In honor of Mary Pickford's 120th birthday today, here is my long-delayed review of her masterpiece, Stella Maris.
After the critical and commercial triumphs of 1917 made her the most popular—and most powerful—actress in the world (read the story here), Mary Pickford declined to rest on her laurels. Instead, she opted for an even more ambitious project, a dual role that would push the boundaries of both special effects technology and her talent as an actress. The resulting film, Stella Maris, the story of an orphan girl struggling to find love and acceptance in a cruel and indifferent world, was a resounding success with both audiences and critics, and ensured Pickford's place as the most popular actress of the silent era.
Based on a novel by William J. Locke, with a screenplay from the legendary Frances Marion, Stella Maris is a story very much in the tradition of Charles Dickens—and if you regard Dickens as highly as I do, you know that's not a bad thing—filled with melodrama, improbable coincidences, shameless moralizing, biting social commentary, and grim depictions of alcoholism, child abuse and grinding poverty.
Unlike most of Dickens, though, there's no happy ending, at least not for the character we care most about, and while some might call Stella Maris a hokey Victorian melodrama, it's a hokey Victorian melodrama of the first water, a riveting story from beginning to end, and featuring the best performance of Mary Pickford's career.
The film opens on the first of Pickford's two roles, the eponymous Stella Maris. Orphaned in childhood and paralyzed by a mysterious ailment, the beautiful, cheerful Stella lives in a carefully-constructed fantasy world created by a wealthy aunt and uncle, "unaware of sorrow, poverty or death." Her aunt and uncle, a houseful of servants, a dog (played by "Teddy" courtesy of the Mack Sennett studios) and most importantly, a distant cousin, John Risca (Conway Tearle), attend to Stella's every need while cautiously sheltering her from life's harsh realities.
Although Stella was a typical Pickford role—the plucky, perky girl with the curls that America had fallen in love with—the movie is really about Pickford's second character, Unity Blake, an "ugly duckling" with no swan in her future.
In stark contrast to Stella's life of sheltered luxury, Unity has grown up in a grim orphanage, unwanted and unloved, and inured to life's disappointments. She knows that, the old cliche notwithstanding, God frequently doles out more trouble than we can handle, and seemingly for no other reason than a perverse indifference to what human beings call fairness. Through the course of the story, Unity learns many of life's harshest lessons: pretty people flock together; character doesn't trump position, power or money; and regardless of how well we play the hand we're dealt, the game ends the same for everybody—just sooner for some than for others.
From its earliest scenes, the film symbolically establishes Unity as a Christ-figure—note how she is photographed through a sanctuary rood screen, her praying figure framed by a cutout of the cross—and she is the essence of innocence and purity made to suffer for our sins. But if she were only an allegory, Unity would quickly become an insufferable bore. Instead, she's a heartbreakingly three-dimensional girl, hard-working but mischievous, an ugly duckling with a lovely soul, as hopeful as her situation is hopeless.
The lives of Unity and Stella intersect through the man they both come to love, John Risca, who is not only Stella's cousin but who also adopts Unity as a housemaid-servant for his abusive, alcoholic wife. Played with exquisite cruelty by Marcia Manon, Unity's new stepmother goes out of her way to snuff out what light remains in the orphan girl's eyes. Only John's kindness keeps her going.
One of Unity's most poignant scenes is when caressing John Risca's hat and coat, she imagines a romance that will never be, a scene that the staff of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education compared to the famous "jacket scene" in the Oscar-winning The Artist. "Mary Pickford's moment is even more affecting, because we know that unlike Peppy Miller, little Unity's dream of romance is doomed from the start, and we fear she will never get her happy ending."
That the result is riveting and moving rather than dreary and overwrought is a testament to Pickford's performance.
To create the character of Unity, Pickford's teeth were darkened, her trademark curls slicked down and pulled into a tight bun, her clothes suitably drab and tattered. But it was the actress's body language and facial expressions that made the transformation from "Little Mary" to Unity so effective. Her back curved from malnourishment, Pickford's Unity carries herself like a dog who's been beaten too much. 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.
The transformation is complete yet subtle, and utterly convincing.
"To test the Unity make-up," wrote Felicia Feaster for Turner Classic Movies, "Pickford wandered the studio under the pretense of finding work as a cleaning lady. She was delighted when she discovered that no one recognized her."
To allow Mary Pickford to appear on screen as Stella and Unity simultaneously, director Marshall Neilan and cinematographer Walter Stradling used a "split-screen" technique, exposing one side of the film then the other, to allow the same actor to play two roles in the same scene, a common enough technique now, but here one of the earliest examples if its use in a feature film. (Georges Méliès used both double exposure and matte shots to interact with himself in such early short films as Un homme de tête (1898), Le portrait mystérieux (1899) and L'homme orchestre (1900), while Lois Weber used split-screen in 1913's Suspense to show two people having a phone conversation at the same time.)
For a tale with its feet planted so firmly in the 19th century, it's ironic that Stella Maris should rely so heavily on the most cutting-edge technology that the 20th century then had to offer.
Upon its release in January 1918, the film was an immediate hit with both critics and audiences. Variety called the performance "a revelation," the Los Angeles Times deemed it "brilliant, powerful and poignant" and studio chief Adolph Zukor, who was initially horrified when he visited the set, later called Stella Maris "the most remarkable thing which Mary Pickford has ever done for the screen."
More recently, Dean Thompson at Silents Are Golden wrote, "It is the valiant, hesitant, tender, scrappy figure of Unity Blake, played with truth and immediacy by the most famous and beautiful film star of her day, that stays with us, haunting us still. Mary Pickford, the actress occasionally hidden by the towering figure of 'America's Sweetheart,' could have no finer testimonial to her talent."
Stella Maris was the top grossing movie of 1918.
For director, Marshall Neilan, Stella Maris represented something of a peak. Although he directed three more Pickford films and would continue to direct into the sound era, Neilan suffered from acute alcoholism that often left him unable to work. In fact, on at least one of their collaborations, Pickford is alleged to have directed the entire film (uncredited) while the chronically intoxicated Neilan watched in amusement. In 1933, she gave him one last chance to direct, Secrets which turned out to be her final film, but quickly replaced him with Frank Borzage when Neilan couldn't function on set. He died in 1958.
Pickford, meanwhile, followed up Stella Maris with an unbroken string of hits—Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, M'Liss, Daddy-Long-Legs, Pollyanna, Suds, a remake of Tess of the Storm Country, Sparrows (the last of her little girl roles and one of her best), and My Best Girl (which I wrote about here), before winning the Oscar as best actress for 1929's Coquette.
She retired in 1933, another silent victim of the sound era's changing tastes.
As I recently wrote, Mary Pickford "was, pound-for-pound, the most powerful woman in Hollywood history, simultaneously an international superstar, a studio owner, a producer, a de facto director, an Oscar winner, and the queen of the Hollywood social scene." Stella Maris didn't feature Pickford most typical performance, but it was her greatest.
Stella Maris is my pick for the best movie of 1918.