Mary Pickford double dose in ‘Stella Maris’
Poor Stella Maris. She’s a rich crippled girl who lives her life under the generous protection of her wealthy aunt and uncle. They keep her propped up in bed in luxurious surroundings, shielding her from all the evils of the world. She is an angelic creature, exalted by everyone around her. The sign on her door reads:
All unhappiness and world wisdom leave outside. Those without smiles need not enter.
In fact, she doesn’t even know there are poor people or hunger or war in the world until after she is miraculously cured of her handicap and can walk.
But life is quite different for simple-minded Unity Blake. She is a young woman who has lived in an orphanage all her life, only to be adopted by an evil alcoholic, Louisa Risca, who just wants to use her as a servant. Louisa’s unhappy husband, John Risca, loves the saintly Stella, but feels a responsibility toward Unity when his wife nearly beats the girl to death for not bringing home the groceries.
While Unity lovingly takes care of John when he moves in with his fussy aunt, Stella is shattered when she learns that he is already married to the wicked Louisa.
Unity’s story is one of my favorite themes: Poor waif-like creature trying to make a way in this world against all obstacles. But what amazed me the most in Stella Maris is that Mary Pickford portrays this pathetic character so convincingly, with her head hanging low and her neck bent to one side. Her life is a stark contrast to Stella’s (also played by Pickford). Instead of being a physical invalid, Unity is a mental cripple who triumphs over hardships Stella has never had to face. And in the end, Unity performs the greatest sacrifice for the love she has never known.
The biggest fault I could find with Stella Maris is that the cuts from one story to the next were much too abrupt – a problem that could have been improved by more careful editing. But director Marshall Neilan’s handling of the story is brisk and taut. And the performance he wrings out of Pickford is nothing short of brilliant. If Oscars were awarded in 1918, she would most likely have won.
As a plus, the Milestone Video release has a terrific score by Philip Carli, which contributes enormously to the film’s mood and pace.
© Danny Fortune
Stella Maris (1918). Director: Marshall Neilan. Screenplay: Frances Marion; from William J. Locke’s novel. Cast: Mary Pickford, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Herbert Standing, Ida Waterman, Josephine Crowell