American Movie: Stella Maris (1918)

Pickford’s mega-stardom during the ‘teens and ‘twenties rested on much more than her pretty face. She was also a performer of considerable skill, as she proved with her dual role in Stella Maris. In the film, Pickford plays both the beautiful, invalid title character, and plain, orphaned waif Unity Blake. On top of a fabulous make-up job, Pickford assumes a heavy disguise of mannerisms, postures, and expressions that render her unrecognizable. She disappears into character, and without a cast list I would never have picked her out as the same actress.

Stella Maris, like many serious feature films of its day, is a romantic melodrama with undertones of contemporary social commentary. Based on a 1913 novel of the same name. Stella Maris is, of course, Latin for “Star of the Sea,” and is one of the many titles frequently associated with the Virgin Mary. The film’s Stella lives a very sheltered life under the protection of her wealthy aunt and uncle, the Blounts. She has been paralyzed from the waist since birth, and her guardians, wishing only to protect her, have never told her about things like death, poverty, and war (even the ongoing Great War). A sign on her bedroom door reads, “All unhappiness and world wisdom leave outside. Those without smiles need not enter.”

Drawn to her rosy personality is local journalist John Risca, a man unhappily married to Louisa, an abusive alcoholic and drug addict. Louisa, looking for some household help and unable to keep employees, adopts young Unity from the local orphanage. Sometime later, Unity is sent out for groceries, but they are stolen by a gang of roughneck children. The loss sends Louisa into a violent rage, and she beats the poor girl unconscious. Fortunately, concerned neighbors call the police and Louisa is sent to prison. Feeling responsible for the girl, John adopts her and they live together with his maiden aunt, where Unity finally begins to feel accepted for the first time. Meanwhile, Stella’s aunt and uncle have found a surgeon who believes he can operate and restore her ability to walk, in time.

Three years pass. Unity has worked diligently on her education in hopes of impressing John, whom she has grown to love. Stella has learned to walk and her romance with John is flourishing, but this has also taken her outside of her own four walls and exposed her to the evils of the world. It seems that she was not only crippled physically. In the midst of this, Louisa is released from prison, determined to make trouble for our heroes.

As a silent melodrama, Stella Maris certainly feels a bit quaint in spots, but it has held up surprisingly well considering its age. Filmed with great energy and artistry, there is a maturity in the quality of the production; a solid realism in the locations and a sophistication in the camerawork. It is also always a little surprising to see certain themes and issues dealt with in old movies that pre-date the Production Code. For instance, witnessing Louisa’s addiction, including drug paraphernalia, and having a major character commit murder as an integral part of the plot. Both of these are elements that would have effectively disappeared from the screen less than 20 years later, not to return for decades.

The movie’s greatest strength, though, is in the exploration of the dichotomy between the lives of its two main characters. Unity is a sweet, but deeply wounded girl who immediately captures and holds our sympathy. Her subplot is the most compelling, largely because of the incredible strength of Pickford’s performance. The best thing about Stella’s story is its examination of the way our lives are enriched by experiencing sorrow as well as joy, with her paralysis as an extended metaphor of how her guardians’ poor choices are preventing her from living a whole life. Late in the movie, Stella despairingly moans, “I no longer pity the blind! All the ugliness of life is shut away from them.” John quietly replies, “And also its beauty.” How true.

~ by Jared on August 27, 2008.

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