- Adapting Stella Dallas:Class Boundaries, Consumerism, and Hierarchies of Taste
In her 1961 autobiography, Olive Higgins Prouty reflected that "[t]he feature of most interest about Stella Dallas is, I think, the number of its reincarnations." First serialized for the nearly two million readers of the American Magazine in 1922 and published in book form in 1923, Prouty's poignant tale of class hierarchy and maternal sacrifice went on to become a 1924 stage play, a 1925 silent film, an Oscar-nominated 1937 film starring Barbara Stan-wyck, and a long-running radio soap opera. Indeed, Stella outlived her creator, reappearing in a third film starring Bette Midler in 1990. Yet to Prouty these adaptations, "filled with melodrama and sentimentality," were something of an embarrassment: "How much better if Stella had never emerged from the covers of a novel. Certainly the adaptation of Stella to the stage and screen and finally the radio did not help me to acquire the kind of reputation I desired" (Pencil Shavings 156). It is doubtful, however, that avoiding the mass media would have spared Prouty from being, like so many popular and critically acclaimed women novelists of the 1920s and 1930s, relegated to the dustbins of history by a masculinist, modernist literary establishment.1 Arguably, Stella and her creator have been remembered only because of these adaptations: while the novel went out of print for nearly four decades, the 1937 film remained in circulation and was elevated to canonical status by feminist scholars in the 1980s as an exemplary "woman's film," a powerful alternative to Hollywood's "male gaze." Only since its 1990 reprinting as part of a "literary cinema classics" series, illustrated with stills from the film, has Prouty's novel gained a modicum of scholarly attention.2
My concern here is less to establish Prouty in the literary canon than to examine what the novel and its "reincarnations" reveal about the evolving discourses of class, taste, and cultural hierarchy in America. The adaptation and reception history of Stella Dallas provide a particularly valuable case study not only because Prouty's comment so clearly exposes the intense anxieties centered on the boundary lines of literature and mass culture but also because Stella's story is so explicitly and centrally concerned with issues of taste and class distinction. In all versions, Stella Dallas depicts in excruciating detail the difficulties faced by a working-class woman who marries above her station. Rather than living happily ever after, in Cinderella fashion, Stella quickly alienates her husband with her flashy dress, coarse manners, and lowbrow tastes, and they separate. [End Page 178] Although the daughter of this "mistaken marriage" grows up beautiful and refined, it soon becomes clear that Stella's hopeless vulgarity threatens her daughter's social chances.3 When Laurel loyally refuses to leave her mother to live with her father and his elegant new wife, Stella drives her away, destroying the girl's respect by pretending to love a boorish alcoholic whom Laurel loathes. Stella ends up alone and anonymous, but glowing with maternal pride, standing in a dark, rainy street to glimpse through a distant window the spectacle of her daughter's new life (in the novel, her debut; in the films, her wedding to a wealthy young man). Even after being reunited with her married daughter in the radio serial depicting "the later episodes in the life of Stella Dallas," Stella continued to struggle to reconcile her devotion to Laurel with what the program's announcer daily described as "the differences in their tastes and worlds."4
The long popularity of this tale suggests that American mass culture throughout the first half of the twentieth century—particularly those genres created by and for women—was far more attuned to, even obsessed with, the intricacies of class distinctions and barriers than usually acknowledged by our myths of America as a classless society. Yet, as the story was repeatedly reinvented in new periods and media, we can observe significant shifts both in the ways that class distinctions are defined and in the degree of sympathy given to Stella's aspirations. Tracing changes in both narrative form and audience response across multiple...