Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel Stella Dallas was destined to become a great movie. In fact, it has been adapted for the screen three times: in 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role and in 1990 with Bette Midler, but before both of those in 1925 starring Belle Bennett as the unforgettable Stella.
Prouty’s novel is very cine-literate. It describes exactly the pleasure of a trip to the movies, but also the way that we can look at our real life as if it were a film. Sometimes we feel like an actor who is part of the spectacle, but at other times an onlooker, observing the action but not truly involved. Teenage Laurel, who is used to “standing on the outside” understands true love in real life because she has seen it in the movies: “Laurel had seen too many close-ups of faces not to recognize that look!”
The genius of this filmed Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925) is that it captures the poignancy of watching life from the dark of the auditorium, but its emotional reach draws us in, even from the back of the balcony. The final scene of the film, in which Stella watches her daughter’s wedding through a lit window on the dark and rain-drenched street, is the perfect visual incarnation of Laurel’s horrified realisation, voiced early in the novel, that she had “become a part of the picture on the screen, while her mother was still in the audience, out there in the dark, looking on”.
On its release, the Manchester Guardian’s film critic CA Lejeune described the “painful beauty” of Stella Dallas, saying: “We are stirred into sympathy with all these people because we cannot help identifying ourselves with them … the whole picture is full of the half-tones of which ordinary life is composed.” In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall praised one of the romantic scenes in the strongest terms: “It is all so natural, so sweet and genuine, so true to life, so fervent and sincere, so tender.”
Stella Dallas was made by Samuel Goldwyn in 1925, and the mogul was determined that it would be his masterpiece. He would end up spending $700,000 on the film – which was twice his line of credit.
Key to the success of Stella Dallas is Frances Marion, the woman who wrote its sophisticated screenplay. Marion takes the events of the novel, which are jumbled by flashbacks to create the drama of suspense and revelation, and straightens them out into a flowing narrative that begins in a garden in spring and ends on a city street in the cold. She also takes a few discreet liberties, rearranging scenes and editing them slightly to emphasise the agonies that plague Stella and Laurel. Her screenplay for this silent adaptation became the basis for the subsequent sound film starring Stanwyck – making that film a true remake rather than a second adaptation. And the film is beautifully directed by Henry King, who tells the story visually, exploring the novel’s concern for appearances both contrived and mistaken, but who also coaxes excellent performances from his cast.
For audiences in 1925, the biggest star in this film would have been Ronald Colman, the English smoothie who plays Stephen Dallas, Stella’s unhappy husband. His poise and gravitas suit the privileged but heartbroken Stephen perfectly. Nowadays, we are familiar with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who appears here in one of his first adult roles: a handsome, happy diversion for young Laurel, played by Lois Moran. According to F Scott Fitzgerald (with whom she had an affair), Moran was “the most beautiful girl in Hollywood” and Stella Dallas is the most celebrated performance of her short career.
The crucial piece of casting was Stella herself, the blowsy, big-hearted girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who becomes a woman that other women talk about. Not only did the part require a skilful, emotional performance, the actress would have to be prepared to be unglamorous – ageing nearly two decades on screen, and wearing a succession of frankly hideous costumes.
Goldwyn claimed to have considered 73 actresses before making his decision, and the woman who was eventually chosen was Belle Bennett: who was only a little better known then than she is now. As director Henry King remembered it, he chose Bennett, whom he had admired in a stage role, after Marion put forward a stirring argument. “Both on stage and off, she is Stella Dallas,” said Marion. “She has had everything on earth happen to her.”
Bennett herself also fought for the role, telling Photoplay magazine that she had fallen in love with the book, and even bought new clothes and gained weight in preparation for her screen test. There is also a letter she wrote to Abe Lehr, a confidante of Goldwyn’s: “I have kept the book near me, reading her over and over until she has crept into my heart and soul. I feel that she is what I have been waiting for all my life and I have built her up bit by bit.”
Like Stella, Bennett had had something of a hard life: her show-business career began in the circus as a child performer. She had had two children while she was still in her teens, and supported them through her acting work. At the time of shooting Stella Dallas she was 34 years old but passing as 24 for her film career. It’s fair to say that she had seen the seedier side of life, like Stella, and had known great tragedy too, with her son dying just before filming began on this, the role that was to define her career. For better or worse, after Stella Dallas, Bennett was typecast in maternal roles. She played a succession of mothers on screen, shadows of Stella, until her early death in 1932.
Stella Dallas was a box-office hit, more than returning Goldwyn’s investment, and defying industry fears that a “woman’s picture” couldn’t fill high-end cinemas. Even a grudging review in Variety, which called the film “A mother picture. Not a great picture, but a great mother picture”, singled out Bennett’s performance for her “ability to quicken the pulse, throb the throat and ache the heart”.
This piece is based on the screening notes and introduction I wrote for a screening of Stella Dallas at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness in 2016. Stella Dallas will screen at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna on Sunday 26 June 2016 with a new score by Stephen Horne, performed by Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, which was commissioned by the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.