The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Mary Pickford Blogathon, sponsored by K.C. at Classic Movies from June 1-3. For a complete list of the blogathon participants and the films discussed, click here.
The titular character of the 1918 silent melodrama Stella Maris is a young woman who, having been paralyzed since birth, lives in a fantasy world created entirely by her aunt and uncle…both of whom decided long ago that growing up with her ailment was enough of a cross for young Stella to bear, and so she has been shielded from the all of the evils in the world: poverty, war, hunger, hate, despair, etc. Her world is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows: a sign above her bedroom even reads “All unhappiness and world wisdom leave outside. Those without smiles need not enter.” Stella is played by Mary Pickford—a role that “
Sweetheart” could by that time play in her sleep.
Despite the fact that Stella gets the billing in the film’s title, there is another female character every bit as important as the girl whose name translates from the Latin as “Star of the Sea” (a phrase often applied in describing the Virgin Mary). She answers to “Unity Blake,” and she’s a poor, Cockney orphan who finds her world completely turned upside down when she’s adopted under false pretenses by the wife (Marcia Manon) of journalist John Risca (Conway Tearle), a close relative of Stella’s uncle and aunt, Sir Oliver (Herbert Standing) and Lady Eleanor Blount (Ida Waterman). The sisters at the orphanage believe Louisa Risca is adopting Unity because she can provide a good home for the child; Louisa just needs someone to take care of all the household drudgery, since she is a worthless alcoholic who is doing her best to drive her husband away. At one point in the picture, Unity receives a savage beating from Louisa after a group of hooligans steal the groceries Unity was carrying home…which earns Louisa a room at The Grey Bar Hotel and puts plucky Unity in a position where she is, as a title card explains, “pitied but unloved.” Uneducated in book learning and unschooled in etiquette, Unity is nevertheless the film’s most sympathetic character.
Unity Blake…is also played by Mary Pickford—in a role that would define the silent screen legend’s amazing onscreen career.
Fresh from such previous triumphs as The Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Little Princess, Mary Pickford expressed much interest in William J. Locke’s Dickensian novel, which was adapted into a screenplay by Frances Marion. Pickford “de-glammed” herself from her usual curls and perky demeanor; she darkened her teeth, slicked back her trademark curls and wore them in a tight bun…and donned drab, nondescript clothing that was so convincing no one recognized her when she “road-tested” her new look around the studio, pretending to be a young woman looking for work as a charwoman. But anyone can put on a putty nose (*cough* Nicole Kidman *cough*) for necessary cosmetic changes; Pickford went the extra mile by adopting a slouch brought upon by both uncomfortable adolescence and malnourishment (curvature of the spine), and a demeanor that my friend the Mythical Monkey once suggested “carries herself like a dog who’s been beaten too much.” MM further notes: “Her eyes are downcast and look at the world sidewise, and she flinches from very human contact, revealing the years of verbal and physical abuse, and the constant disappointment she has endured.”
But Pickford’s Unity also possesses the painful awkwardness of teenaged girls; the feeling of being ill at ease and out of sorts with the world. It’s demonstrated in a scene where Unity, kept on by Risca because he feels responsible for her situation (in that his wife is to blame, so it’s responsibility-by-proxy), knocks over a vase and is swiftly set upon by “Aunt Gladys” (Josephine Crowell), who scolds the girl for her clumsiness. Risca explains to Gladys—when Gladys complains that the girl needs to be discharged as she is constantly lying—that children lie out of fear, and he reassures Unity that she is loved. Unity starts to develop a crush on Risca, and even tries to better herself by concentrating furiously on her schoolwork; there is another scene where she is embarrassed to show the teacher her tablet because she’s been doodling “Unity Risca” all over it, as any teenager suffering from unrequited love might be prone to do.
The paths of Unity and Stella cross one day when Stella’s dog Teddy (the famed canine of the Mack Sennett studio) grabs an article of clothing that Unity is mending (Unity is staying in the Blount household, though both parties are uncomfortable with the arrangement) and takes off for Stella’s room. A member of the household staff explains to her that Unity is just a seamstress, because it is important to maintain the illusion in Stella’s gumdrop world that disadvantaged people like Unity simply do not exist. It’s why Unity is the most important character in the film and the one we’re rooting for; Stella is so pampered and coddled that we never really worry about what’s going to happen to her…even if she remains paralyzed, life is going to continue to be champagne and roses as she continues her contentment among the 1%. (One of the laugh-out-loud moments for me in the film is Stella’s first encounter with “the 99%”; her aunt explains via title card: “My poor child—beggars are the dregs of civilization. And there are millions of them.”)
