Stella Dallas marked the third in a tremendous run of pictures for Henry King, another melodrama, but this time set in America not Italy and including some harsh commentary on social stratification and the power of class to stifle and repress.
What a treat to be able to view this excellent melodrama, one of Ronald Colman’s few remaining silent dramas. It’s an odd experience watching Colman in a silent picture because with the benefit of hindsight you can actually hear his velvet tones speaking through the title cards.
It is interesting to note that Colman takes the top billing for the movie, because as you can see from the poster above this is very much Belle Bennett’s picture – she has the most screen time and pretty much steals every scene playing the overblown, dirt common Stella. Don’t be fooled though that Bennett over emotes in this role though. Bennett brings real pathos to a woman who for me was not remotely sympathetic and that I often felt frustrated with.
In ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ Henry King notes that the author and screenwriter of Stella Dallas, Frances Marion was insistent that Belle Bennett was perfect for the role. “This woman has just what it takes… She is a mother, she has two children and she has had everything on earth happen to her. Both on stage and off, she is Stella Dallas.”
However this is the genius of the adaptation – Bennett’s portrayal alongside Henry King’s direction allows the viewer to have complex emotions about Stella. Stella has the total lack of confidence and self-esteem that often comes with being working class and therefore subjected to society’s judgement. This leads Stella to displays of conspicuous consumption in a futile attempt at fitting in with her new peers, futile as the symbols of belonging are often very subtle in order to maintain privilege and to exclude. As a result of this rejection, and without realising it, Stella undermines the new life she has built for herself as she doesn’t understand her lack of belonging in an echelon which will never accept her.
What the viewer begins to understand is that despite Stella’s almost self destructive course, she is clearly a fantastic mother to her daughter and it is evident throughout the picture that Laurel has tremendous love, respect and above all loyalty to her mother.
This connection with the audience led to great success for the picture, critically and at the box office. To quote Henry King, “And the money that rolled in was quite fantastic.”
The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow