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.