Fortunately for Stella, a surgeon (Gustav von Seyffertitz, the evil orphanage guy in Pickford’s Sparrows) is able to restore her mobility and she’s up and about in no time (though learning slowly and painfully that the rose colored glasses from which she’s been gazing at the world have ugly cracks running up through both lenses). Her visit to Risca’s “beautiful castle” is disappointing, but she does meet up with Unity again…and confesses in a moment of secret-sharing that she is in love with John. At this point that Unity realizes she’s not even in the running for Risca’s affections (the scene where she has a “flirtation” with his hat and coat is most heartbreaking) and after learning that the evil souse Louisa will continue in her plans to make John’s life a living hell, it is Unity who makes the ultimate sacrifice…bringing Stella and John together just as her name (“Unity”) foreshadows.
There are a goodly number of classic film buffs and Pickford devotees who consider Stella Maris her masterpiece. Upon its release in 1918, it was enthusiastically embraced by both critics and audiences, and became the top-grossing film of the year. I’m not sure if I would call it as such; there are a number of Pickford films that have made much more of an impression on me. I think Sparrows is an amazing film, I find My Best Girl charming (and I thought her work in this film was more Oscar-worthy than Coquette), and I found myself positively beguiled by The Poor Little Rich Girl when I saw it sometime back on TCM. Stella Maris is not without its flaws: as I stated earlier, the title character isn’t as sympathetic as her “twin” (there’s an in-joke on one of the title cards in which “Aunt Julia” comments on their likeness) and I found Conway Tearle a bit of a bore (his character would easily win the coveted “Doormat of the Year” award, particularly after he allows Louisa to move back in after finishing her incarceration)—though in his defense he’s having to play George Brent to Pickford’s Bette Davis. The film is awfully hokey at times, though I do agree with the Mythical Monkey’s analysis: “[W]hile some might call Stella Maris a hokey Victorian melodrama, it's a hokey Victorian melodrama of the first water…”
No, the reason why Stella Maris is rightfully held in high regard is because of Pickford’s peerless performance as the Christ-like Unity Blake. When I watched this movie, I could see slight traces of the Pickford persona from time to time in the character’s mischievousness (she plays the cut-up for her fellow orphans…and then later finds herself shunned by those same companions when they learn of her adoption)—but for the most part, her performance as the kicked-around Unity is a true revelation; I defy even the hardest-of-hearts cynic to watch this movie and not feel the need to want to protect and keep her safe. (If the Academy Awards had come into being ten years earlier, this would have been the performance for which Mary Pickford would place a trophy on her mantle and not the “What-the-front-yard?” Oscar she gleaned for Coquette.)
The groundbreaking use of split-screen technology (utilized by director Marshall Neilan and cinematographer Walter Stradling years before the movies turned actresses like Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Hayley Mills into twins) is another plus in Stella Maris’ column, and the direction by Neilan highlights how the alcoholism that befell his career was indeed a tragedy. I also enjoyed seeing Josephine Crowell, who is one of my favorite character actresses in silent films (Hot Water, The Man Who Laughs), and thought Marcia Manon’s villainy positively enthralling. (There’s one scene where Manon’s Louisa meets up with Unity on the street after Louisa has finished her stretch in the pen and she reaches out to Unity, who shrinks in revulsion. As Unity continues down the street, the satisfaction on Louisa’s face at still being able to keep the girl in line is something you won’t forget any time soon.)
I’ve seen Stella Maris available for download around the Internets, but I don’t want to link to any of that because the only truly splendid way to watch the movie is by purchasing (or renting) the Image Entertainment/Milestone Film & Video DVD. That way, you’re getting the best possible print (obtained from the Mary Pickford Foundation)…and as an extra, Pickford’s own films of the various Liberty Loan drives featuring herself, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin…plus home movies of her and Doug. The DVD also features an amazing instrumental score by the one and only Philip Carli. It was hard to find for many years (briefly out-of-print) but it’s back and better than ever. Richard Corliss wrote in Film Comment: “To see Stella Maris is to recognize how quickly and brilliantly her movies brought verve and finesse to feature film storytelling”—something often noticeably lacking in the movie industry product of today.