Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: November, 2018

Stella Maris (1918)

One of Mary Pickford’s biggest hits of 1918 was this drama, in which she not only gets to grow out her perpetual childhood, but also plays dual roles of young girls who become young women. It demonstrates differing audience expectations of the time to our own, especially in terms of “happy endings,” but displays Mary’s talents to their fullest.

At the beginning of the film, Mary’s characters are still in late childhood. The first, the eponymous Stella Maris, is paralyzed and lives in her bed. Fortunately she has been raised by wealthy guardians Sir and Lady Blount (Ida Waterman and Herbert Standing) dedicated to her happiness. Unfortunately, that dedication goes to something of an extreme – Stella is protected from any information about the world that might upset her or make her aware that there is “sorrow, poverty, or death” in the world. This tends to make her a bit spoiled and idealistic. The other young girl is Unity Blake, an orphan in a classically Dickensian orphan house who lives with all of the evils Stella is shielded from. The opulence and beauty of Stella’s world is contrasted with the squalor and hard work of Unity’s in a series of intercut scenes.

In one of these scenes, a prominent relative of the Blounts comes to visit Stella in her room. This young man (Conway Tearle) is referred to as the “Great High Belovedest” and tells her stories of his “castle” where he lives. In reality, he is John Risca, a prominent journalist who hides his alcoholic wife (Marcia Manon) in an apartment. He leaves her because he cannot stand her drinking or her cruelty, but he commits to continuing to support her. She decides to adopt a girl, because servants keep quitting on her and an orphan would have nowhere else to go. Of course, the girl she selects is Unity. Unity is sent over to her home without any guide, and we see her reactions to the world of London – in her way, she is quite as sheltered as Stella. She is quite crushed when she realizes that her new mother intends to give her more work, but no love.

Unity reacts as a customer sends back a steak in a restaurant.

This arrangement doesn’t last long, because one day some street kids steal Unity’s basket of groceries while she is out shopping. When she returns empty-handed, her adoptive mother reacts with rage, beating her to within an inch of her life. The neighbors hear the row, and the police are called. Mrs. Risca is arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment. In the meanwhile, John agrees to take Unity on, and treats her with kindness and gentleness. They live together with “Aunt Gladys” who wants to punish the child when she lies, but John knows that she lies because she is afraid of getting another beating.

Joining the “family.”

Meanwhile, as the three years pass, Stella Maris is able to get an operation that allows her to walk. She has blossomed into a young adult, and her feelings for the “Great High Blovedest” have matured as well, and appear to be reciprocated. But, when John wishes to confess to her of his previous marriage, he is prevented by Mrs. Blount, who is still trying to protect Stella from knowing about evil. Stella is picking it up on her own, of course, now that she can walk. At one point she asks for “a few thousand pounds” to give to a starving family she sees near the house. Unity has also fallen in love with her new guardian, and tries to overcome her homely looks and poor education to get him to notice her.

Stella decides to go and visit the castle, which she dreams of living in with John. Of course, the limo driver takes her to John’s old address, where the newly released Mrs. Risca is once again residing. She looks about in horror, breaking down into tears when Mrs. Risca reveals who she is. She breaks off relations with John and rages at her family about all of the evil and pain in the world. Unity sees how heartbroken John is from this, and realizes that he will never forget Stella Maris. She also realizes that so long as Mrs. Risca is alive, he will forever be unhappy. She devises a plan and steals one of John’s guns, then uses the key she has kept all these years to the Risca apartment and goes in, threatening Mrs. Risca. When Mrs. Risca responds with more callousness and brutality, she kills her, and then herself.

This, of course, releases John from any obligations. Stella Maris comes to the conclusion that joy and wonder can only exist because there is also pain and evil in the world, and she forgives John and her guardians for lying to her. Aunt Gladys convinces Stella’s wealthy relatives to give John another chance and not think badly about Unity for she helped free him from his abusive wife. John is reunited with Stella and they marry.

I was quite honestly rooting for Unity the whole time, and I was pretty disappointed once I realized that the outcome would be her death and John marrying Stella Maris. Not that I wanted him to marry his adoptive daughter, either (because, ew), but I wanted Unity to realize that there were other possibilities for her happiness and grow up to pursue them. I suspect many modern viewers would respond the same way, but the logic of the time was that Unity had fallen in love with a man “above her station,” and this could only end in tragedy. Of the two characters, I found Unity to be more sympathetic and appealing. Stella is obviously spoiled (through no fault of her own, but still) and her development is far less convincing. She’s mostly there to be sweet and pretty, then to be heartbroken and unreasonable, and finally to provide the standard happy ending for the male lead. She has little sense of agency, and when she does try to do something on her own (feeding the family, for example, or visiting the castle), it is just a reflection of her ignorance.

