In the Vaults #17: Stella Maris (1925)

stella-maris-1925-01

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:

stella-maris-1925-05

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.

Recommended

Fun Size Review: A Romance of the Redwoods (1917)

romance of the redwoods

Mary Pickford and Cecil B. DeMille combined forces for the first time in this romantic melodrama and the results are mixed. Elliott Dexter is a bandit. Mary Pickford is a little lady. Can they find love? Well, you know they can but what comes first is a rather dark and brutish wooing with a dollop of sleaze. Dexter plays the Good Bad Bad Man a little too well but the film is not without its pluses and the cinematography is lovely.

If it were a dessert it would be:

(via wikiHow)
(via wikiHow)

A Dirty Girl Scout. What else could it be?

Read my full-length review here.

Recommended

Okay, don’t panic… Just put the shoe on her foot and… RUN!!! Animated GIF

adams-rib-cinderalla-it-aintPoor Elliott Dexter! It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Adam’s Rib and Dexter finds himself having to return a lady’s shoe to its proper place. A frightening prospects for a neurotic paleontologist. (This sequence was clearly one of the inspirations for the famous screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.) Let’s just say that he ain’t no Prince Charming to her Cinderella. Good thing she likes him anyway.

Of course, you know they are going to end up together before the end.

You can read my review of the movie here.

Availability

Released on DVD-R by Grapevine and available for purchase in the U.S.

“You are the impertinent, inexcusable product of the movies, woman suffrage and the war!” Animated GIF

adams-rib-product-of-woman-suffrageIn Adam’s Rib, Elliott Dexter is just sick, sick, of Pauline Garron’s assertive flapper. How dare she come and make passes at a respectable paleontologist such as he? Why, it is unthinkable that any scientist of repute would ever fall for such a girl!

And, yes, they are married before the final credits.

(But come to think of it, silent movies didn’t usually have final credits. Please humor me for the sake of the metaphor.)

Availability

Released on DVD-R by Grapevine and available for purchase in the U.S.

Silent Star Mini Biography: Elliott Dexter

Elliott Dexter (1879-1941)

Country of Birth: USA

Birth Name:
Adelbert Elliott Dexter

The basics: Elliott Dexter was the epitome of the long tall Texan. He was born in Galveston in 1879 to a German mother and an American father. From an early age, he dreamed of being an actor and made his debut in a supporting role in The Great Diamond Robbery. (The play opened in 1895 but Dexter likely took part in a later production.)

Dexter made his motion picture debut in 1915 and soon found success as director Cecil B. DeMille’s favored leading man. Dexter was one of the early advocates of underplaying a scene and he showed enormous range and versatility in his DeMille roles. At the height of his popularity, he was making $1000 a week, a tidy sum especially when you consider that he was working for Paramount, a notoriously thrifty outfit.

Dexter had been chosen for the lead of Male and Female, the film that put Gloria Swanson on the map, but he suffered from a nervous breakdown and a stroke in mid 1919. Dexter was off the screen for nearly a year and a half, even when he did return, he did not recover full mobility (DeMille even arranged to have Dexter’s limp be written in as a character trait) and took a European sabbatical. Well-liked and well-respected, his health allowed him to take larger roles in films like Adam’s Rib and the Universal remake of Stella Maris. (Dexter credited faith healing for his recovery.)

Dexter took to breeding German Shepherds after his return from Europe.
Dexter took to breeding German Shepherds after his return from Europe.

Dexter returned to Texas to perform in the play Through the Years (1926). While there, he stated his plans to create his own production company but that never came to pass. It is possible that his health was starting to deteriorate once more.

Dexter talked of a comeback but in 1930 he entered the Percy Williams Home, which cared for ill, disabled or indigent actors. He stayed there until his death in 1943.

You probably saw him in: Don’t Change Your Husband, A Romance of the Redwoods, Adam’s Rib

Silent style: Dexter’s performances are refreshingly modern and he thoroughly deserves rediscovery. What he was most noted for was his impressive versatility. He could be fierce, he could be staid, he could be funny, he could be serious. Unfortunately, his illnesses came at a time when Hollywood was turning away from the staid leading men of the ‘teens and looking for sexier romancers and energetic male flappers. While Dexter was popular and talented, he never regained his footing.

Sound transition: Dexter never made a talking picture. He had a fine, stage-trained voice but his health seems to have taken another turn for the worse in the mid-twenties and his last credited film appearance was in 1925.

What others said:

“One does not know him upon a single meeting; one does not even suspect him. He is careful to avoid arousing curiosity. I discovered, before I had been talking with him ten minutes, that I was talking about myself.”

