and friend, Zeppo Marx, to persuade her to make the necessary test. McCrea got nowhere. He then approached Goldwyn and pointed out that if Stanwyck was dating the handsome and very popular Robert Taylor, then she must have something going on.

I always knew Taylor was idolized in his day. Another thing I’ve learned from Steel-True is how really extremely popular he was. More than 25 years before the Beatles, Taylor was routinely getting mobbed and having his clothes torn off. He often needed a police escort to go out in public.

Goldwyn wouldn’t hear any of it. Stanwyck would have to agree to a test, which she eventually did. Per Steel-True, her test was cut into a reel with 47 others, but there was no doubt about it. Even Goldwyn had to agree, Stanwyck was Stella.

Stella-Laurel-color-tintStanwyck is stunningly great in the film. She simply became Stella Dallas, cheap and vulgar yet lovable and generous, so that the melodramatic aspects of the character evaporate and leave a real person. She makes it believable that someone who desperately wants to move up in class somehow doesn’t know she is too much. If you don’t feel for her in the scene in the train car where Stella overhears her daughter Laurel’s “friends” ripping on her walk and clothing choices and then pretends, for Laurel’s sake, not to have heard them….check your chest, you might not have a heart in there.

The film was both a popular and a critical success. It and Stanwyck both got great reviews. Per TCM, “the movie was so popular it became a radio serial in October 1937, dramatizing the later lives of characters in the movie. The serial lasted for eight years.” [Emphasis mine.]

So what happened? First, her competition for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1938 was formidable: Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth; Greta Garbo for Camille (co-starring Stanwyck’s beau, Robert Taylor); Janet Gaynor for A Star Is Born; and the previous year’s winner for The Great Ziegfeld, Luise Rainer for The Good Earth.

Also, Stanwyck rebelled against the system, refusing to be tied to any one studio. At the time she was cast as Stella Dallas, she had contracts with two studios, RKO and Fox, and was working on a picture at a third, Paramount. She had been suspended many times when she refused to work on a picture that was wrong for her, and had been involved in breach of contract litigation. Studios were notorious for sometimes throwing together a big star and a weak script, relying on the talent’s drawing power to make money, and Stanwyck avoided those productions for the most part. However, as Wilson writes, “Barbara’s independence from the studios came at a price.” She often took roles that were originally meant for someone else. In terms of Oscar voting, she missed out on the consistent support and yards of good press that “team players” got.

I also think the realism of Stanwyck’s performance may have been another contributing factor. She is always so natural, and almost never seems to be acting.

A Stanwyck win was widely predicted, but whatever the reasons, Rainer prevailed on Oscar night, for the second year in a row.

PS: The Variety review of Stella Dallas contended that it was incredible that Stella would wear such crazy outfits when Laurel’s apparel, designed and made by Stella herself, was so elegant. I disagree. I think Stella would have wanted her daughter to fit in as much as possible so she would have copied her friends’ clothes. Stella knows she doesn’t fit in by that point, so she would not have done the same for herself.

Leigh Oscar banner flatThis post is part of the second annual 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.  For more posts featuring Oscar snubs, visit the megapost at Outspoken and Freckled, and stay tuned for more Oscar-related posts throughout the month. Our blogathon gets its inspiration from Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, “where every movie shown is an Oscar winner or nominee.”

23 responses to “31 Days of Oscar – The Snubs: Barbara Stanwyck in STELLA DALLAS

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2014 « Once upon a screen…·

  2. Paula~ what a perfect pick for Oscar snub! Barbara Stanwyck is the ideal movie star of iconic Hollywood. She could do it all. But I think her role in STELLA DALLAS elevated her to the height of her craft. Awesome write-up!

    • Thanks Kellee. I think Stella was a turning point for her, even if she didn’t win the Oscar…it seems like she was taken more seriously by the “powers that be” after that.

  3. Great post Paula! I agree with you – Stanwyck was snubbed BIG TIME by the Academy for her role in Stella Dallas. The film was superb and she played the part with so much heart and guts.

