Hollywood loves a remake! That’s certainly the case with Stella Dallas, which has a 1925 silent version directed by Henry King, a 1937 version directed by King Vidor, and a 1990 version (called Stella) starring Bette Midler. (It was also the basis of a radio series from 1937 to 1955, with Anne Elstner in the title role.) I’m going to focus on the differences and similarities between the 1925 and 1937 versions. My apologies, Ms. Midler.
All three film versions of Stella Dallas take as their source the 1923 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty (1882–1974). Prouty wrote 10 novels, all dealing with the struggle of contemporary women endeavoring to live full lives with intellectual, personal, spiritual, and financial self-reliance despite their limited social standing in the 20th century. She often wove moments into her novels that reflected her own life. Torn between being a mother and wife and a novelist, Olive relinquished the title of full-time writer for that of full-time homemaker. This personal tension is echoed in her writing, and especially in the eccentric lack of “traditional” mothers in her work. The death of her child Olivia, in 1923, inspired the story of the self-sacrificing mother Stella Dallas. When Olive suffered a nervous breakdown in 1925, her rather perceptive doctor set her on an unorthodox course of treatment: write daily and consider it your profession.
The 1925 silent version of Stella Dallas stars Belle Bennett as Stella, Ronald Colman as her husband, Stephen Dallas, and Lois Moran as their daughter, Laurel. Stella, the daughter of a factory worker, marries Stephen after a brief courtship but soon realizes they come from different worlds, with Stephen’s refinement and education constantly underscoring Stella’s lack of either. When Laurel is born Stella tries hard to be a devoted mother and supportive wife, but the Dallases soon separate and Stella toils to give Laurel many of the material things she did not have. Much to Stella’s relief—and regret—Laurel has an innate grace and elegance that aligns her more with her father’s world of comfort than Stella’s of drudgery. The script for the 1925 film was written by Frances Marion, one of the most prolific and pioneering women in the earliest days of commercial movies. (For more on Frances Marion, read Cari Beauchamp’s exceptional book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.) Marion’s adaptation of Prouty’s book is quite faithful, and kudos to director Henry King and producer Samuel Goldwyn for comprehending Marion’s and Prouty’s talents.
The bones of the narrative remain very much the same for the 1937 version, starring the gutsy Barbara Stanwyck. John Boles, who costarred with Shirley Temple in a number of films, plays the polished Stephen, and Anne Shirley, the star of the 1934 film Anne of Green Gables, is Laurel. I can’t quite put my finger on the reasons why, but it seems to me that Stella is judged more harshly this time around. Maybe it has to do with Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason’s screenplay, chockablock with sassy, coarse dialogue? Frances Marion’s script was impressive, but one is reading intertitles and not hearing the voice, cadence, and rhythm of the actors. Then, of course, there’s the magnificent Stanwyck, whose slovenly approach to Stella earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. (She lost the Oscar to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth.) Talk about method acting! Stanwyck’s unruly mass of over-bleached blonde hair is always coming undone and the sash of her well-worn robe is never quite in place. The text on an original lobby card for Stella Dallas reads, “RIDICULED for her clothes, her cheapness, her vulgarity…she shows the world what true mother-love means.”
The 1925 version of Stella Dallas is screening December 16 at 1:30 p.m. and January 9 at 7:30 p.m., with live piano accompaniment.