By Gail Moore Woltkamp
My dad loved old movies. Many of his favorites came from the decades of the thirties and forties. I grew up spending Sunday afternoons with Ma and Pa Kettle, the Bowery Boys, Shirley Temple Theater, and maybe a couple Judy and Mickey musical dandies thrown in.
I loved watching all the old stuff with my dad. Something about it felt safe. There was always something genuinely funny about each of the films or shorts and they usually ended on a happy note.
From my own generation’s sitcom end of things, I never made Dad sit with me to watch things like “The Partridge Family.” Although if I had, I’m sure he would have given me his opinion that Shirley Jones was once upon a time in her musical genre era…worth watching.
In the summers during my junior high school years, our front living room with twenty-five inch Zenith console was usually all mine after Mom and Dad went to bed.
One late summer night, I found a Barbara Stanwyck movie, “Stella Dallas.” Now by the time I was thirteen, I was versed in the Stanwyck classic, “Christmas in Connecticut,” thanks to my dad, but I had never seen “Stella Dallas.”
If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s actually a little disturbing. Stella’s outspoken wardrobe, with clunky hats and oversized bows, is almost clownish as the character is portrayed as not succumbing to social stereotypes or traditional societal expectations.
Maybe it was my age at the time, but my initial impression of the movie was that it dragged. Several trips to the kitchen to make popcorn and back to my magenta- flowered sleeping bag, I managed to stick with it. By the final scene I was touched to tears and then, in return, the movie stuck with me.
The next day all I could think about was how much Stella did for her daughter. She put herself in such unforeseen situations. At my precarious age of thirteen, it upset me how awkward and over-the-top she looked in her wardrobe. I felt sorry for Stella when she overheard her daughter’s teenage friends make fun of her behind her back. How could they?
Her daughter, played by Anne Shirley, did all the right things throughout most of the movie. She stuck by her mother’s side, putting her first when she had a choice. However, in Stella’s effort to give her daughter a better life, the two eventually parted ways.
In years since, I have never forgotten that classic final scene where Stanwick is standing in the rain outside the church of her daughter’s well-to-do wedding. She could see, just barely, the kiss between her and her new groom. Stella then tearfully walked through the misty city neighborhood, sad, but with a feeling of greater good, that she had fulfilled her job as a mother.
Wait! What? This parenting style certainly wouldn’t fly with today’s high-powered-fuel-injected helicopter mom. Nonetheless, Stanwick and Shirley were both nominated for academy awards, the movie goes down as one of Stanwick’s signature performances and all is well on the “old movie” front.
When I look back and explore why this film stuck with me, I arrive at two things: empathy and appreciation…and of course, these sentiments, in all their sincerity…are intended for moms.
My mom was classy, stylish, had a great office job lasting forty years at a pipeline company, maintained many friendships over the years and seemed close to perfect. But I guess the movie made me realize how lucky I was to have a mom who did so much for me and I hoped no one would ever poke fun or make light of her sacrifices.
Mom was not as passionate about old movies as was my dad. She would often peek in the back den where Dad spent the majority of his leisure time and ask “What are you guys watching this time??” “That’s Gary Cooper!” “He must be a hundred years old.”
Mom keeping it real on the leisurement of old movie watching seemed to add to my enjoyment of the movie and to my pride of being their daughter.
Some of my most cherished childhood memories are centered on particular old movies… “A Christmas Carol”, “Citizen Kane”, “The Best Years of our Lives”…all of which, my mom would call out the lead actors and announce they must be a hundred or dead.
Today, I relish those memories with the three of us. Those moments that ultimately play a small part in forming who you are as a person later in life.
A few months ago I found “Stella Dallas” on Turner Classic Movies. I had not seen it since my original viewing back in 1979. Aside from a few plot details, my memory of it was pretty accurate. I can’t say why certain performances resonate more than others, but I can say that Stanwyck as Stella earned her groove with me.