Willis Goldbeck, Motion Picture Classic columnist

If you gotta know more:

(Use caution as many of these sources list incorrect birth dates and other basic facts.)

LA Times Star Walk Profile

IMDB Profile

TCM Profile

1918 draft card completed by Elliott Dexter*

1921 passport application submitted by Elliott Dexter*

U.S. Census Reports*

Motion Picture Classic 1920**

Motion Picture Magazine 1922**

Photoplay 1919 and 1920**

Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by Robert Birchard

Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 by John T. Soister

*Retrieved from ancestry.com

**Retrieved from archive.org

If you can only see him in one thing: A Romance of the Redwoods. I wasn’t crazy about the film but it really showcases Dexter in powerhouse mode. You can then compare his performance in Don’t Change Your Husband. Oops, that’s two things. (You can read my review of Redwoods and Husband.)

***

Notes: I try to limit my mini-biographies to 400 words but Elliott Dexter’s life has been so misreported that I felt the need to explain my research and conclusions.

Dexter’s birthdate has long been erroneously listed as 1870. His headstone lists his birthdate as 1869. However, census records from 1880, his draft registration, his passport application and a sworn affidavit from his aunt all list his birth date as December 21, 1879. I think the 1870 date likely stems from a mistyped or misread document (0 and 9 are beside one another on the keyboard and a sloppily written 9 can often look like a 0) and Dexter was not famous enough to make a correction worth anyone’s while.

Young or just young-looking?
Young or just young-looking?

I first became interested in solving this mystery after noting Dexter’s youthful appearance in A Romance of the Redwoods and Castle for Two. If he really was pushing fifty, he could have made  a fortune bottling whatever made him look so young. The 1879 birth date solves a good number of mysteries.

(Dexter’s passport application also lists his height as an even six feet and his eyes as brown, in case you were wondering.)

Dexter’s illness has not been fully explained. Most fan magazines of the day (notoriously unreliable) list him as having a nervous breakdown coupled with a stroke. A stroke is certainly likely as Dexter had a limp for several years after his illness. However, he seems to have recovered (or have been very carefully shot) by the time Adam’s Rib entered production.

This is pure speculation but it is possible that Dexter had a second nervous breakdown when his half-brother, Walter Carroll, passed away in 1930. In any case, I find it likely that Dexter was almost totally incapacitated for the final decade of his life. Cecil B. DeMille had a soft spot for actors he had worked with in the old days and always contrived to get them (or their spouses) work in his pictures if he could manage it (with the stipulation that they be sober). DeMille found supporting roles for such early film notables as Hobart Bosworth and I am certain he would have done the same for Dexter if the latter had been in any shape to work. He always spoke glowingly of Dexter’s talents.

Dexter's return to work after his illness. DeMille is at center and Thomas Meighan. who replaced Dexter in Male and Female, is to the left.
Dexter’s return to work after his illness. DeMille is at center and Thomas Meighan. who replaced Dexter in Male and Female, is to the left.

Much of the confusion about Dexter’s biography appears to stem from the fact that he was an introverted gentleman who was not inclined to share details of his personal life. His mother had been married three times (widowed once, divorced once) and was a German to boot (there was enormous anti-German sentiment in the ‘teens and twenties). His father was reported to be a violent alcoholic. It is likely that the social climate of the time conditioned Dexter to hold his tongue regarding his background.

Further, the incorrect census data that has caused much of the trouble was taken during Dexter’s final hospitalization. If he had suffered from another nervous breakdown, it is possible that his age and personal facts were merely guessed at by hospital staff (the “about” box was checked regarding his date of birth). The fact that he was a Texan was one of the few correct details about his life that followed him everywhere. According to contemporary interviews, he never lost the accent.

Do you have more information on Mr. Dexter? Please let me know. I am quite fascinated with him.

Adam’s Rib (1923) A Silent Film Review

Cecil B. DeMille takes another stab at the domestic comedy– this time with cavemen thrown in for good measure. The tale concerns married couple on the shady side of thirty. Their union seems doomed when the wife starts stepping out with an exiled aristocrat. The couple’s teenage daughter, a modern maiden, has other ideas and she intends to save her save the marriage at any cost– all while romancing a stuffy paleontologist.
Continue reading “Adam’s Rib (1923) A Silent Film Review”

Silent Take: “Star Wars” circa 1915

Like most people in my age group, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. And like many others my age, I fell out of love with Star Wars around the years 1997-99, when the not-so-special editions and the prequels were being inflicted on us. Around the same time, I was starting to get into silent film. I had never really liked Cecil B. DeMille’s clunky sound epics but I decided to give his early silent work a chance.

