Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Herbert Standing

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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Down to Earth (1917)

In this movie, also known as “The Optimist,” Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his belief in an active, outdoorsy lifestyle as the cure to society’s woes. He co-wrote the story, along with Anita Loos, who had worked with Fairbanks on “His Picture in the Papers” and “Wild and Woolly.”

The movie begins with Doug, who plays a character named Bill Gaynor (but might as well be called Doug Fairbanks), in college. He’s captain of the football team and in love with Ethyl Forsythe (Eileen Percy). He proposes to her, but she feels they lack common interests – he’s into sports, she’s into society affairs. Besides, she’s found another fellow, Charlie Riddle (Charles K. Gerrard). So, Doug goes off on a world tour to “forget” her. We see him mountain climbing, leading an African safari and riding the range. This healthy lifestyle is contrasted with the decadent parties that Ethyl and Charlie attend. One of them involves a fountain of champagne with dancing girls rising from the middle of the table that reminded me of “Metropolis.” Anyway, the pace of constant partying wears Ethyl down and one day, she collapses with a hangover. She is whisked off to a sanitarium and her engagement to Charlie is postponed, and someone thinks to send Doug a letter out at the ranch.

Doug comes racing back to see her, of course, and isn’t impressed by what he finds at the sanitarium. A bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs are coddled and enabled in their fantasies of illness. The windows are kept shut and there is no fresh air or exercise for anyone. After a brief visit with Ethyl, he goes to give the chief doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a piece of his mind. The doctor explains that efforts to really cure the wealthy are in vain, but a man gets rich allowing them to believe they are sick. Since he’s only in it for the money, he is amenable when Doug offers to “buy” his patients from him. He takes the honest doctor who works their into his confidence, and they devise a plan to kidnap them and bring them to a more healthful environment.

The plan is simple (sort of). They inform everyone that there is a smallpox scare and the sanitarium will be quarantined. But, Doug offers to sneak them out of the quarantine aboard his yacht, bound for New York. Instead of New York, he takes them to a small deserted island and forces them to “rough it” for two months. Actually, it isn’t really a deserted island, it’s an area near a place called “Palm Grove,” evidently in California (the film was really shot at Yosemite), but Doug dresses up one of the sailors from the yacht as a “Wild Man from Waukeegan” and stations him to guard the pass that would allow the socialites to discover the ruse. Anyway, Doug enforces a strict regime of exercise, which the castaways have to endure to eat, since he’s the only one with the wherewithal to catch fish and collect edible mushrooms and berries. The exercise regime is designed to reverse bad behaviors – an alcoholic has to drink two quarts of water before breakfast, a gloomy gus has to laugh like a hyena, and Charlie has to act as janitor. Charlie retains his selfish ways even after arriving – he tries to steal Doug’s and the doctor’s food on the first day, and ultimately he finds out that Palm Grove is nearby and makes an escape.

Charlie hooks up with a friend at Palm Grove who has a good idea. The reason he’s losing Ethyl to Doug is because Doug has used “Cave Man” tactics, so he should be a “Cave Man” too. The two of them will kidnap Ethyl and that will make her come around. The plan fails, of course, when Doug isn’t napping when the rest of the camp is, and he beats Charlie and his friend with one hand tied behind his back (literally). He swims out to the rowboat where Ethyl was drifting away and confesses to the ruse. She admits that she figured it out a while ago, and the two are happily united.

Overall, this is a pretty standard Fairbanks film, and it definitely speaks to his personal feelings about modern America – the health of the country is threatened by a kind of selfish decadence that ignores what made it strong in the first place. I would imagine that this message resonated well with audiences across the country at the time. It’s worth noting that the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe also saw a rise of various health movements that emphasized more “natural” living as well, so this was in the air. I think the story could have been improved by adding an element of real danger, as Loos and Fairbanks did in “Wild and Woolly.” Some kind of real threat – an actual wild man, a local tribe, a gang of smugglers that used this location – could have increased the tension in the third act, which otherwise seems a bit lame. Seeing Doug beat his foe one-handed is impressive, but it also emphasizes the inequity of the situation – he’s never really challenged or put at risk, everything comes to him much too easily. This might be what Americans, getting ready to see real fighting in the First World War, wanted for entertainment at the time, but it doesn’t result in as satisfying a movie as this might have been. I did get some laughs, though, especially from the hypochondriacs and their reactions to the situation, and Fairbanks is as charming as ever.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Charles K. Gerrard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Herbert Standing

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.