Mary Pickford tackles two roles in this Dickensian soaper. She is Stella Maris: beautiful, rich, innocent and paralyzed. She is also Unity Blake: plain, penniless, ignored and abused. Both girls love the same man but he is trapped in an abusive marriage. Will true love win? And whose true love?
The stardom trap.
For actors, popularity comes at a price. The public falls in love with a particular image and often resents a performer trying to change that image.
Mary Pickford was American’s Sweetheart. The World’s Sweetheart. Her curls were golden and her smile was worth a million dollars. Her public adored her but they particularly liked to see her playing children and radiant beauties. Pickford wanted to experiment with different roles and broaden her acting chops but it all had to be done very carefully. How far could she stray from her golden girl image without alienating her fans?
Technology came to the rescue.
Superimposing one image onto another had been around since the early days of the movies but the technology was nearly seamless by 1918. Dual roles proved to be an ideal outlet for players seeking a change of pace: One role could fulfill audience expectations, which would leave them free to take some risks (or just have a bit of fun) with their other role. Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Barrymore were among the stars who took the plunge.
People who have never seen Mary Pickford movies sometimes look at her still photos, all ribbons and curls and lace, and assume that she played some kind of Shirley Temple/Pollyanna/Gibson girl composite. Actually, Pickford was both an accomplished dramatic actress and comedienne but she was not afraid to temper the comedy with some very dark elements.
Take Stella Maris. It covers such topics as child abuse, spousal abuse, weak child protection laws, drug and alcohol addiction, malnutrition, suicide, and the question of whether innocence equals goodness. Mary Pickford and director Marshall Neilan take these very serious topics and wrap them up with a beautiful bow but they never minimize the tragic nature of the story.
Stella Maris (Mary Pickford) is a wealthy young woman who has been paralyzed since a very early age. She lives with her Aunt Eleanor (Ida Waterman) and Uncle Oliver (Herbert Standing), British aristocrats. Stella is shielded from anything that is unpleasant, uncomfortable or sad and she believes the world is a wonderful place.
Unity Blake (Mary Pickford) is an orphan from the wrong side of town. Her spine is twisted and her growth stunted by malnourishment. She tries her best but her homely appearance, unsophisticated manner and simplicity mean that (unlike other Pickford waifs) she has no real friends at the orphanage.
John Risca (Conway Tearle) is a cousin of Aunt Eleanor and by far Stella’s favorite visitor. In fact, she has dubbed him the Great High Belovedest (gag!) and sees him every day. John is an honorable man in a very awkward– and dangerous– situation. He is married. His wife, Louisa (Marcia Manon), is a violent alcoholic who saves much of her abuse for her husband. However, Aunt Eleanor has forbidden John from telling any of this to Stella.
Louisa’s outbursts mean that no servant will stay at their house. Her solution? Adopt an orphan and make her do all the work. Louisa is instinctively drawn to the most vulnerable girl in the orphanage: poor little Unity.
Unity has no idea about the motive behind the adoption. She is ecstatic. However, she still does not give up trying to befriend the other orphans. As she leaves, she tries to offer presents and a sisterly embrace. Neither attempt wins her any affection. In fact, the only tenderness she receives is a kiss from one of the nuns, a kindness that seems to shock her.
Louisa returns home to await Unity. John returns home and finds her already half-drunk. A verbal fight turns physical with Louisa launching herself at her husband. It is the last straw. He promises to support her financially but he will never return.
With Louisa deprived of her favorite target, she soon turns her rage on Unity with escalating abuse. In a frenzy, she knocks Unity to the ground and beats her with a fireplace poker. The neighbors hear Unity’s screams and call the police. The poor child is almost dead. Louisa is arrested, convicted and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
John had not known about Louisa’s plan to adopt Unity and he overwhelmed with guilt. He decides to adopt her himself and give her a chance at a happy life. For the sake of propriety, he invites his aunt to keep house for his little makeshift family.
Meanwhile, Stella has received wonderful news. A brilliant surgeon (Gustav von Seyffertitz, Pickford’s nemesis in Sparrows) has examined her and believes that she can walk again if he operates. The operation is a success and Stella begins the long process of recuperation.
Three years pass. Stella is completely cured and Unity is happily living with John. Both are in love with him. Stella has hopes (her aunt and uncle still forbid John to tell her the truth) while Unity knows that she loves in vain.
After an earlier brush, Stella and Unity finally meet properly when the former comes to call on John. Like everyone else, Unity is taken with Stella’s beauty and sweetness. She also realizes that she has met the woman that John loves. Unity is not jealous but she is wistful. She knows that she is not match for Stella’s beauty and a framed portrait keeps reminding her of this fact.
Stella, meanwhile, is learning about the world. She is sees beggars and realizes that there is poverty. She sees soldiers and realizes that there is war. Stella is slowly coming to terms with the revelation that the wonderful world she had been living in was a lie. It seems that John is the only thing she can believe in.
