As Foster writes in her discussion of the film, “Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) is the most well known and celebrated of the genre known as the ‘maternal melodrama.’ Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove.
Maternal melodramas are a subgenre of films referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ – films that catered to a vast and powerful female audience; once considered crucial to box office success. They traffic in sentimentality, laughter and tears. These are uncontrollable emotions that are routinely debased as overly feminine, as are ‘chick flicks,’ another female-centered genre that is reviled and callously disregarded, disrespecting female viewers, women’s struggles, and female heroes.
In 1937, audiences were not only familiar with the popular novel of the same name written by poet and novelist Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923; they also knew the 1924 stage play and the silent film version of 1925, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion and directed by Henry King. Stella Dallas was so popular with women that it was even adapted into a radio serial that ran from 1937 to 1955, one of the first and most successful soap operas . . .
In dismissing genre films made for women, critics not only erase the female spectator; they erase women and female heroes, real and fictional. Maternal melodramas, by contrast, recognize and reward the victories of women at the bottom of society. Women like Stella Dallas tend to be poor and destitute, prostitutes, unwed and pregnant, and non-conformist in terms of romance. In short, they subvert society with their disruptive acts of maternal heroism. It is very important to note, however, that Stella Dallas figures always win, at least in the world of the maternal melodrama.”