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Fridays With Mary Pickford: Stella Maris (1918)

StellaMarisWe conclude Fridays With Mary Pickford and….I can’t say I ended up with a positive impression of her. As one of my friends said, Pickford was a trailblazer but her acting doesn’t quite withstand the test of time. Stella Maris wasn’t intended to be my entry into Pickford’s dramatic work but a lack of time necessitated watching what was available, so, here we are. Stella Maris has a Secret Garden vibe, detailing the story of two women – with a remarkable resemblance – and how happiness and goodness can be found in a cold, unforgiving world.

Stella Maris (Pickford) has been paralyzed for years, but her aunt and uncle refuse to dampen her cheery demeanor, intentionally hiding life’s horrors from her. Unity Blake (also Pickford) is a poor orphan who’s found nothing but cruelty. When Unity is adopted by John Risca (Conway Tearle), her and Stella Maris are brought together by their mutual love for John.

Stella Maris and Unity Blake are characters tailo-made for Pickford. One is a benevolent handicapped girl whose cheeriness rubs off on everyone who, in turn, want to keep her cheery as a means of making themselves feel better. (I might have had a slight problem with her character.) Stella Maris alludes about “if she ever walks again,” almost demanding that she’ll end up walking before the movie ends….which is precisely what happens.

As for Unity, her character is at the extreme right, – she’s an abused dog. A chance at being adopted leaves her with John Risca’s ogre of a wife (played by Marcia Manon), who nearly kills her for a slight infraction and ends up in the pokey for attempted murder. I was actually left shocked by the transformation Pickford undergoes. “Transformation” probably isn’t the best word, since Unity is Pickford sans flowing curls and makeup, but I was left looking at IMDB to find out who played Unity.

The identical strangers bit combines The Prince in the Pauper with the already developed Secret Garden tale. Both women are torn in their love by John Risca, but Pickford never goes up against Pickford. There’s a clear delineation, usually based on class, that almost immediately dictates Unity won’t have John by the end, an unworthiness that I didn’t really get behind. Both women are good, and would deserve a good man on principle alone, but considering the silent film times it’s through the benevolence of the poor that the wealthy can find each other. Interestingly, neither woman ever blames the other for loving John, probably because they’re the same actress and it would be weird, but it’s great that the film presents two women, with similar motives, who don’t see each other as enemies.

Mary Pickford does what she does: creating remarkably perfect characters who remain good and pure in an unjust world. Stella and Unity experience the world if black and white, with Stella introduced to gray. Stella, more than Unity, realizes life’s horrors and tries her utmost to put a band-aid on a bullet wound that is the world’s problems. WWI ended ten months after Stella Maris came out, and the film obviously comments on the sadness people were experiencing. Stella is the generation of children Americans hoped could be spared from learning about the current situation, while Unity represents those mired in the current problems with no way out. It’s only in the two working together that the evil Louise – or fascism – can be defeated.

There’s so much melodrama that it’s practically a series of St. Vitus dances. Almost all the characters are known through their full names. I anticipated someone dropping dead if Stella Maris was referred to as Stella. And Louise literally turns into a “beast” through drink, although we’re never sure if she’s meant to be common because she drinks or drinks because she’s common. I’m assuming the two traits go hand-in-hand because Louise, complete with lazy eye and menacing glare has nothing passing for a soul. Her beating of Unity looks like the witches in Haxan (1922), just hulking beasts with wild hair flying.

Stella Maris works best as a history lesson about cinema’s weariness about WWI. On its own merits, Stella Maris is a perfect representation of silent cinema and Mary Pickford, so if you’re interested in either it’s worth your time.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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