Stella Dallas. 1925. USA. Directed by Henry King. Screenplay by Frances Marion, based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. With Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Digital restoration by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Foundation, from a 35mm print held by MoMA. Accompanied by a new orchestral score composed by Stephen Horne and recorded at the film’s 2021 restoration premiere at the Venice Biennale. Silent with recorded score. 110 min.
Stella Dallas, the working-class mother who makes the ultimate sacrifice for her socially ambitious daughter, became one of the most resonant figures in American culture from the moment Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel appeared in 1923. A stage adaptation soon followed, as did this film version in 1925 (the first of three). Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Henry King, the film is a powerful indictment of the rigid class barriers then emerging in the prosperous, postwar America of the 1920s, but the emotional center of the film is Stella (a brilliant portrayal by Belle Bennett, one of 73 actresses tested for the role), who marries “above her station” (to a temporarily embarrassed banker’s son) but is unable to adapt her dress and behavior to the bourgeois standards of her new husband. When her daughter becomes engaged to a fashionable country-clubber, Stella’s dilemma becomes painfully clear: Only by leaving her life can she ensure her daughter’s happiness.