Feeling for Stella Dallas

King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937) provoked one of psychoanalytic feminist film criticism's most extensive dialogues. Considering how strong an emotional appeal this melodrama makes, it is remarkable that emotions are rarely mentioned in the two key articles in this exchange: E. Ann Kaplan's "The Case of the Missing Mother: Maternal Issues in Vidor's Stella Dallas" and Linda Williams's "'Something Else Besides a Mother:' Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama."1 Kaplan says little about emotion except that the "cinema spectator feels a certain sadness in Stella's position."2 Situating her reading both in psychoanalytic theory and genre criticism, Williams merely notes Stella Dallas's mixed emotional messages ("of joy in pain, of pleasure in sacrifice")3 as characteristic of the maternal melodrama. Although psychoanalytic film theory is often considered to be an important way to describe filmic emotions, these psychoanalytic essays are more concerned with what position the spectator occupies than with the specific emotional appeals the film makes to her once she occupies that position.

This chapter applies my model of filmic emotions to Stella Dallas to demonstrate that the mood-cue approach can yield new insights about emotions in even the most closely examined texts in psychoanalytic film literature. (Those interested in the details about how Freud's assumptions about emotions make psychoanalysis a poor choice of theory to explain filmic emotions should refer to the Appendix.)

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