STELLA MARIS (Marshall Neilan, 1918, USA, 84m, BW)
Cast: Josephine Crowell, Mary Pickford, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Ida Waterman, Herbert Standing
Director: Marshall Neilan
Writer: Frances Marion
Running Time: 84 min.
Stella Maris (Mary Pickford), paralyzed since birth, lives in an opulent mansion and has virtually no knowledge of the outside world. She adores her frequent visitor John Risca (Conway Tearle), a journalist stuck in a loveless marriage to Louise (Marcia Manon). After Louise viciously beats her maid Unity Blake (also Pickford), she is jailed, and Unity too falls in love with John. The two young women are hopelessly enamored of the same man.
Stella Maris is a 1918 American silent drama film directed by Marshall Neilan, written by Frances Marion and based on William John Locke's 1913 novel of the same name. The film stars Mary Pickford in dual roles as the title character and an orphan servant. The film was remade in 1925, with Mary Philbin in the title role.
Stella Maris (Mary Pickford) was born paralyzed and is unable to walk. Her wealthy guardians try to prevent her from being exposed to all the bad that is happening in the world. She is not allowed to leave her room in a London mansion and is bound to her bed. Her door even has a sign on it which says: "All unhappiness and world wisdom leave outside. Those without smiles need not enter." Stella has no idea a war is going on in the world and that there are poor and hungry people.
John Risca (Conway Tearle) is a well-known journalist and a friend of the family. He has been unhappily married to Louise for six years now and frequently visits Stella. John wants Stella to think he is perfect and lies about being unmarried. Louise, meanwhile, wants a servant in her house and hires orphan Unity Blake (also Mary Pickford). Unity is uneducated and has been deprived and mistreated for her entire life. This resulted in her being afraid of everyone.
One night, a drunk Louise orderss Unity to get some groceries. Unity does what she is told and on her way back, the food is stolen by kids. She returns to the home only to be beaten by an outraged Louise. Unity is severely hurt and Louise gets arrested. It is announced she will have to serve three years in prison. John is kinder to Unity and adopts her. Unity is very grateful and falls in love with him. John himself is only interested in Stella. John wishes Unity to be raised at the Blount's residence, but they don't want her. They prevent her from meeting Stella, fearing Stella will notice there are suffering people in the world. They finally convince John to raise Unity at Aunt Gladys' house.
In order to make John fall in love with her, Unity starts to educate herself. Meanwhile, Stella gets an operation and is able to walk after three years. She meets John and they fall in love. One day she decides to give John a surprise visit. Louise, who has just been released from jail, opens the door and tells Stella the truth about her marriage. Stella is heartbroken upon learning that he lied to her about his marriage. Feeling betrayed, she tells John to leave her alone and refuses to talk to her family upon seeing how much sadness and pain are in the world.
Meanwhile, Unity uses one of John's suits and pretends he is asking her to marry him. When he comes home heartbroken over losing Stella, she tries to busy herself with work. As she hears Aunt Gladys' concerns about John's inability to be free to love Stella while Louise lives, Unity realizes she and John can never be a couple. At her relatives' home, Stella reconciles with them and comes to the realization that while there will be sadness and pain in the world, there are also joy and happiness that follows it.
At Aunt Gladys' home, Unity writes him a note which she thanks him for showing her kindness and says he should get together with Stella. She secretly grabs a gun from a gun collection and settles the score by killing Louise for the pain she inflicted on herself, Stella and John. She next kills herself, making the police think it was a revenge murder as her troubled history is well known even to them. 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.
The title character in the tragedy Stella Maris (1918) is a beautiful invalid whose paralysis keeps her locked away from the world's realities. Confined to a bedroom in the gracious home of wealthy aunt and uncle Lord and Lady Blount (Herbert Standing and Ida Waterman), Stella (Mary Pickford) is visited regularly by her devoted friend, journalist John Risca (Conway Tearle) who also grows to love the girl. John has problems of his own, namely his troubled marriage which he keeps a secret. Though enraptured by Stella, he is unable to separate from his vicious wife Louise Risca (Marcia Manon), a formerly decent woman who through alcohol and drug addiction has become a monster.
Stella Maris is most remarkable for Pickford's radical transformation from her usual delicate, long-tressed beauty into the pitifully hunched urchin Unity. But the transformation is more than skin deep. Pickford manages to make Unity's craving for love as believable and heartfelt as Stella's distress at all the real world horrors her aunt and uncle have shielded her from. In one memorable scene Stella is approached by a woman begging for food for her hungry children and Stella is appalled that such a reality could exist outside the tranquil gates of her family's estate. Pickford first discovered William J. Locke's novel of Stella Maris during an informal tutorial in literature her friend, screenwriter Frances Marion, had arranged to help Pickford improve on her humble education. The film was later remade in 1925, with Mary Philbin playing the dual role of Stella and Unity.
Pickford recounted in her autobiography that when Adolph Zukor visited the Stella Maris set during production, he was horrified at seeing his valuable, enormously profitable star in her Unity Blake costume. It was only because Zukor was away from Paramount in 1917 that Pickford even considered undertaking a transformation as un-glamorous as the one from beautiful silent heroine to Cockney guttersnipe -- a very novel dual-role performance for the cinema of the time. Not only is Pickford's performance marvelous (some have called it the best of her career), but director Marshall Neilan and cameraman Walter Stradling expertly pull off the impression that these are two different people through their brilliant use of double exposure techniques.
It’s difficult to believe that Stella and Unity are played by the same actress, so completely does Pickford transform herself when playing Unity. It’s not just in the drab clothes and flattened hair, but in the way Pickford seems to shrink in on herself, displaying a crooked smile and tilted head, nervously plucking at her plain clothes. Stella is Pickford in more typical mode, with her luminous smile and voluminous curls backlit to present an angelic image. She’s very good in the split-screen sequences in which she shares time with her screen alter-ego. Too often in these scenes there’s something un-coordinated about the movements of the subjects, but in this movie the two characters really seem to be occupying the same space.
The storyline is typical Victorian yarn – an early 20th-Century chick flick – but that’s not the fault of the movie, simply a symptom of the era. Cinematographer Walter Straddling (who would die of pneumonia before this movie was released), working under Marshall Neilan’s direction, captures some picturesque moments, and makes good use of natural light in the exterior scenes. While the movie belongs to Pickford, she’s aided immeasurably by convincing performances from her supporting cast, particularly Conway Tearle and Marcia Manon.
Pickford is just plain brilliant in playing these two women (and yes they share a few scenes together). Stella is pretty much standard fare for Pickford: golden curls, white frilly dresses, etc. Unity is a marvel of invention with her crooked body, crooked smile, and long dark hair. It's hard to believe this is Mary Pickford. The film itself uses the iris shot beautifully to show what characters are thinking. The fade outs are well done. The scenes where the two Pickford characters appear together are flawless. Of special note is a gorgeous shot of Unity approaching the camera for a closeup, but in the end only her eyes show up in a deep purple tinted scene.
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