Getting to “Stella Dallas” (1937): Class, Padding and Omar Kiam

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For those unfamiliar with this power-house of a film, Stella Dalls (1937) is the story about class in America, mothering and identity (closely linking all of these with ‘fashionability’). The film follows the life of Stella Dallas from a low class factory background, through her marriage for money, to the sacrifices she makes for the betterment of her daughter after the marriage fails. If you haven’t seen it, I’d urge you to check it out: it’s  powerful commentary.

The costumes inform the story without being the story, and they follow the development of the character well. It was based on a 1920 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty and had previously been made as a silent film in 1925.

The 1937 version starred Barbara Stanwyck, was directed by the great King Vidor, with costumes designed by Omar Kiam. It was a unique acting opportunity for the often glamorous Barbara Stanwyck to stretch her acting muscles. She committed herself to the part even though it meant looking unkempt, messy, and unattractive.

Many people don’t realize that it can take just as much work, if not more, to help an actor to strip off the layers of glamor and persona that are so carefully applied. An obvious comparison is Charleze Theron in Monster – though Stella Dallas is not quite committed to that level of realism.

According to biographer Al DiOrio, for Stella Dallas Stanwyck “turned herself over willingly to designer Omar Kiam, who rebuilt her completely, padding everything down to and including her legs. Rather than rely on wigs most of the time, she had her own hair styled in the frizzles, blowzy look necessary and even allowed cotton to be stuffed into her cheeks when necessary.” [1]

Image via MovieActors.com

Another biographer, Ella Smith elaborates on the process that Stanwyck relied on to develop her character and elaborates on the methods used by Kiam to achieve the right ‘look’:

“For the first time in her career, she [Stanwyck] did something she does not like and has not done since: she bleached her hair. Although offered wigs (some of which she did use at certain points in the film) she insisted, most of the time, that she be able to work with her own hair. She explained that, to rely on wigs throughout the film would mean that ‘I couldn’t do anything with my hands, like running them through my hair. Furthermore, in her home Stella’s hair was neglected, unkempt—and that just can’t be done realistically except with one’s own hair.’ To further create the character’s exterior, Stanwyck underwent a horrendous transformation at the hand’s of Goldwyn’s head costume designer, Oman Kiam. Not only did she appear in trashy and outrageously overdone costumes, but she was surrounded by layers of lumpy padding. Even her legs did not escape. Nor, for that matter, did her cheeks—which were stuffed with cotton from time to time.” [2]

The clip below is an ideal section to show – but unfortunately isn’t the best quality.

The 1937 reviews of Stella Dallas reported on Stanwyck’s poinant portrayal of the character – and the films ability to portray a character with intense commitment, rather than focusing on the lack of glamour. The New York Times noted:

“Miss Stanwyck’s portrayal is as courageous as it is fine. Ignoring the flattery of makeup and camera, she plays Stella as Mrs. Prouty drew her; coarse, cheap, common, given to sleazy dresses, to undulations in her walk, to fatty degeneration of the profile. And yet magnificent as a mother.’” [3]

Many actors, when interviewed about their costumes have noted how dress has helped inform their character development. A costume designers ability to find or design just the right hat, the right pair of shoes, the right dress or the right coat can help an actor feel the part. It can be the way a garment moves, the way it hangs on their body or the way their posture is affected. Designers work with actors and other members of the production team to help convey the Directors vision for the story. Nothing that appears on the screen is an accident, and everything there is by design. The key is to make that design so believable as to be imperceptible. Much of the success of Stella Dalls is due to both her commitment to the role and to the design skills of Omar Kiam. He would go on to design films such as Wuthering Heights (1939) and A Star Is Born (1937).

For further discussion see:

Bick, Lisa J.”Stella Dallas: Maternal Melodrama and Feminine Sacrifice Psychoanalytic Review, (1992). 79: 121-145

Thornton, Edie. “Fashion, Visibility, and Class Mobility in Stella DallasAmerican Literary History. (1999) 11 (3): 426-447.

Kurland, Jeffrey and Deborah Nadoolman Landis. 50 Designers/50 Costumes: Concept to Character (2004) UC Press.

Notes:

[1] DiOrio, Al. Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1983. 107.

[2] Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985, c1974. 100.

[3] Nugent, Frank. “The Screen,” New York Times, Aug 6, 1937. p. 21.

*Psychoanalytic Review

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2 Comments

  • Ben W November 05, 2010 04.41 am

    Great write up, Jenna. Have a look at Frank Capra’s ‘Forbidden’ at the BFI – Barbara Stanwyck again, as a woman who gives up her life for the love of others. x

     
  • Heather November 05, 2010 12.03 pm

    Ben,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed my post, and for the recommendation. Really wish I could make the trip across the pond to see the British Film Institutes playing of ‘Forbidden’.

    To clarify, I am based in California. Jenna – who who wrote this weeks exhibition review – is based in London. I certainly understand the confusion, given all the recent changes, additions and updates.

    Thanks again for reading, and for participating!

    Best,

    Heather Vaughan

     

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