Stella Dallas, 1925like
Presented at the2012 SF Silent Film Festival
Print Source UCLA Film and Television Archive
Musical Accompaniment Stephen Horne on grand piano
Essay by Monica Nolan
Despite being condemned for her vulgarity and criticized in the New York Times as “vain and selfish,” Stella Dallas has lived a long and profitable life. She first appeared in 1922, when author Olive Higgins Prouty published the popular novel. A stage version followed, then two film versions (the silent version and a 1937 remake directed by King Vidor), a long-running radio serial, and, finally, a third film adaptation, Stella, in 1990. Labeled a sentimental tearjerker, pigeon-holed as a “woman’s picture,” Stella Dallas is not only one of the first films to examine the conflict between a woman’s public role and her personal desires, it is also an early movie depiction of class barriers in the supposedly classless American society. Stella’s failed attempt to better herself through marriage, and the tragic consequences of that attempt, still make viewers cringe and cry in vicarious sympathy.
The story is simple. The daughter of a factory worker, Stella marries above her station, attempts to fit in with the upper crust, but is betrayed by her preference for beer, feathered hats, and practical jokes. In one scene, a well-meaning society matron sends Stella some leisure reading: George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. Stella, of course, would rather be reading Elinor Glyn’s latest. At this point, her marriage to Stephen Dallas exists only in name, as the mismatched couple have separated. The only evidence of their brief union is daughter Laurel, who inherits her father’s refinement but lives with her vulgar mother. And therein lies the—tragedy—Stella adores her daughter but is unwittingly damaging her, exhaling a cloud of bad taste that poisons her daughter’s future like second-hand smoke. In the twisted logic of the movie’s day, Stella is the problem, not the snobbery of the upper class. Stella must give up her only child to save her.
With her combination of bravado, vulnerability, ignorance, and sensitivity, the multi-faceted Stella is the source of the film’s appeal. Producer Samuel Goldwyn, however, saw the film as a vehicle for his recent discovery, Ronald Colman. When Goldwyn told screenwriter Frances Marion that he was buying the rights to Stella Dallas to star Colman, Marion quipped, “As a female impersonator?” The plum title role eventually went to Belle Bennett, a 34-year-old actress who had worked in vaudeville, in the theater, and onscreen in character roles. Screenwriter Marion recommended her to director King, saying, “She has had everything on earth happen to her …. She is Stella Dallas.” The actress also lobbied Goldwyn hard, writing in a letter to him, “I can make up for any part from fourteen to eighty.” Goldwyn preferred stage actress Laurette Taylor, who turned the role down. Bennett then got the part and was cast as screen mothers for the remainder of her too-brief career. Barbara Stanwyck, who played Stella in the 1937 version, told the Saturday Evening Post, “I was spurred by the memory of the magnificent performance of the late Belle Bennett in the first movie version.”
The supporting cast includes both established stars, like “Madonna of the Screen” Alice Joyce who played Mrs. Morrison (the society woman who is everything Stella is not) and newcomers Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks Senior was uneasy about his adolescent son’s appearance in the film, particularly after he learned that Douglas Jr. would be wearing a mustache. “Don’t let Junior make me look too old,” he told director Henry King. King reassured the anxious actor that the mustache only emphasized his son’s callowness. Character actor Jean Hersholt played Ed Munn, the beer-drinking prankster whose company Stella enjoys, and Lois Moran rounded out the cast as Laurel, who ages onscreen from youngster to early adulthood. Moran was then 17, and the wardrobe woman dressed her in ribbed stockings to make her legs look thinner in the childhood scenes.
“This was going to be Goldwyn’s masterpiece,” Henry King told Goldwyn’s biographer, A. Scott Berg, in 1980 “And he put his money where his mouth was.” In 1925, Goldwyn’s new company, Samuel Goldwyn Inc., was barely two years old. He had founded it after being forced out of Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, the company he had cofounded with Edgar Selwyn. He was now an independent producer, operating on a shoestring, especially compared to MGM, which had absorbed his former company the year before. When Stella’s production costs exceeded Goldwyn’s credit line with A.P. Giannini’s Bank of Italy, Goldwyn asked the San Francisco banker for help. Giannini put up the additional funds—for ten percent of the profits and Goldwyn’s promise not to borrow any more money that year.
Giannini’s bet paid off. Stella Dallas was Goldwyn’s highest-grossing film to date. Goldwyn opened it at the Apollo against the advice of his distributor, who believed that Stella was “a great woman’s picture” but didn’t have the universal appeal required to fill a $2-a-ticket theater. It played to full houses and critical praise. A sentimentalist, William Randolph Hearst sent instructions to editorial writer Arthur Brisbane at the New York Mirror that columnist Louella Parsons was to talk it up, keeping stories about Stella in the press for weeks.
Goldwyn must have sensed that the film’s themes of broken families and class divisions were universal enough to attract a wide audience. After all, there were echoes of Stella’s story in his own life. Divorced from his first wife, Goldwyn had a troubled relationship with his daughter Ruth, whom he alternately neglected and badgered. In 1924, when she refused to accompany him on a trip to Europe, he was furious. Twelve years passed before he spoke to her again. Goldwyn’s trip (by himself) to Europe included a visit with his aging mother, and now it was Goldwyn’s turn to be the rejecting child. Although he brought his mother and other relatives to Berlin and put them up in the Adlon Hotel, his niece Adela believed the producer was ashamed of his Yiddish-speaking mother. Hannah Gelbfisz spent most of the visit in her hotel room, much as Stella Dallas does in the film on vacation with Laurel. Later, Goldwyn claimed he was only trying to save his mother embarrassment.
The producer may have identified with the film’s protagonist on an even more basic level. Like both Stella and many of the early film moguls, Goldwyn wanted to move up in the world, to be respected as a producer of art, rather than as a purveyor of mass entertainment. It was to that end that he pursued actresses from the theater for the role of Stella. He had also established his “eminent authors” division, telling his salesmen, “Goldwyn’s got just classy writers. When he made Dead End in 1936, he reportedly removed trash from the slum set, saying, “There won’t be any dirty slums—not in my picture!” As in Stella’s case, his attempts to be “classy” often provoked laughter and mockery (although unlike Stella he also made money from these ventures).
Goldwyn did succeed in making a reputation for himself as a producer of quality films, hiring Pulitzer-winning playwright Sidney Howard for Condemned (1929), adapting two novels by Nobel-winning author Sinclair Lewis (1931’s Arrowsmith and 1936’s Dodsworth), and hitting a trifecta of classiness in 1939 with his adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, featuring Shakespearian actor Laurence Olivier in a breakout romantic role. But he also produced the second, sound version of Stella Dallas in 1937, returning once more to the low-class woman who had given him his first big success as an independent producer.
Monica Nolan is a novelist who has written about film and culture for the San Francisco Chronicle, Release Print, Bitch magazine, Frameline, and the San Francisco Film Society.