Film: Stella Dallas
Director: King Vidor
Performers: Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, Barbara O’Neill, John Boles
Breed featured: Great Dane
Production information: Samuel Goldwyn Mayer, 1937 (USA)
Stella Dallas is a classic maternal melodrama whose title character is a small-town beauty (Barbara Stanwyck) who marries “up” when she captures the attention of high-class factory manager, Stephen. Though their romance quickly cools, Stella discovers new passion and complete fulfillment in raising their daughter, Laurel. Trouble hits in Laurel’s teenage years when the tightly-knit mother-daughter duo is forced to confront the social reality that culture and refinement are not so easily gained, at least not without sacrifice. The stakes become more serious when Stephen reignites a long-dormant affair with a wealthy widow whom he knew from his elite past.
There are all kinds of dramatic tensions at work in this film that I’m not going to lay out here since a great number of notable feminist film scholars have covered it with far more eloquence and depth than I will attempt on this blog. But nobody talks about the dog, since his appearance is so brief that it barely merits a mention unless you’re looking for it. As a deliberate prop in an emotionally wrought film, the Dane is a good example of how the figure of the dog is deployed for full symbolic potency.
When Laurel goes to visit her father and his new lover for the first time, the giant dog is used to mark social class and difference in no uncertain terms. When Michael the Great Dane (as he is called, by name, in the film) gallops down the winding staircase to greet Laurel, his presence instantly confirms this home as THE domestic fantasy that only money can buy.
I literally groaned when I saw the Dane… He was the icing on the cake, the one “excess” that sets this mansion irreversibly apart from the humble, small-town apartment that Laurel shares with her mother. Not only is this family wealthy enough to keep a dog, he is uselessly large (jumping onto the teenaged girl for emphasis), at complete leisure to be friendly (showing no reticence towards this stranger, he doesn’t even need to do any “work” as might befit a dog of his stature), and absorbed into the family as one of its own by dint of having such a humanized name. This is a household that is so ready to provide for others, they’ve even got room for multiple servants and a goofy dog that serves no purpose other than to love and be loved. Surely it’d take no effort to absorb a charming, refined young lady as well?
Knowing, or at least suspecting all the work that would go into raising such a beast, and the virtues and resources that such a task would demand, the Great Dane is an efficacious reminder that Stella Dallas, for all her maternal warmth, could never offer her daughter a home with such luxuries — as the dog is considered in this film.