Soon, though, she learns the truth. Louisa was released from prison and John has allowed her to stay at their old house. Not knowing this, Stella plans to open up the place so that she and John can live in it once they are married. Things go a bit Jane Eyre at this point. Stella finds herself face to face with Louisa, who laughs when she puts together what has happened. Stella flees in horror and confronts John. His deception was bad enough but what makes it worse is that he was the last ideal that she believed in.
Stella falls into a depression but John is far worse off. He is guilty about his lie and horrified at the thought of being shackled to Louisa for the rest of his life. His visits to Stella had been his coping mechanism and now that has been taken away. Unity is the only one who understand the depths of his despair. She finds the draft of a suicide note.
John departs, still in a dark mood. As she cleans, Unity’s gaze falls on the gun cabinet. How far is our little heroine willing to go to save the man she loves?
Stella Maris was one of seven films that combined the acting talents of Mary Pickford and the directing talents of Marshall Neilan. The pair had acted together in films but the collaboration as actor and star started with 1917’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Out of all the directors Pickford worked with, Neilan was the one who best understood the combination of spunk, whimsy and Victoriana that made her so popular.
Visually imaginative, Neilan’s films take place in worlds of moody lighting, heavy symbolism and goofy frivolity that skates on the edge (but rarely fall off) of tweeness.
For example, Stella’s beloved pet is played by that talented Great Dane, Teddy the Sennett Dog. John presents Stella with an adorable Pomerian, whom Teddy falls in love with. However, our naughty Pom escapes. Teddy is heartbroken. Later in the film, John is suicidal and Stella is mourning the loss of her love and idealism. In the midst of all this, Teddy is shown dreaming about his lost doggie friend. Want to hear the weirdest part? It works.
I cannot imagine any director but Neilan pulling this off. It’s a pity that alcoholism eroded his considerable talents later on but that is a different story.
Neilan directed Pickford in one of the most challenging acting feats of her career. She needed to create two characters who were nothing alike and who both experienced separate character arcs. Stella had to discover and make peace with the fact that the world can be a terrible place. Unity had to learn that she was worthy of love. Obviously, Unity was the more interesting character of the two but Pickford does an excellent job with both women.
Stella was intended to please the paying audience that wished to see the Girl with the Golden Curls. Mary Pickford has rarely looked lovelier, thanks to the expertise of cinematographer Walter Stradling. She positively glows.
Mary Pickford’s face was made for the movie camera. Her features were feminine and beautiful but also strong enough to be unmistakable. You can see her at a distance (full-length shots were the order of the day when she started in pictures) and immediately know who she is. But how would she disguise this natural beauty to play Unity? Pickford flattened her hair with Vaseline, darkened her teeth and made up her eyes to make them smaller. (Looking at the footage, it seems that she whitened her eyelashes. Very effective.)
Pickford’s works was so good, in fact, that she caused some alarm on the studio lot. What would the public think of their beloved actress playing such an unattractive character? This is where the wisdom of the dual role becomes obvious. Mary Pickford could be as plain as she liked as long as beautiful Stella was there for all to see.
But don’t think for one minute that her performance was merely physical transformation. Oh no, Mary Pickford was far too accomplished an actress to be satisfied with that. For Stella, she walks with the confidence of that naivete brings. Her posture and manner are perfect, polished and dainty until her world collapses. At that point, she deflates, unable to lift her head.
Unity is a victim of abuse and malnutrition. Pickford twists her body into a cringe that is partially the result of a spinal condition and partially the result of fear. Yet when she is alone, Unity becomes more confident, singing and dancing. These moments of confidence, though, often result in trouble for the poor girl and then she returns to her cringing manner.
At the climax, though, Unity takes on an almost military mien. She is determined and dangerous, the very essence of a heroine. The name “Stella Maris” is defined as “a female protector or guiding spirit at sea.” However, it is Unity who actually lives up to that definition.
Pickford does not merely choose one or two gestures, though. The performance comes from inside her. She is Stella, she is Unity. What could have been stunt casting is elevated to art by her hard work and talent. Neilan emphasizes her stunning performance by editing scenes to contrast the characters. Stella is pampered, Unity must work. Stella is showered with flowers, Unity is threatened. These mirrored scenes are further enhanced by the symbolic use of mirrors and photographs.
While Mary Pickford deserves all the praise she gets for her performances, we should not forget that she was well-served by a talented supporting cast. An excellent example of this (and yet another way that Stella and Unity are contrasted) is in the way the other characters react to them physically.
Beautiful Stella naively takes emotional and physical affection as her due. Everyone deserves to be loved and she is sure that everyone in the world is loved. Unity, on the other hand, has known nothing but suffering and abuse from an early age. As she is leaving the orphanage to live with Louisa, one of the nuns gives her a nonchalant kiss goodbye. Unity is stunned. She has a deep desire to express and receive affection but very few accept or offer it. Her sense of self-worth is almost non-existent and her brutal beating at the hands of Louisa only makes this problem worse.
Unity and John bond as fellow survivors of Louisa’s abuse (“I’d ‘ave swiped ‘er on the ‘ead, if I was you, sir!”) but Unity’s emotional breakthrough comes a little later. When she breaks a knickknack while dusting, Unity panics and lies. John knows that Unity is really a good girl and is only lying out of fear. She expects him to strike her and flinches but he gives her a paternal embrace instead. That act opens up Unity’s mind to the idea that someone can love her.
