Monday, 31 October 2016

Teardrops… Stella Dallas (1925), Barbican with Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry

“The slender rapier triumphs over the spiked bludgeon throughout the unfurling of the screen conception of Olive Higgins Prouty's novel…”  Mordaunt Hall, New York Times 17th November 1925.

Well… I was warned I might need a box of tissues and if even Mordaunt was so moved; you know there’s an irresistible sadness about to pass in front of your eyes. What’s more accompanist Stephen Horne was assisted by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry on harp – there’s no way I was going to get through this without, you know

Directed by Henry King with an adaptation from Frances Marion Stella Dallas walks that fine line between melodrama and drama. It features characters bound by the invisible constraints of their time and it perhaps a backwards view of social mores even for 1925 but, the story was driven by grief as much as anything else.

Lobby card with bennett, Colman and Moran

Olive Higgins Prouty wrote the novel soon after the death of her three-year old daughter in 1923 and it is the story of the sacrifices a mother makes in order to ensure her daughter’s success in life. I’m sure for Prouty this was a case of if only; a tribute to the one lost and the lengths she would have gone to if only she could have.

Any decent onto pure Victoriana is also offset by a fierce performance from Belle Bennett whose own son had also died just before she got the part: her Stella rings very true. As Pamela Hutchinson noted during her illuminating introduction, she had already launched a one-woman campaign to get the role and rewarded Goldwyn and King with a display that must have resonated with so many parents in an era when childhood mortality was far more commonplace.

Stella will do anything for her daughter even to the extent of sacrificing her own happiness: her life means nothing if her daughter cannot live well.

Belle Bennett
The film begins with a parental sacrifice as Stephen Dallas Senior (Charles Willis Lane), wealthy industrialist, takes his own life after being accused of financial wrong-doing. His son, Stephen Jnr (Ronald Colman) goes off to work in a remote corner of their business empire.

Away in this small town environment, Stephen mingles with ordinary working folk from outside his class. He forms an attachment with one lass, Stella, amidst some funny scenes on her family porch as her brothers try and interfere – the film’s not all doom and gloom and its humour also brings balance.

Stephen and Stella try to romance
Stella and Mr Dallas wed and have a daughter, Laurel, and yet it soon becomes apparent that the couple have different priorities: he needs to drive the family business in New York whilst she is happy bringing up her daughter amongst people she knows.

As gaps start to appear, not least in terms of geography, Stella spends time with an earthy good-time fella name of Ed Munn (Jean Hersholt who is so very good at playing characters with a soft moral centre…). Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with Stephen who misses the companionship of more refined women such as his former sweetheart Helen Morrison (Alice Joyce – no relation) who is now married with three boys.

Back on small-town, Laurel’s teacher spies Stella having fun with Ed and expels her from school leaving her humiliated when the rest of the class fail to turn up for her 10th birthday party. There are some sweet moments as Stella and Laurel (who is now Lois Moran) make the best of a bad day… even Dad is not present but then why would he be; he’s got a business to run.

One party and two guests
The story moves on a few years and Laurel comes of age still played by Lois Moran (just 16 at the time and later much favoured by F Scot Fitzgerald according to PH). She forms an attachment with a young rich boy called Richard Grosvenor (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr 15 at the time!) but is ashamed of her mother with her crude ways, working class manners and dress sense.

Stella overhears some of the rich set mocking her and begins to think she can only be holding her daughter back. By this stage she and Stephen have run aground and knowing of his attachment to Helen, Stella asks her competitor directly for help…

I won’t go any further but the story becomes very focused and desperately sad - perhaps an ode to lost children for whom a mother would rather grieve when lost yet still alive rather than gone forever.

Doug Junior and Lois Moran
Faced with such emotional extremes, Stephen Horne’s score is restrained and melodic. He knows just how to under-score high emotions and this was the third time I’ve seen him play in just over a week, each one a wildly different film.

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry’s golden harp melded perfectly with Stephen’s music and is a hugely variable instrument: a piano without the keys but with an unique, taught beauty of its own. There really isn’t enough harp in my life…

Ronald and Aunty Alice (maybe)
Stella Dallas was playing as part of the Barbican’s CheapThrills, Trash, Movies and the Art of Transgression series as well as their regular silent film and live music strand. It was projected from an actual 35mm film which was a very good copy – not tinted like the old fuzzy Sunrise Silents DVD from which my screen shots are grabbed.

Not sure exactly how transgressive things got but it certainly wasn’t cheap emotionally and that is what sets it apart from mere genre: a genuinely-elevated play about grief and sacrifice. To this extent it's really all about Belle Bennett and her ability to channel her own pain into performance.

Belle rings true


  1. According to the Wikipedia, Bennett's son died while the film was being shot rather than before it started. But no source is provided

    1. On Allan Ellenberger's blog he suggests that her son died before she got the part after a fight with some other children: he was 16.

      Again there's no source but he has it that she was one of 73 up for the part when the incident happened.

      So, his death was not a motivation for her to want the film but must have informed her performance.

      Best wishes


  2. A fight? Amongst 16 year olds? I think there is a sub text, especially if Belle had been claiming him as her brother to seem younger than she really was. Truth is wierder than fiction sometimes. If only the facts were available

    1. Well, teenagers do get into fights and from what Allan Ellenberger reports his injuries weren't initially considered serious - there must have been other issues? Still, sadness amongst the tinsel-town spin.