STELLA MARIS(director: Marshall Neilan; screenwriters: Frances Marion/novel by Francis J. Locke; cinematographer: Walter Stradling; cast: Mary Pickford (Stella Maris/Unity Blake), Camille Ankewitch (Louise Risca), Conway Tearle (John Risca), Ida Waterman (Lady Blount), Herbert Standing (Sir Oliver Blount), Josephine Crowell (Aunt Gladys Linden); Runtime: 80; Artcraft Films; 1918-silent)
“This tearjerker melodrama proved to be a big hit commercially for the popular silent star Mary Pickford.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This tearjerker melodrama proved to be a big hit commercially for the popular silent star Mary Pickford. Feeling that she lacked a formal education, Mary studied on her own with her close friend, the screenwriter, Frances Marion. She became interested in the Francis J. Locke novel brought to her attention during one of those tutoring sessions, thinking it would make a great picture. What is unique is that she plays a dual role. In one part she’s the attractive Stella Maris, born paralyzed and unable to walk, who resides in a wealthy London household, shielded from the horrors of the real world by her well-meaning but short-sighted parents: Sir Oliver Blount (Herbert Standing) and Lady Blount (Ida Waterman). They think it best for her not to see how others may suffer. She also gets a chance to show how unattractive she can look in her other role, as the unloved orphan Unity Blake. This role dismayed the studio boss Adolph Zukor. There is one scene where both are together, and this was accomplished by the method of double-exposure.
John Risca (Conway Tearle) is a well-known journalist and wealthy friend of Sir Oliver and Lady Blount, and a frequent visitor to see the bed-ridden Stella and her dog Teddy. He has been unhappily married for the last six years to Louise (Camille Ankewitch), a commoner with a nasty disposition due to her drinking problem. Stella is purposefully lied to about John’s marital status in order for her to think of everything only in ideal terms. She just thinks the world of him saying he is her ideal man, and is always playful during his visits.
Louise is separated from John because of her drinking problem and needs a servant for the house. She goes to the orphanage and brings Unity into her home. When Louise is drunk and Unity comes home without the groceries, after some kids stole her shopping basket, she severely beats the child. This results in her getting a three year prison term. To atone for what happened to Unity, John adopts her. He, at first, tries raising her in the Blount’s home, but they don’t want her there — they pity but don’t love her. They tell Stella she’s the new seamstress and prevent them from meeting, afraid that Stella will see the misery of others. They soon get John to take Unity to live with his Aunt Gladys (Josephine Crowell).
Unity falls in love with John because of his kindness, but realizes she never can be his. But she tries to get an education to please him and help herself. Meanwhile, Stella gets an operation and after three years she can walk again. She visits John and they fall in love, but she still doesn’t know that he’s married.
Disturbed that John moved out of the ‘castle’, Stella visits hoping to fix it up so that they can live there when they get married. But she is greeted by Louise, who was just released from prison. Stella is heartbroken at finding out that even John, whom she thought was her ideal man, had lied. She already learned that the world is full of misery by reading in the newspapers about murder and meeting beggars in the street.
Warning: spoiler to follow. Skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to know how the story is resolved.
Unity decides to repay John for his kindness by killing Louise. She writes him a note to get together with Stella. She then shoots herself, thereby the police think it was a revenge murder.
The film ends on a happy note. Stella finally realizes that happiness can only come from within and she marries John, not letting Unity’s self-sacrifice go to waste.
Undoubtedly the film is dated but for its time and the excellent way the film was crafted, it succeeds as a popular soap opera type of vehicle. Though by having Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” commit a murder, it was taking a risk with her popularity. Also its ethics and reasons for doing so can certainly be questioned, though the happy ending satisfied the public. Many film critics felt that this was the best role that Pickford ever had. Though the film was as heavy as goo, it was not without some passing historical interest.
REVIEWED ON 11/20/2000 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