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STELLA MARIS has got to be one of the great silent films. Superstar
Mary Pickford plays two roles in this seemingly sentimental tale (but
it's not). She plays the lovely but crippled Stella Maris, whose family
works hard to hide the ugliness of life from. She is shielded from the
world because she is crippled. But of course her family doesn't do her
any real favors. Eventually Stella is able to walk, and she discovers
the horrors of war and crime and poverty by herself.
Pickford also plays Unity Blake, a homely and misshapen orphan who is taken from the orphanage by a cruel and drunken woman (Marcia Manon) who eventually beats her and goes to jail. Sent back to the orphanage, Unity is "hired" by the cruel woman's husband (Conway Tearle), but he is enamored of beautiful Stella Maris.
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.
The ending is haunting. Superb work.
This is a lovely little film, another Mary Pickford film that has been
long available to cherish as an artifact from a long forgotten era
beautifully preserved by the Mary Pickford Institute. Most silent fans
would perhaps think of Pollyanna, Rebecca or Sparrows as being her best
work but I would put this one in there too, not only for her acting but
also the production.
She plays Stella Maris - a cripple who has been completely and tenderly shielded from The World by her Uncle and Aunt, so has a few shocks when she's finally able to walk and process information for herself. She convincingly plays Stella Maris complete with pretty curls glistening in soft focus and dripping elegance. She also convincingly plays orphan girl Unity Blake adopted by the man she loves, the more elderly looking and well-chiselled John Risco (Conway Tearle). The problem was of course that rich Risco had previously married a "commoner" with a drink problem like many in the original cinema audiences perhaps one of the peripheral familiar messages here being that when the working class is teetotal they're likely to be as faithful as dogs to their masters and mistresses. Even to the death. For the plain girl Unity she plastered her hair with Vaseline and walked lopsided as though she had had to carry children for years so well that her mother visiting the film set was worried that she was turning into Unity, and also had to tell a worried Adolph Zukor that the character died early in the picture. In fact, these are 2 of Mary's finest performances ever, and in the one film. There's some nice languid photography, sometimes pretty inventive with great tinting throughout, overall engrossing stuff for 1917, and augmented in the Milestone Films release with a fantastic orchestral music score by Phillip Carli.
The 84 minutes are well plotted (even with a couple of large implausibilities, the largest being just how fast and hard the Law dealt with Mrs Risco for her violence) never drag and are additionally clean and decent would that it could still be the same for these speedier earthier techno times! If you really like silent melodrama you must see this fine romance.
Lovely, crippled STELLA MARIS lives like a princess, sheltered
from all of the world's unpleasantness. Orphan Unity Blake,
the other hand, suffers under life's harsh hand. These
young women are fated to be brought together with tragic,
America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, even though a tremendous movie star, had always been bothered by the fact that show business had kept her from acquiring a normal education. She asked her dear friend, screenwriter Frances Marion, to tutor her. One of the books they read together was "Stella Maris" by William J. Locke. Mary quickly saw the novel's cinematic possibilities.
What startled the studio bosses was Mary's determination to play the parts of both Stella and Unity. She was sure this could be achieved convincingly. For the role of Unity, Pickford wore makeup that negated her pretty features, learned to stand & walk awkwardly & even insisted that she be photographed mostly using her right, less photogenic, profile. The effect was most believable.
The result was a triumph, professionally, artistically & at the box office. Mary tugged at the viewer's heartstrings, but never crossed the line into cheap mugging or maudlin histrionics. She earned her accolades with genuine, sincere emotion & pathos.
Frances Marion's screenplay allowed both of Mary's characters to share some screen time. Double exposure would produce a special effect that puzzled & delighted contemporary audiences.
Although Mary dominates the film, mention should be made of Conway Tearle who ably plays the strong, sensitive man who loves Stella; Marcia Manon is very effective as his brutal, alcoholic wife; and Josephine Crowell scores in another of her matronly roles.
After years of neglect, STELLA MARIS is available on video to enchant whole new generations of Pickford fans.
This is a fine old silent melodrama with an outstanding dual performance by
Mary Pickford, certainly one of her greatest accomplishments. The story
itself is quite good, and the rest of the cast is solid as well, but it is
Pickford who holds your attention from start to finish with a wonderful
portrayal of two very different characters.
Both of her characters are wonderful creations, and Pickford's portrayals bring both of them to life convincingly and memorably. Stella and Unity have vastly different appearances, life experiences, and personalities, and Pickford even gives them distinctive mannerisms and expressions. This allows the story to bring them together seamlessly in a plot that itself offers good, thoughtful drama and some good comic moments as well. You quickly come to care for both Stella and Unity in different ways, and feel for them as they learn some often difficult lessons about life.
While probably little-known today, "Stella Maris" is a terrific movie, one of the best of its era. If you enjoy silent films, you'll probably find it well worth the trouble to track down.
