- Agency and Stella Dallas: Audience, Melodramatic Directives, and Social Determinism in 1920s America
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 51, Number 4, Winter 1995
- pp. 27-44
- View Citation
- Additional Information
KAREN M. CHANDLER Agency and Steïla Dattas: Audience, Melodramatic Directives, and Social Determinism in 1920s America ,live HIGGiNS prouty's novel Stella Dalks (1923) and its earliest Hollywood adaptation (1925), directed by Henry King and starring Belle Bennett, manipulate the popular melodramatic plot of misrecognition, concentrating on a heroine who courts misunderstanding through vulgar behavior at odds with her community's standards . The problem ofrecognizing Stella's value drives the plots ofboth works, which expose the comic absurdity of her social climbing and suggest het lack of self-knowledge. Stella's associates, including her beloved daughter Laurel, repeatedly confront and judge her failures to conform to upper-middle-class standards of decorum. And each text encourages its audience to watch from these characters' conservative points of view. Yet the novel and the film call on their audiences to evaluate judgments of Stella as well as to evaluate Stella herself. And they do so with varying emphases. Prouty's novel ptesents Stella through a prism of Darwinistic detetminism that emphasizes the character 's coarseness and aims to alienate readers from her. King's adaptation , by contrast, blends its comedie displays of Stella's faulty social manners with an elaborate celebration of her inner nobility. The film's address to viewers encourages not only their amusement or distress over Stella but also their respect and understanding. Together, the film and novel demonstrate a range ofexpression that is often discounted in curArizona Quarterly Volume 51, Number 4, Winter 1995 Copyright © 1995 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Karen M. Chandler rent theoretical discussions of popular culture. These very different texts challenge any reductionist appraisal of popular cultute's effects. The later, more famous sound version of Stella Dalhs (1937) has been central to debates over the expressive possibilities of melodrama, with some critics asserting the film's feminism and others stressing its complicity with patriarchy.1 Yet the silent film and the novel have been largely ignored. The earlier works demand attention not only because they serve as models for the bettet-known remake, but also because their conflicting appeals to audience posit different forms of audience response to and different levels of audience control of textual meaning. Often critics have reduced such products ofpopular culture to fit a simple model of social containment in which disparate texts condition a similar, passive response in audiences. Even critics conscious of the diversity of consumers tend to underestimate theit capacity to escape the mechanisms ofexpressive formulas (Berlant 238-40, 245). Yet reducing the disparity between Prouty's and King's treatments of Stella to one plot of containment minimizes distinctions between narrative and expressive modes and belittles audience members' ability to shape narrative to their particular needs. Although data on audiences' responses to Prouty's novel and to King's film is not plentiful, some inferences can be drawn from what does exist . The novel and film address overlapping audiences, readers and viewers attracted to the growing field of mass-marketed entertainment. Prouty's novel was popular first as a serial in American Magazine, a periodical with circulation over one million, then as a book.2 The novel's success prompted the even more popular silent and sound film versions. Yet the texts' differences indicate the relatively democratic standards that mainstream film fostered, and thus its opening to a broader audience . American Magazine lay squarely within a dominant culture that treated white middle-class culture as a standard (Mott 515). Its stories, articles, and illustrations convey optimism about the values of this culture and treat departures from the standard as deviant. Of course, Hollywood also afforded lessons in assimilation, but films encompassed and at least partly validated more diverse experiences as they addressed working-class and middle-class persons of various races and ethnicities. In showing behavior that departed from the social norm, film often romanticized it, prompting complicated responses to the conflict between mainstream America and other cultural practices.3 Agency and Stella Dallas29 Although Prouty's novel affirms Stella's virtue as a mother, the narrative tegularly qualifies it by foregrounding her class-defined limitations . The novel's detetminism obscures Stella's status as an active protagonist capable of evoking...