October 25, 2020
Stella Maris – US, 1918
At the height of her fame, Mary Pickford chose to make Stella Maris, a film about two women, Stella Maris, bedridden since childhood, and Unity Blake, an orphan. Both young ladies are rather sweet: Stella is greatly delighted by the picturesque views of her aunt and uncle’s vast property, while Unity displays an optimism that many in her situation would have long ago abandoned. The two of them could easily have been the best of friends. Could is the key word there, for other than a few brief conversations, the two rarely interact, and the reason for that is something neither of them had a direct hand in. Destiny saw to it that Stella would not want for anything, while fate put Unity on a collision course with hardship and cruelty.
Both characters are played by America’s Sweetheart during the Silent Era, Mary Pickford, and Pickford pulls off the trick superbly. Stella is closer to Pickford’s normal role, and the fact that she played it is said to have put the film’s financial backers at ease, for, who, they reasoned, would want to see Pickford look homely and ordinary. Stella is the picture of youthful innocence and cheerfulness, and she is so loved that in one scene neighborhood children dance for her and then line up to give her flowers. She is also visited by John Risca (Conway Tearle), and each time he visits, Stella adopts the persona of a queen being called upon by one of her loyal subjects. John, unreservedly smitten with Stella, plays along, even kissing her hand the way one visiting a princess might. As Unity, Pickford adroitly adopts a distinct personality and alters both her appearance and mannerisms. Unity is timid and vulnerable, yet retains an optimistic streak. A few decades later, she could have been the main character in one of those romantic comedies in which an ugly duckling character blossoms into the beautiful swan after altering her hair style and choice of clothing.
Thankfully, Stella Maris is not that kind of film, yet it is about two characters awakening to the reality that the world can be a cold place. We learn that Stella’s aunt and uncle have successfully kept the real world a secret from her. Her world is one in which food is plentiful, nature is lush and green, and men are princes from enormous castles – in other words, it is a fairy tale. Early on in the film, an operation enables Stella to regain the use of her legs, and soon reality rudely inserts itself. While walking around the garden, she comes across a rather poorly dressed family that hasn’t eaten in three days. It is her first encounter with poverty, and it won’t be her last shock. Pickford plays these moments of awakening perfectly.
Unity, on the other hand, is hardly surprised that life can be cruel; she is, however, shocked by just how malicious it can be. Early on in the film, she thinks she is being adopted, only to learn later that her role is to that of a servant other than a daughter. Things go downhill from there. Her tormentor is Louise Risca (Marcia Manon), John’s abusive, alcoholic wife, and his wife’s actions stir John to give Unity a better home. You would think this would indicate that things are looking up for her, but it should be noted that what she does as John’s adopted daughter is not that different from what she did for Louisa.
There’s much to like about Stella Mars, from Pickford’s stellar performances, the excellent work of Tearle and Manon, and Marshall Neilan’s effective directing to the story’s effective display of the economic divide and the subtle classism of some of the film’s upper class characters. For example, John is reminded that his wife was “a commoner” when he married her and Stella’s aunt is not nearly as empathetic toward the poor as Stella is. It is also interesting that the topic of divorce is never broached, not even after Louise is sent to jail for three years. I suspect the topic - and the public’s possible reaction to it - made studio heads anxious. Maybe it shouldn’t have. Just two years after the film’s release, Pickford and Hollywood A-lister Douglas Fairbanks divorced their spouses and got married; the public’s reaction was a collective shrug.
Unfortunately, photoplayer Frances Marion (or perhaps Pickford herself), working from a novel by William J. Locke, felt the need to devote time to the jealousy that Stella’s dog Teddy develops after a smaller, cuter dog enters the picture. Seeing how dutiful Stella is to the new pup, Teddy conspires to get rid of it. There is even a close up of Teddy as he is apparently hatching the plan. It is a distraction, and it undercuts the tension created by Louisa’s sudden reappearance, as well as Unity’s growing fondness for John. It should be noted, however, that early audience’s generally looked upon such plot lines fondly.
The ending owes a little to Charles Dickens and it is both logical and discomforting. I found myself reflecting on Louise and Unity and wondering what it meant that commoners were depicted as either vicious or undesirable. Sure, Unity is a likeable character and ultimately the hero of the picture, but the film makes it clear that John will never see her the way he sees Stella. And it was jarring to see how quickly John forgets her and how Stella, in spite of her earlier awakening to the brutality of the real world, has no reaction to her actions. Instead, the film ends with her in John’s arms, without even a mention of Unity’s sacrifice. It is as if commoners exist merely to facilitate the dreams of the advantaged.
Is this an unreasonable quibble? Perhaps. After all, few Hollywood films have really tackled the plights of normal people. It is just easier that way. Characters can fly to Paris at a moment’s notice without having to worry about the higher costs associated with purchasing tickets last minute, can treat their friends to dinner at the fanciest restaurants without fretting about next month’s credit card bill, and can quit a job without having an immediate replacement. However, one of Stella Maris’s key themes is discovery, in particular, Stella’s, and since part of her discovery is the world’s inequality, it is disconcerting that she has no reaction to the fact that her happiness is the direct result of that disparity. A more realistic ending would have had both her and John acknowledge this. Instead, we get the standard Hollywood ending, bliss gained through selective amnesia. How convenient. A pretty good film, but Unity deserved much better. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*Stella Maris is a silent movie.