If you have never seen a Pickford film, this Artcraft Production is a
perfect introduction to the star's versatile talents. In her dual roles
Stella and Unity she displays a range and depth of emotions hardly seen in
films of this era.
Pickford was drawn to this story immediately after screenwriter Frances Marion suggested she read the novel. Pickford's labor of love in getting this book to the screen is evident in every scene. Art Direction and sets are superb--subtle yet surprising and stylish, even smartly humorous at times. It's a fine production throughout and, astonishingly, even the special effects hold up well today.
Mary Pickford would likely have won that year. If you didn't know that
Stella Maris and Unity Blake were played by the same actress, you
probably would not guess that they were. Stella Maris has been
paralyzed her entire life. Fortunately, her family is wealthy so they
can give her the best of care. However, she is still bedridden. Her
relatives feel so sorry for her that they keep all bad news from her,
and with her only seeing the beauty of nature visible from the
spectacular view of her bedroom window, and with her only encountering
the kind souls that enter the world that is her room, she has grown to
young womanhood knowing nothing of the ugliness of life.
In contrast, Unity Blake is an orphan at an orphanage and is a very plain girl on top of everything. Louisa Risca, a drunken woman with a drug habit to boot, adopts Unity as a servant girl who won't/can't complain about her habits. It's quite touching when Unity first thinks she's getting a mother and instead realizes that instead she is just a servant, and an indentured one at that. The common thread between Unity's and Stella's very different worlds is John Risca (Conway Tearle), husband of Louisa and frequent visitor of Stella Maris. At the insistence of Stella's aunt and uncle, John has never told Stella that his wife is an addict or that he is even married for that matter.
One day, in a drunken rage, Louise beats Unity to the brink of death over a mistake the girl has made in doing the marketing. Not even John's connections can save Louise from doing three years in prison for this deed. Meanwhile, a prominent European surgeon restores Stella's ability to walk and she is now able to explore the world - the whole world - with all of its ugliness as well as its beauty. John Risca makes Unity his ward to compensate in his own way for what his wife has done. Thus Unity, for the first time, gets to see some of the beauty in life. Thus the worlds of these two girls collide with very interesting and powerful results - I'll let you watch and see what happens.
This is very sophisticated story-telling and acting for a 1918 film. If you are disappointed at all, please remember this film was made just three or so years out from a time when comedy mainly consisted of pants kicking fests and drama of maidens being tied to railroad tracks. Of course the greatness of this film lies not only in Mary Pickford's convincing portrayal of two very different people, but in Frances Marion's adapted screenplay, Ms. Marion being one of the great writers for the screen in the silent and early sound eras.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Stella Maris is one of those movies that left me deeply touched and
troubled at the same time. It is amazing to see the heights that the
silent cinema had reached by 1918.
I would never, ever, have recognized Mary Pickford as the disheveled Unity Blake. It just goes to show what body language, facial contortion, a little makeup and above all ACTING ability can do! Stella Maris certainly ranks as one of Ms. Pickford's finest works. She plays both Stella and Unity with equal aplomb. Marcia Manon is wonderfully devious as Conway Tearle's alcohol and drug-laden wife. One feels sorry for her early in the film, then comes to despise her later on. Her look of pure relish when Stella stumbles, shocked and heartbroken, from her house is a classic.
Speaking of classics (and I DID say "spoilers" are included!), the night scene of Unity stalking Louisa (Manon) is one of the best-filmed and best-lighted sequences I have seen on film in ANY era. Walter Stradling's cinematography simply astounds me especially considering the time period. This was just three years after Birth of A Nation! Marshall Neiland and Stradling show a remarkable grasp of their craft and, of course, Pickford is Pickford. The rest of the cast is solid and the special effects are remarkable for the period.
As others have said, this would be a fine introduction to Mary Pickford, as well as to silent dramas in general. Thank goodness Lillian Gish and others convinced Ms. Pickford not to destroy her films! We would be so much poorer today, had she carried out her plan of having them destroyed after her death. Nearly 90 years later, this is still a movie that touches the viewer and one that shows an art form at its pinnacle.
Mary Pickford (as Stella Maris) is a beautiful, but bedridden,
paraplegic; she "has been tenderly shielded from all the sordidness and
misery of life." Ms. Pickford (as Unity Blake) is, also, "another
little prisoner of fate, 'The Ugly Duckling' of a London orphanage."