Mary Pickford plays both roles excellently, however, and this movie decidedly demonstrates her versatility. I must admit with some embarrassment that the first time I watched it I didn’t actually realize she was playing Unity and I went to see who “that actress” was because I thought she had outperformed Mary Pickford! I think it’s a tribute to her and to the director that a modern viewer could be so bamboozled. Lighting choices reinforce the differences, and the different worlds the two girls occupy. The two don’t have a lot of scenes together, and of course “twinning” effects date back to Georges Méliès, so this isn’t so much a measure of special effects as it is of acting. Shots that do have them together are also carried  by the very natural way in which Pickford “talks to herself,” although it’s easy enough to see where the screen has been split.

The film was apparently the second highest-grossing film of the year (records from this period are not precise) and helped solidify Pickford’s already powerful position as a star. It was written for her by her friend Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan, who had also directed “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “The Little Princess,” and later “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley”  and “M’Liss,” so this movie shows the power Pickford had to choose her productions and her production team. Although we often think of her in terms of her naively innocent characters, like Stella herself, she was a powerful businesswoman, with all the grit of Unity Blake and even the professional acumen of John Risca as well.

Director: Marshall Neilan

Camera:Walter Stradling

Starring: Mary Pickford, Ida Waterman, Herbert Standing, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Josephine Crowell, Teddy the Dog, Gustav von Seyffertitz

Run Time: 1hr, 28 Min

You can watch it for free: here and here (without music) or here (with music).

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The Hat with Many Surprises (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès plays on the classic magician’s act of pulling things (no rabbits, in this case) out of a silk hat. It reflects his increasing comfort with the use of camera trickery to make things appear and disappear.

Méliès walks onto a stage in classic magician’s garb, with a cloak and a top hat. The set is dressed to be the interior of a comfortable apartment, with a portrait and a cabinet in the background. The first surprises actually come from the cloak. He takes it off and uses it to conjure a table, then it turns from a black cloak to a white tablecloth. Then he turns back to the hat, and produces from it plates, glasses, napkins, a decanter, and other table settings. Then, he looks a bit thoughtful and suddenly there is a fan in his hand. He fans it and it becomes larger, and then he fans the hat and it suddenly becomes an over-sized cardboard cutout of a hat. From this, he is able to pull out four chairs, and then the dinner companions: a squabbling couple and then a king and queen are produced. He calls forth a maid to begin serving them. Then, having completed the trick, he suddenly leaps onto the table, which crashes through the floor. The portrait comes to life and begins berating the diners, who flee in terror. Méliès re-appears and takes a bow, incidentally turning the hat and cloak back to normal.

There’s not too much here we haven’t seen before, but Méliès is always a fun presence. He’s fairly subdued in this until the end, not leaping about or being overly animated, just letting the illusions carry the story forward. Of course, much of this movie would have worked nearly as well on stage, but he quickly took it to places that only the cinema would allow. So far as I can see, there was no internal logic to the final chaos – it was just a funny way to end the film. I certainly wasn’t expecting the portrait to suddenly come to life, that was probably the biggest surprise of all!

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

November 1918

Flanders Field Memorial Garden By Gareth E Kegg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37776968

Longtime readers of this blog have probably noticed that I stopped posting the “Century News” some months ago, but I felt I should say something to mark the end of World War I. This blog started in March, 2014, just a few months before the centenary of the beginning of the war, and most its existence has run through the centenaries of the various battles and events of that conflict. As I hope everyone knows, today is the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that brought it to an end.

It was a long war, although far from the longest in history. It devastated a generation and completely remade the world in just four years. It established power relations that would define the next war and even the Cold War that followed. From the point of view of most of the participants, the toll was incredible, and the rewards seemingly minimal. It brought down most of the larger empires in Europe, and left behind new nation-states that struggled for identity. It set the stage for the rise of great totalitarian movements that seemed on the verge of controlling the world by mid-century. The biggest “winner” was probably the United States, who managed to get into a war they feared might drag on for years just in time to have a vital role at the negotiating table when the enemy suddenly surrendered. Economically, they were one of the few nations who had come out ahead as well, having sold arms and materiel to the Allies for years on credit.

From the point of view of film history, the war pretty much confirmed the trend that had already started: the United States, with its vast domestic audience, was able to take on the leading role in global production and distribution, while France, the former leader, fell into a secondary position. Russia, probably the only nation with the potential to challenge Hollywood, suffered from its pre-war occupation with making “refined” films with limited audiences, and from postwar shortages and artistic limitations decided by political ideology. For better or worse, the USA would define mainstream cinema for the next hundred years, although it wouldn’t surprise me if India takes on that role for the next century.

Happy Armistice Day to all.