Of course, John’s love for Unity is entirely platonic while she dreams of something more romantic. Her hopes are illustrated again with an embrace. Finding one of John’s coats on a hanger, Unity drapes a sleeve over her shoulder and imagines a romantic walk with the owner of the coat.
After Stella withdraws her affections, it is John who must be comforted by Unity. She clearly longs to offer the same support that he has given her (she reaches for his shoulder tenderly during one scene) but she is not confident enough. Sadly, Unity never gets a chance to make that breakthrough.
These scenes are all masterfully played by Pickford but credit is also due to Conway Tearle. His character makes bad decisions (really, he should have been honest with Stella) but we never lose sympathy for his plight. His tenderness toward Unity is a large part of what makes him so likable. Stella is nice to Unity but Stella is nice to everyone. It is John who realizes what a beautiful soul is hidden within that abused orphan.
The real villain of the piece is Louisa, of course. Marcia Manon chews on the scenery but is very effective as the nemesis of everyone. I have to admit, though, that I did not like the character of Aunt Eleanor at all. She meant well when she decided to shield Stella but then she had three years to prepare her for the real world but instead, she doubled down on the whole sunbeams-and-gumdrops thing. And her contemptuous behavior to poor Unity was appalling. The girl nearly lost her life and all Eleanor can think of is keeping her away from her pure Stella. Snobbery is at the root of her problems. She refers to Louisa as a “commoner” and scolds John for ever marrying her. I’m not excusing what she did but is it just possible that Louisa’s decent into alcoholism was encouraged by the rude behavior of John’s family? In my opinion, Aunt Eleanor was let off the hook far too easily.
For the most part, though, screenwriter Frances Marion did a masterful job of adapting William J. Locke’s 1912 novel. She condensed and streamlined the action and sliced away superfluous characters until all that remained was the fascinating central conflict.
Let’s take a moment to put Stella Maris into context as far as Pickford’s career is concerned. 1917 had been a year of professional ups and downs for Mary Pickford. She had started the year with the disappointing Scottish flick The Pride of the Clan and had compensated by taking some comedic risks in The Poor Little Rich Girl. Studio heads did not take kindly to this and, fearing for her career, Pickford was forced to promise to be an obedient little actress. She was then put under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille. Terrified that The Poor Little Rich Girl would bomb at the box office and destroy her career, Pickford was under extreme stress as she made A Romance of the Redwoods. However, her risks had paid off the The Poor Little Rich Girl was a blockbuster. Pickford then made one more film with DeMille, a propaganda miscalculation called The Little American, and then appeared in adaptations of two classic children’s books, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Little Princess.
Stella Maris would be the first Pickford film released in 1918 and it was a success on every level. It was artistically satisfying, critically acclaimed and a box office smash. It also contains the best balance between Mary Pickford, Americas’s Sweetheart and Mary Pickford, thespian. She came close to achieving this balance in other films (Tess of the Storm Country, Daddy Long-Legs, Through the Back Door) but never with quite this much success.
This film is one of the finest silent features of the 1910’s and is essential viewing for fans of the era.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½
Where can I see it?
Stella Maris received a high quality release from Milestone. The orchestral score by Philip C. Carli is a delight.
What I love about silent films is how often they make women the center of their focus. What do I mean? Well, have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? It’s meant to measure the presence of women in movies. Here’s are the three questions that make up the test:
1. Does the movie have more than one female character with a name?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
The vast majority of mainstream Hollywood’s current output does not pass this simple test. Even women who are nominally the main characters are often objectified or otherwise sidelined.
I’m not saying films that do not pass the Bechdel test are bad or anti-woman (Lawrence of Arabia has no women at all and it is my favorite talkie) but the fact that so few films pass this test shows that mainstream Hollywood does not make female film presence a priority.
In contrast, Stella Maris is all about women. They not only make up the majority of the main cast but, more importantly, they drive the plot. Nearly every important plot element is caused by the direct actions of a woman. Louisa, Stella, Unity and Lady Eleanor make the decisions that keep things moving.
John, on the other hand, is given the supporting actions. He leaves Louisa, which feeds her rage but she would have likely lashed out at Unity no matter what. His deception about his marital status takes away the last of Stella’s naivete but she well on her way to losing that anyway. He adopts Unity and is the only character to show her unconditional love and tenderness– emotion-based actions that are traditionally the realm of female characters in modern films. Like the film Barbed Wire, the emotions and actions of the characters are the opposite of what a modern audience would expect from men and women in the movies. (Heck, even their dogs are reversed. She has the Great Dane and he has the Pomeranian.) It is quite refreshing.
In fact, Stella Maris actually fails the Reverse Bechdel Test. It has more than one man with a name and they do talk to each other but they never talk about anything but the female characters. Score one for the ladies!
And, just for emphasis, there are very very very few modern films that manage this feat. Again, this is not a sign of quality or a stamp of approval for individual films. It merely illustrates that silent era films were often female-centered, something that is in relatively short supply these days. Modern filmmakers could learn a thing or two.