Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Kind hearts and... Stella Maris (1918)

She plastered her hair with Vaseline, smudged make up round her eyes to make them appear smaller, darkened her nostrils to make them wider and contorted her body to leave one shoulder higher and her back twisted... I’m not sure if Mary Pickford was the first actor to play two roles but she was certainly one of the first to do it with the conviction and brilliance shown in this film.

If you didn’t know she was both malnourished orphan Unity Blake and the titular bed-ridden privileged princess you’d struggle to recognise the most famous woman of the time… Sir Alec Guiness, eat your kind heart out…

By this stage, Mary could pretty well pick her targets and obviously relished this challenge. It's interesting that given the chance to really stretch out, Pickford and Gish would go for it in a way that not only reflected their theatrical training but also their unrelenting professionalism and drive. Mary, like many others of humble origin, was often concerned by thoughts of getting “found out”; she needed to keep on proving herself and had no time for complacency.

Based on the 1913 novel by William J. Locke, Stella Maris was scripted by Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan. Pickford compared the director favourably with DW Griffith and their shared Irish heritage helped him get the best out of his star. It was the highest grossing film of 1918, on a level with modern hits such as Pickfords Assemble or Mary of Steel

Pickford is first seen as Miss Stella Maris a tragic young woman born into a wealthy family and yet in poor health: she cannot walk and is kept bedridden, well-protected from the horrors of outdoor life. She lives with her Aunt Julia Lady Eleanor Blount (Ida Waterman) and Uncle Sir Oliver Blount (Herbert Standing).

Conway Tearle
Her favourite visitor is family friend, journalist John Risca (Conway Tearle) with whom she enjoys a fantasy existence of castles and kings. Interesting that she relies on a journalist to not tell her the truth…

But John has a darker home life with an alcoholic and abusive wife Louise (an excellent Marcia Manon, clearly having a whale of a time) whose numerous addictions are laid out for all to see: the wicked witch of this story.

Marcia Manon
Listless Louise only ever gets passionate about punishment but is switched on enough to scour the local orphanage for home help in the form of the energetic but under-fed Unity Blake. Face and body posture twisted out of all proportion, Pickford must have suffered for this role...

Unity fails to meet her new mistresses exacting demands and is savagely beaten only being saved after neighbours here her screams. The police arrive and Louise is imprisoned for her assault.

Wracked by guilt, John resolves to look after Unity and brings her into his house where she is looked after by his Aunt Gladys (Josephine Crowell).

This upper class generosity only extends so far though and they all resolve to keep Unity’s existence a secret from the enforced innocence of Stella. Here it is interesting that Stella’s innocence is prescribed by her relatives whilst Unity’s is seemingly just her natural state… in spite of all that she has been through.

Doctors gather to see Stella and decide that her legs can be restored through a new operation. The months pass and gradually she returns to full health.

Pickfords Assemble
Inevitably she encounters Unity in a stunningly well realised double exposure: this is the tricky part - acting with yourself.

By this stage it’s not Unity’s tale that threatens Stella’s fairy-tale world view but the world itself as she sees squads of soldiers marching past her huge garden and the questions keep on coming…

Reality bites
Meanwhile, Louise is released for good behaviour and sets back to her recidivist ways aiming to ruin her estranged husband’s budding romance with the beautiful and unsullied Stella. Yet Unity has also developed feelings for her saviour…

There’s a startling moment when she caresses John’s coat on a clothing stand, wrapping its sleeves around her and relishing the imagined intimacy, made almost real by the texture and the smell… Yes, exactly as Berenice Bejo does in The Artist, a sublime moment in both films. Yet, unlike Peppy in that film, there’s surely no way Unity can get her man… is there?

I won’t give away the ending as this is one you should see if you’re looking for Mary Pickford’s best films. That said, I’m probably the last silent film kid on the block to watch it but… better late than never!

I watched the Milestone DVD which is still available direct – “Gawd bless ‘em!” as Unity might say. I’d be quick though as My Best Girl and others have recently sold out. Pickford continues to evolve as a cultural phenomenon even after all these years.

And, there’s a very good reason for that.


  1. My favorite Mary Pickford movie!

    1. It's up there with Sparrows as a film but a simply amazing performance!