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.
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.
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
Run Time: 1hr, 28 Min