A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Majolica in the Movies: Stella Dallas


Stella Dallas is about many things but above all it is about the sacrifice of motherhood.
What more appropriate film to write about on Mother's Day than this.

Actually I'm not writing this post as a paean to the glories of motherhood, though I'm sure it has its moments. Stella Dallas is about a woman from the wrong side of the tracks who convinces a wealthy sophisticate to marry her. They quickly have a child, a daughter. It's not long however before the difference in class makes the marriage unworkable. The husband then takes off for New York and Stella is left to raise their daughter alone.

One of the interesting things about this movie is how it uses the character's surroundings to tell us all we need to know about the differences in the classes between them. When we first meet Stella she is living with her parents in a run down shack. As Stella moves up in the world and marries her husband they live in an elegant townhouse. After the two separate, her husband continues to live in an elegant manner while Stella lives not quite so elegantly. She lives well of course, as her husband continues to support her, but Stella's taste starts to dominate. It becomes clear early on that Stella is a boorish vulgarian with appalling taste. Her home isn't exactly a junk shop but it is certainly not Park Avenue. This becomes apparent in an important scene in the movie: her daughter's birthday party. Stella starts to then learn that her common manners are having an effect on her child's life.

Much of this scene takes place in the dining room around a table set with party favors. As the place settings and party favors are taken away one by one as guests cancel, the dining room goes from a place of joyous celebration to a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. It was here, with mixed feelings that I saw a complete continental majolica fish service on one of the shelves in Stella's dining room.


Here was another majolica sighting, in this soapiest of soap operas, but here the director King Vidor used the acknowledged vulgarity of majolica to make a statement about the character of Stella.
A plate from the service is visible in the photo below.


Once again we are reminded how in 1937 when the film was made and up until relatively recently majolica had a reputation for excess and bad taste. It took decades before attitudes towards majolica changed to an appreciation of the forms we love so much today.

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