Pickford's "Stella" lives luxuriously, with Aunt Ida Waterman (as Lady
Blount) and Uncle Herbert Standing (as Sir Oliver Blount). Dashing
cousin Conway Tearle (as John Risca) is a gentleman caller, and future
love interest. Mr. Tearle is rather unfortunately married, however, to
alcoholic Marcia Manon (as Louisa Risca). Ms. Manon visits the London
orphanage, and espies Pickford's "Unity". Apparently, she has arranged
to adopt "Unity" as a servant (should the waif be able to find her way
to Manon's home). Upon arrival, "Unity" is treated as a slave; and,
after nearly beating "Unity" to death, Manon lands herself in the
pokey. Soon, Tearle is left responsible for "Stella" and "Unity"; and,
both of Pickford's crippled women fall in love with him. Who will he
The predictable "Stella Maris" story is somewhat poorly told. The events, and time frames given, make for an incredibly disjointed storyline. If only events were more fully explained; for instance, how is it that "Unity" is adopted (or, re-adopted?), hidden from her lovely lookalike's open portals for so long, and gets romantic with her adopted father? And, he, remember, is still married, and courting his cousin? Perhaps, the confusion could be ended with a re-fashioning of the film's title cards. Small details, like the spelling of characters' names, are likewise inconsistent. It's odd that an otherwise obviously fine production should suffer from more than a few distractions.
"Stella Maris" is, however, redeemed by its incredible performances; particularly those essayed by Pickford and Manon. Pickford's "Unity Blake" is utterly riveting; and her "Stella Maris" is no slouch, either. The contrasting roles, directed by Marshall Neilan, really allow Pickford to show her incredible prowess as an actress, rather than as a personified "star". It may be true that Pickford was able to play "Unity" without repercussion, because audiences could also have her lovely, curled "Stella". She is so good that an unenlightened viewer (who misses an occasional title card) may not believe Pickford was playing both roles. Pickford delivered many fine performances, but "Stella Maris" may be THE one to show a Pickford detractor. Certainly, Mary Pickford was a 1918 "Best Actress", for her dual role; and Marcia Manon's addicted, sadistic wife was the year's "Best Supporting Actress".
********* Stella Maris (1/21/18) Marshall Neilan ~ Mary Pickford, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Ida Waterman
The early silent film "Stella Maris" provides a double dose of Mary Pickford for her fans as she plays both the title role of Stella Maris and that of another young girl, Unity. Ms. Pickford skillfully differentiates the two characters and is convincing as both young women. Stella Maris is a rich, bedridden young woman who has been shielded from the reality of life by her parents, and Mary Pickford plays her as the quintessential Pickford heroine in lacy frills, long curls, and winsome glances. However, Mary loses herself in the part of Unity, who is an orphan that has been buffeted by events and hardened by life. In this second role, Pickford appears without makeup, with her hair straight and tightly pulled back, and dressed in plain cotton dresses, and she excels in creating a character that is entirely different from her usual screen image. In fact, if the viewer were not told in the inter-titles who was playing the role, she would be nearly unrecognizable. The film cuts between the lives of the two girls until they intersect, and the few shots that show Mary playing a scene with herself are quite effective when the age of the film is considered. Production values throughout are at a high standard for the time as befitting a Mary Pickford vehicle, and the acting for the most part is more naturalistic than many silents of that era, although at least one actress does emote in the grand style. Conway Tearle, however, appears too old and stodgy for modern tastes to be a convincing object of young women's affections, although 90 years ago he may have been a matinée idol since tastes do change over time. "Stella Maris" is a sentimental tale and seems targeted at a young female audience in a simpler, more naive period. However, film history buffs will enjoy what is an excellent Mary Pickford showcase and a fine example of first-class film-making from the post World War I era.
Mary Pickford, that gamine of silent movie cinema is showcased in what might have been her best performance. Being nary a fan of her performance, I think this high praise indeed. I believe if there were the Academy Awards in those early days of cinema, she clearly would have worn it. She did win one in 1929 for Coquette which is just terrible, at least from a modern perspective- static camera movements and broadway like staging undermine any goodwill. Like much of today's actresses who win Oscars eg Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, the make up artist deserves high praise. The dsiparity between Unity and Stella is so convincing that when using technology of the time, they are placed in the same shot together, it is startling to wonder how it was acheived. The story is a classic melodrama about a man with a slightly crazy,evil and alcoholic wife who is bewedded to. There is Stella, a cripple whom the horrors of the world is shielded from and there is Unity, an orphan who has experienced the worst of the world and is almost bitten to death by the crazy wife, sending her to jail and making her husband in a case of pity and symphathy, Unity's guardian. Stella learns to walk after an operation and lives her sheltered enclosure to experience the hubris of life, learning about poverty, murders and other human evils. This shatters her. She and Unity are both in love with the kindly and gentle man. Lest to say for love to survive and conquer all, certain sacrifices are made. This is obviously a first rate production with grand art direction and gorgeous cinematography setting the mood but there are aspects that derail the movie including the inefficient rationalization of Stella's awakening. It is handled rather patly and not psycologically probing. I also found the the man character rather bland and boring as effused. The director's symbolism is rather thick especially the use of the cat and a dog to express the disharmony in the world. All in all, a dynamic performance by Pickford as Unity and a fairly rousing Victorian denouemwnt and resolution make it a see. It might help if you knew it was a huge box office smash surprising studio bosses.
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