Continue reading “Silent Take: “Star Wars” circa 1915″

In the Vaults #13: Castles for Two (1917)

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie
Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie
Publicity still for Marie Doro (via Wiki Commons)

Castles for Two (1917)

Status: This is a first for me! An In the Vaults article about a film I have seen with my own eyes. Castles for Two was featured on the final day of Cinecon 49. This rare film has suffered some damage over the years but the audience was still able to follow the plot, for the most part. The only known print is held the Library of Congress.

Moving Picture World was pleased as punch with the film, praising Marie Doro in particular:

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

There are Irish fairies and fays in “Castles for Two,” a five-reel photoplay produced by Jessy L. Lasky, with Marie Doro the featured player. Not that the entire story is a fairy tale, but much of it must be taken in the same credulous spirit necessary to the full enjoyment of “The Sleeping Beauty” and works of that nature. The plot is simple, and contains no surprises. There is an American heiress of great wealth, who becomes tired of spending money and decides to take a trip to Ireland, in search of the simple life. Her old nurse is a native of the land of Saint Patrick, and the girl has been brought up on tales of the “little people” that also inhabit the soil.

Once on the other side Patricia, the heiress, passes her secretary off as the lady of the dollars, puts on a peasant’s frock and goes looking in the woods for the fays. She finds them all right, also a cow, and takes refuge in a tree, from which she is rescued by a poverty-stricken young Irish lord, who is being urged on by his mother and three sisters to marry the American. Patricia pretends to be her own maid, and, as Lord O’Neil refuses to make love to the supposed heiress, the fairies reward him by letting the young man win the real dollar princess.

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

The need of the proper cast to interpret such a story is fully met by Marie Doro and her fellow-players. Miss Doro has the looks and manner of an American princess, and also the touch of elfishness which goes a great way in helping one to believe that she really saw the Irish Robbin Goodfellow and his small brothers. Elliott Dexter is. rather stolid for an Irishman, but brightens up in his lovemaking scenes. O’Neill’s mother and sisters are well acted by Julia Jackson, Jane Wolff, Harriett Sorenson, and Lillian Leighton. Mayme Kelso is the secretary. Horace B. Carpenter and Billy Elmer are a pair of the regulation stage Irishmen that love a fight and hate a landlord with equal ardor. The production is of the Lasky standard brand.

Having seen the film, my reaction to the performances is quite the opposite. Marie Doro’s elfishness is… odd, to say the least. Seeing a grown woman skip about and twitch her upper lip has lost its appeal, it seems. Miss Doro was a gorgeous woman but I think that she was perhaps better in still photographs.

Elliott Dexter’s more restrained performance has aged much better. The Moving Picture World reviewer complains that he is too stolid for an Irishman. Way to stereotype! What exactly was Dexter supposed to do to be more Irish? Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t think I want to know. I liked him just the way he was. (The film does resort to some fairly ham-fisted cliches in its portrayal of most of the Irish characters, with the peasantry being depicted without exception as dishonest drunks.)

I do agree, though, that the film gets considerably more fun once Doro and Dexter go a-wooing, particularly in the scenes where Doro is playing the chambermaid and messing with Dexter’s head. Both performers are clearly having a lot of fun with their roles and I wish the film had spent more time with them together.

In fact, Marie Doro and Elliott Dexter were even married for a time. Here is a little Photoplay feature on the home they shared. Nice digs, if I do say so myself.

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

Here’s a bit of bonus trivia: The managers of the Peoples theater in Portland, Oregon censored the film after loud protests from the Hibernians over its unflattering depiction of Irish peasant life.

Watching old movies can be a balancing act and it is sometimes easy to dismiss all stereotypes as “the way things were.” While it is certainly true that these depictions were more accepted by the general public, it is important to remember that the victims of these unfavorable characterizations did not always suffer in silence.

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

A Romance of the Redwoods (1917) A Silent Film Review

Mary Pickford is a naive city girl who journeys out to the redwoods to live with her uncle. What she doesn’t know is that her uncle is dead and a bandit (Elliott Dexter) has borrowed his identity as cover for his stagecoach robberies. The pair form an uneasy alliance. Mary has nowhere else to go and Elliott doesn’t dare let her leave since she can blow his cover. That romance in the title? Well, with a city girl and a bandit sharing digs, what do you think will happen?
Continue reading “A Romance of the Redwoods (1917) A Silent Film Review”

Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) A Silent Film Review

Gloria Swanson is a young wife whose husband is, for lack of a better word, a pigpen. Tired of his slovenly ways and uncaring manner, she leaves him for a better groomed, sweet-talking man. But all is not wine and rose and she soon learns that it may not have been a good idea to change her husband after all. DeMille’s dive into marital comedy is a glimpse of good things to come.
Continue reading “Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) A Silent Film Review”