I watched this film prepared to be assaulted by a Chickflick of unbearable sentimentality. In fact, it was one of the best films I've ever seen.
The story, briefly, is of the eponymous heroine. Born and brought up in a small American hick town, she has airs and graces above her station in life and, acting upon those airs, gets married to a man from a higher social echelon. However, the marriage is blighted by the fact that Stella, for all her airs of superiority to her humble background, has a streak of vulgarity which stops her rising to the social heights that she feel she was born to - she constantly embarrasses her husband by dropping social gaffes and inadvertently making a fool of herself and, by extension, him.
She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter. However, even this is unable to save the marriage - they drift apart, he to a new career in New York, her to a blowsy life of disappointed ambition, financed by his payments to her - alimony in all but name.
Time passes and their daughter, whom Stella has kept and brought up alone, grows into a young woman who takes after her father - cultured, articulate and clearly designed for the finer things in life. Her efforts at social advancement are constantly (and excruciatingly) frustrated by her mother, until she goes to live with her father in New York. The child is torn between her desire for a better life - in the bosom of her father's adopted step-family, where she is truly happy - and her love for her mother. After a heart-rending climax, in which Stella nobly sacrifices her own happiness by engineering a situation which drives her daughter once and for all into the arms of her effective step-family, she is seen walking off alone, back into her bleak and lonely life, but happy that her daughter has now got a better life than she could ever give her.
It sounds like an early draft of "East Lynne", but it is a gripping and totally credible film. The acting from everyone is absolutely faultless, from Barbara Stanwyck herself (who is note-perfect as Stella - not suprisingly, perhaps, given her own real-life deprived and difficult upbringing), through Alan Hale as Stella's drunken would-be paramour, to Anne Shirley as the daughter (who you wish could be your own daughter, and who inexplicably gave up screen-acting in 1944, only seven years after making this film). The direction and production values are immaculate; not a word is wasted, not a scene poorly-lit or badly-directed. One can see why La Stanwyck was a Queen of the Screen, and how very good most "supporting" or "character" actors really were in those days.
Watch this for some wonderful, cringe-making and truly heart-rending entertainment - I promise you won't be disappointed.