In the Vaults #17: Stella Maris (1925)

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Stella Maris (1925)

Status: A complete 16mm print exists in the UCLA archive.

The 1918 version of Stella Maris featured some virtuoso acting from its star, Mary Pickford. She played two roles and basically knocked both of them out of the park. Universal obtained the rights to the original novel and created a remake as a star vehicle for Mary Philbin, hot off her success in The Phantom of the Opera.

I realize that Philbin’s performance in Phantom is nothing to write home about but keep in mind that the poor woman was being constantly groped, fondled and generally harassed by both leading man Norman Kerry and director Rupert Julian. (Lon Chaney, the star and villain, was very kind and gentlemanly to Philbin throughout the shoot– though he did scare her once or twice.) I doubt anyone could produce good work under such circumstances and Chaney was actually obliged to direct Philbin himself at some points.

Apparently, a retitle was considered.
Apparently, a retitle was considered.

Philbin was capable of turning in a believable performance with the right co-star and director. I thought she was quite excellent in The Man Who Laughs, which co-starred Conrad Veidt (who was noted for his professionalism) and directed by Paul Leni.

Universal claimed that Philbin learned a few makeup tricks from her time with Lon Chaney. You see, Mary Pickford had started the tradition of playing two roles in Stella Maris, the beautiful title character and the homely Unity Blake. Judge Philbin’s makeup for yourself:

Mary Philbin as Stella Maris.
Mary Philbin as Stella Maris.
Mary Philbin as Unity Blake.
Mary Philbin as Unity Blake.

And the reviews! The critics were extremely positive toward the film, even comparing Philbin favorably to Pickford.

Exhibitor’s Trade Review was very positive:

stella-maris-1925-02Stella Maris has never walked since birth. She lives in a fairyland of fancy created by her two friends, John and Walter. Stella doesn’t know John is married. John’s wife is in prison, and John lives alone attended by a little slavey, Unity, whom John’s wife had previously tortured. Later a great surgeon succeeds in making Stella walk, and John realizes that Stella has emerged into beautiful womanhood. He declares his love and she returns the sentiment. John’s wife learns about Stella and reaches her with vicious lies about him. Unity, learning of this, kills the wife and then herself. John, having learned from tragedy that real love begets its happiness in giving, relinquishes Stella to Walter, who has loved her all along.

The story has been deftly laid on the screen so that love, dramatic conflict and heart interest attain an entertaining design of eye lure and emotional reaction. A good booking bet for all types of houses.

Mary Philbin’s execution of a dual role is the outstanding single feature of the film. The star’s association with Lon Chaney has apparently inspired her in the neat, tight art of putting on “make-up.” As a sordid little slavey, distorted of face and body, Miss Philbin presents a character spectacle so extraordinary that it remains vividly impressed upon the mind for a long time after.

In the opposite role of a beautiful sequestered girl, innocent of worldliness, the star realizes a bewitching effect in personal beauty. Shots of her in profile reveal a composition of feature comparable to a rare, delicately-cut cameo.

Gladys Brockwell comes in for some character honors in the part of the vindictive wife. She gnashes her teeth and twitches her eye-brows in a manner well-calculated to strike terror to the hearts of all those who cross her path.

Interiors of an old English castle are impressive and lend realism to the atmosphere of blue-blooded aristocracy. There are also, in carrying out the theme, a sufficiency of landscaped gardens, rustic walks, gabled granite structures, statuary and the like. Director Brabin has done his work with a shrewd eye for effects, and throughout the play of character and plot, the smoothness of story is paramount.

Photoplay felt that the remake did not live up to the original but still declared it a must-see:

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Mary Philbin, under the guidance of Charles Brabin, has brought to the screen one of the most difficult of characterizations. The version of this famous novel by William Locke, which Mary Pickford made several years ago, was acclaimed the highest degree of artistry. This picture, on a whole, cannot compare with its predecessor, but due praise is accredited Miss Philbin for daring to sacrifice her beauty in the role of Unity, a deformed slavey, whose beauty of soul is as evident as her ugliness. However, all Mary Philbin’s beauty is not wasted, for she plays a dual role — Unity and Stella Maris, a beautiful cripple.

Gladys Brockwell’s performance, as the wife, is notable; so also is Elliott Dexter’s as the elder lover and Jason Robards as the chosen one.

Be sure to see this picture!

Anyone who has been hanging around the site for a while knows how I feel about Elliott Dexter. Love the man! And this was his last role for a major studio before his health deteriorated.

I have not seen this picture but I do think that Dexter would have been a good acting match for Philbin. By all accounts a soft-spoken and amiable performer with years of acting experience, he would possibly have been a calming influence on Philbin, who seems to have been a rather gentle soul and prone to nervousness before the camera. Low drama (and non-groping) co-stars were essential. Then again, Philbin was painful when cast opposite the highly-seasoned-but-reserved Ivan Mosjoukine.

The leading man of the film is Jason Robards, the father of Jason Robard, Jr. As in the case of Tyrone Power, the silent leading man father was eventually overshadowed by his namesake son.

But back to the reviews!

Motion Picture News was pleased with the film:

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This sounds like an intriguing title and could possibly salvage Mary Philbin’s reputation as a thespian. Here’s hoping we get to see it very soon.

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