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…
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.