    • Well said, heart and guts. Lotsa soul. I know it’s useless to speculate, but I wonder if the voters thought at the time that she would get nominated again.

  4. Definitely an Oscar snub! I cry every time at the wedding scene…I just read STEEL-TRUE, too–what an incredibly researched biography! Thanks for this great post!

    • Aw, thank you. Me too! I also cry during the train scene. I am like halfway through Steel-True. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by :)

  5. I approach this subject with a big boatload of bias because I’m a Stanwyck fan and, for the life of me, don’t get Luise Rainer. So naturally I agree with every word you wrote!

    I don’t know what the studio was thinking. Stanwyck’s good looks are so *real.* One of the more conventionally beautiful leading ladies would not have been as believable as the trashy-but-attractive Stella.

    I had no idea Stella went on to become a radio serial. But I can see how it would work. Stella and her daughter reconnecting … then the problems of *three* sets of in-laws as the young couple sets up housekeeping … Stella as the doting but incredibly inappropriate grandmother … There’s definitely 8 years worth of daily drama here.

    • Well, I mean…it’s nice to know there are other people who agree :) I really couldn’t see Ruth Chatterton as Stella at all. And yeah…it wouldn’t be easy navigating all those family complications. There’s some episodes of the radio show on You Tube, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to them yet.

  6. Great review of Barbara Stanwyck . I think that qoute “Woman who behave rarely make history” also means when they don’t get in line, they don’t get an Oscar

  7. Excellent post. We’ll never know for sure, but I think you’re right about why she was snubbed.

    My fav performance is probably Double Indemnity:

    “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff.”

    “Straight down the line Walter. Straight down the line.”

    Wonderfully written dialogue, yes, but the way Stanwyck delivered her lines…Amazing. She should have won an Oscar for this performance too :)

    • Thanks, babe. It kills me that Goldwyn didn’t think she was sexy enough. Um…what? Of course she was nominated for Indemnity, and lost that time too.

  8. Totally agree with your assessment of Stanwyck – she was so real and natural that she was taken for granted. Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be too good! Anyway, her performances are timeless and she is A Number 1 in our book, right?

    • Yes, absolutely right! Someone said the same of another perennial snub-ee, one of my very favorite actors Cary Grant…too natural, made it look too easy.

  9. EXACTLY. I can’t believe Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t nominated for this (or any other) role. That last scene in the movie, where she watches her daughter get married, is Oscar-worthy on its own!

    Thanks for including this in the blogathon. The “snubs” would not have been complete without this one.

  10. Excellent choice and dissertation, Paula!

    Ms. Stanwyck was the female “Utility Infielder’s Utility Infielder”. And it’s a shame that people are just starting to catch on after so many years.

    Possessed of beauty, talent, superb comedic timing and when the need arose; just plain, flat out sultriness. The idea of turning in a bad performance never entered the mind!

    Covering all the bases in ‘Stella Dallas’. While maintaining the mystique of some scheme going on behind those eyes. And being at least two moves ahead in any film.

    • “Utility Infielder’s Utility Infielder” — love this! I agree Jack, so well-said. She was so versatile, and always looked smart even when “playing dumb.”

  11. Yes to all this! In fact, I was woefully ignorant to the fact that she hadn’t won an Oscar – she’s just so fabulous in this and so many other movie I assumed a statue was a forgone conclusion. What an oversight!

    • Yes, it’s tough to believe. Don’t feel too badly, I haven’t really been into the minutiae of classic movies for all that long, and for quite a few years, i assumed she had won at least one.

  12. Enjoyed this post, Paula! When you pointed out the scene in which poor Stella is ridiculed in the train by Laurel’s so-called friends, seeing her reaction broke my heart. I remember that part of the movie most vividly. I’ve only seen it once and that was earlier this year, but I loved it. I’ve seen a handful of Stanwyck’s films so far, and I’d say “Stella Dallas” has been my favorite. Definitely an Oscar-worthy performance.

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post and the movie. Stella is definitely a heartbreaker. For that reason, I’ve only seen it all the way through twice.

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