Stella Dallas (1925)

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.”

References/Recommended Reading:

Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse

Photoplay Magazine, December 1925, p.46

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow


Hearts and Spurs (1925)

1925 was a momentous year for a number of our heroes – William Powell’s output virtually doubled, Ronald Colman cemented his Hollywood career and his heartthrob status, Richard Barthelmess consolidated his already enormous fame and Myrna Loy was recognised and brought to the forefront thanks to Natacha Rambova.

We can add into this good fortune the beginnings of a career for 16 year old Jane Peters. We’ve covered her post accident work in Carole Lombard’s Mack Sennett days, and this seems a good time to have a look at the first major feature she appeared in. Now as we know when Jane Peters was 12 years old she appeared in the film A Perfect Crime with Monte Blue which provided her with the impetus to follow a movie career. Various acting classes and auditions followed during her teens, but like any other teenager in Hollywood Jane was drawn to the nightclub and party lifestyle and it was at the Cocoanut Grove’s regular dance competitions that Jane started to get really noticed.

With Edmund Lowe in Marriage in Transit (1925)

In 1925 Jane Peters was signed to the Fox Film Corporation and Carole Lombard was born – an amalgam of a family friend’s last name and the result of Elizabeth Peters’ liking for numerology – although a consistent spelling of Carole Lombard wouldn’t settle until around 1931.

Carole’s first substantial role came in 1925’s Marriage in Transit, but her lack of experience was apparent and the film was seen as lacklustre despite Carole’s admitted over-emoting!

“Poor Eddie Lowe! They told me to tear him to shreds! To this day Eddie can’t see me without ducking.”

And this then led to Hearts & Spurs, a now lost Western melodrama starring Buck Jones and coincidentally directed by W S Van Dyke, who of course was the director of The Thin Man. 

Needless to say Carole’s role as Sybil Estabrook although substantial involved nothing more than a lot of simpering while Buck Jones did the inevitable manly stuff with horses and fighting and the like. Carole was starting to become frustrated with the limitations of her roles which felt two dimensional and merely served as fragrant wallpaper for the all action hero.

However, a year later Carole’s fateful and horrific entanglement with a Bugatti would, due to her ties to Fox being cut, put her in the sights of Mack Sennett who would enable Carole to beef up her acting skills and cinematic presence.

References/Recommended Reading:

Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan