This is the slightly belated final post for Mary Pickford month (thanks, combo of extra time at work and Internet issues!). I really hope you enjoyed March’s extended tribute to a fantastic–and immensely important–early actress!
If we could take all the qualities that Mary Pickford’s work was celebrated for–drama, sweetness, comedy, tragedy–and sum them up with just one of her films, we’d probably mull over Sparrows or Daddy-Long-Legs, or perhaps her classic Stella Maris (1918). But if we were going to prove what an incredible actress Pickford was, we would definitely choose Stella Maris.
In 1917 the movie magazines and trade papers were breathlessly reporting on Pickford’s latest project. It was to be an adaptation of a popular novel by William J. Locke, which was said to be a perfect vehicle for America’s Sweetheart. “The story of Stella Maris, it is felt by both director and scenario writer, gives to Miss Pickford the most tenderly appealing role in which she has ever appeared on the screen,” Motion Picture News reported in one of several teasers. Movie mogul Adolph Zukor (Himself) gave it his blessing:
What was the most exciting part of this much-anticipated movie? The opportunity for fans to see their beloved Mary in a dual role for the very first time. It’s still a fascinating experience today. You come away from it not only impressed, but even a little surprised by the choices she makes.
Stella Maris is the story of two English girls who are polar opposites. The lovely, charming Stella Maris is crippled. Her wealthy relatives, wanting her to be as happy as possible, shield her from all the darkness and ugliness in life. (A whimsical sign hangs above the door of Stella’s room proclaiming: “Those without smiles need not enter.”) She knows nothing but joy and beauty. Unity Blake, on the other hand, is a poor Cockney orphan. She’s unattractive and unloved. Although eager to please, she has a tough life. It probably wouldn’t even occur to her to imagine a world of nothing but joy and beauty.
One of Stella’s most frequent visitors is journalist John Risca (Conway Tearle). He’s married to Louise (Marcia Manon), a hopeless and unapologetic alcoholic (she’s apparently a “dope fiend” too). He decides with a heavy heart that they must separate. After he leaves, Louise adopts Unity to be a servant–or slave, if you will. “Servants were always leaving and I needed a girl to help me with the housework,” she offhandedly explains.
One day Louise becomes enraged at Unity and beats her mercilessly. The neighbors alert the police, who haul Louise off to jail. Unity is hospitalized. When John Risca hears the news he decides to adopt poor Unity to try and atone for his wife’s sins.
Years pass, both girls are now young ladies and Stella has had a successful operation to cure her of being crippled. Now able to leave the house, she’s shocked to see the sadness and violence in the world. Slowly but surely both young ladies fall for Risca. Poor Unity keeps her adoration a secret, knowing that she can never compete with Stella’s beauty and charm. However, Stella has no idea that Risca is still married to Louise, who was recently released from jail…
Yes, the story is most definitely a melodrama, but the filmmakers were as aware of that as we are. They were careful to add enough realism to make it seem fresh, and the acting pulls it all together. The Oscar-worthy performance is Pickford’s, of course. (Or should we say “performances”?) Her Stella is familiarly beautiful and sweet-tempered–and would be pretty cloying if a lesser actress had the role. Pickford is able to give her enough personality to be sympathetic, especially in scenes where it begins to dawn on her that the world isn’t always as cheerful as she thought.
But Pickford’s Unity Blake is the most fascinating character by far. Someone who walked into the film knowing nothing about it would think Stella and Unity were two different actresses. Pickford put a lot of thought into her appearance, combing down her curls with Vaseline, making her eyes appear smaller with white greasepaint, darkening her teeth, and adding black paint to her nostrils to alter the shape of her nose. A bit of rouge made her cheeks seem hollow, and pale greasepaint on her lips added extra plainness to her face. She topped it all off by walking slightly hunched, one shoulder higher than the other to suggest deformity. Lon Chaney could hardly have done better.
But makeup will only go so far without good acting behind it. Unity is a vivid, pitiful character, whose body language gives the impression that she’s continually cringing away from a possible swat. The look on her face when Louise is about to beat her is heartwrenching. Pickford had a gift of letting her emotions course through her face, showing what her characters were thinking with no title cards needed. You wish poor Unity could have the sort of happiness that Stella seems destined for, but deep down you sense that this battered, socially awkward gal hasn’t any chance of ending up with Risca. And so does Unity.
Touches of light comedy brighten up a story that, at its core, is very dark. The savage “beating scene” is unforgettable, foreshadowing the beating of Lucy in Broken Blossoms (Griffith is thought to have been inspired by Stella Maris). Part of its effectiveness is how the camera cuts away to shots of Louise’s neighbors, startled by hearing Unity’s screams. It gets me every time. We then see Unity lying unconscious, blood splattered on the floor (was this the first time Pickford used blood makeup?).
The tense ending comes as a bit of a shock in a Mary Pickford film. It’s nicely shot, and we get an artsy closeup of Unity’s eyes lit by a shaft of light in a darkened room. Pickford decides to have part of the tragedy occur offscreen–a tasteful choice, although the final scenes fall a little flat. It probably made more sense in the context of the book, which many people were familiar with at the time.
Conway Tearle, one of a veritable army of distinguished, slightly bland 1910s leading men, does what he can with his role, but Marcia Manon is excellent as the slovenly, alcoholic Louise. Her acting might be a tad overdone, but she really throws herself into it. And I’ve got to praise one more performance–from Teddy, the easy-going, well-trained Mack Sennett dog. Pickford added a subplot involving Teddy and Stella’s new pet Pomeranian that has just the right amount of cute. At one point Teddy grows jealous of the littler dog, and craftily makes the insufferable Pomeranian run off so he can take his rightful place at Stella’s feet. He even “doggie smiles” at just the right moment, darn it!
Stella Maris was a big hit when it was released in 1918. Reviews were ecstatic. Photoplay proclaimed that the film “should prove a turning point in the history of America’s favorite star.” Motion Picture News agreed, saying “it deserves unstinted praise in every department.” Moving Picture World said “Congratulations, Mary; do it again.” And the greatest praise of all was shared by Movie Weekly: “At the finish of viewing Stella Maris without having arrived in time to see the titles, an exhibitor remarked, ‘Mary Pickford’s great, but she’d better watch out for the one who plays the slavey.'”
Pickford’s work receives some praise today, but many critics seem hesitant to praise it too much. This might be partly due to the blurry, choppy condition of some of her surviving films, as well as a number of them being lost or holed up in archives.And then there’s the widespread stereotype of Pickford being a saccharine Victorian doll of eternal sweetness and light, no more relevant to arthouse-adoring cinephiles than an episode of Barney. Of all her films that refute this idea, Stella Maris is the best proof of how wrong it is.
There’s sweetness in Stella Maris, but also unflinching acknowledgement of the bleakest side of life (as there would in The Hoodlum and Sparrows). Pickford’s ultimate goal isn’t cynicism, but a fuller portrait of real life, and sympathy for ill-used and downtrodden folk everywhere. We can still sense it today as audiences did so strongly back in the ’10s and ’20s. It’s no wonder that of all the actresses in Hollywood Pickford alone had the affectionate title of “Our Mary.”
- When Mary was trying out her Unity makeup, she decided to walk into her studio pretending to be looking for work as a cleaning lady. No one recognized her.
- She would don similar makeup for her comic role as a Cockney washerwoman in Suds (1920).
- It wasn’t too unusual for actresses back then to show their skills in dual roles, but for an actress as renowned for her beauty as the world-famous Pickford it was a big risk.
- Teddy the Great Dane was in many Mack Sennett comedies (such as Down on the Farm, 1920) and film folk enjoyed borrowing him for their own films. Keep an eye open for his cameo the next time you watch Keaton’s Cops!