This month we are looking at female pioneers of the silent era. Last time out we started off with Lillian Gish and her masterpiece The Wind. Today we go to one of her best friends and the second winner of the Best Actress Academy Award Mary Pickford. Pickford was one of America’s sweethearts for over 25 years and her importance to film as we know it is unparalleled. Today we will be looking at her 1918 film Stella Maris which saw Pickford play two roles.
Mary Pickford background
Mary Pickford was Americas Sweetheart, she was the most famous actress in the world and would remain so for 20 years. Taking on early child roles was the best and possibly the worst thing to happen to her. She became stuck playing a slightly different version of the young girl. Each time she would play the role to perfection, improving every time as an actress and becoming more and more known to everyone. But there was a price to this.
Such was Pickford’s fame that when she did not look how she did in her films young girls would cry as their hero was in fact just fake. This caused Pickford to purchase eighteen false ringlets, on the off chance that if the weather was too humid that it might make her “Golden Curls” fall limp. The same supposedly happened when she manicured her nails. A child exclaiming that she was a young girl at all, but a woman (which she was). This caused Pickford to trim her nails to keep with her persona.
A terrible crutch to bear, but one that Pickford decided to for the rest of her career as she focused on being the brand and keeping her fans happy. Knowing this, she would continually look for the best deals for herself from Studios eventually creating United Artists with DW Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, William S Hart and Charlie Chaplin. This allowed actors and directors to make the films they wanted and get it released. Eventually, Pickford and 35 others became the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The only Actress in the group.
With the increase in “Talkies” stars like Pickford fell out of favour. They were deemed to be like the good girls that they portrayed. With studios unwilling to risk making them become vampish as the newer talking stars had become. In the early 1930s, Pickford retired from acting, turning to producing instead. This can only be seen as a shame to cinema as her roles in films such as Stella Maris, showed that she had a greater range than maybe even she believed she had. She could have survived and thrived in the talkies era, but like many others, she moved away from the screen.
Stella Maris is a young woman who is an invalid and thanks to her relatives have been kept indoors her entire life, to help Stella remain positive about the world, despite War and poverty happening all around her. Ever guardians over protectiveness cause even visitors to Stella to convey a life of happiness. One such visitor is John who has developed a flirtatious relationship with Stella, despite being married (something he hides from her to spare her feelings).
Meanwhile, at John’s home his cruel alcoholic wife Louisa has taken in orphan Unity to be their new housemaid due to the city’s housekeepers refusing to work for her. When Louisa is jailed for multiple years for abused poor Unity. Both Unity and Stella separately begin to fall in love with him and try to prove that they can live a life with him, to grave consequences for one.
Stella Maris is almost stereotypical in its melodrama, something Pickford would not totally remove herself from for her entire career after realising the value within her “brand”.
The direction assists greatly in helping the audience see how great Pickford’s performance is here. By going back and forth between the two continually we are constantly witnessing how truly different these two characters lives truly are.
For all of the acclaim that Pickford rightly receives for Stella Maris, Conway Tearle is equally as terrific. While he has to act like the world is fine around Stella (and to him, she is making the world better) he also has to handle being in an abusive marriage and deal with Louisa’s consequences of adopting poor Unity.
A great scene between John and Unity is when she is cleaning around the house and breaks something. Immediately because of the abuse she has received all her life, she lies about it and when John finds out that she has lied, she winces, awaiting the punishment. Instead, he comforts her, both surprised at the other’s reaction. It is a great moment. Just sadly for Unity, it is more a paternal moment than romantic.
A lot has been made about the ending of the film, but to me, it makes sense for the characters to do what they did to a point. I understand Unity sacrificing herself to rid John of Louisa so that he and Stella should be together. John never shows any romantic interest in Unity, only as mentioned, paternal. Unity sees that towards the end of the film and because he has shown her kindness finally in her life, she wants to see him happy and does what she does. Should she have done it? Possibly not, but her letting John and Stella be together is the right choice. It should be noted that this was an adaption and not something that the filmmakers could drastically change.
Frances Marion returns to this blog series with another adaption credit. She really was in a field of her own during this time. The novel has a lot more going on and Marion was able to expertly streamline it for a feature film. How we miss such talents now.
Stella Maris was a calculated risk for Pickford, she knew she could potentially alienate her audience with Unity, but had the chance to gain tremendously from it if audiences latched on to both characters. The risk truly did pay off.
It is fairly obvious that Pickford wanted to try and branch out a little from playing the young girl in her feature films. While there is no apparent need for Unity and Stella to be played by the same person Pickford does so with gusto, an attempt to show the wide range she has to her wide and devoted audience. What better way to show your skills as an actress than playing polar opposite characters in the same movie?
By keeping her core audience pleased by playing the “perfect golden curled girl” in Stella, Pickford was able to them take risks with her performance of Unity. By playing both characters at different heights was a great touch as it allowed her to show Unity being worn down by life, almost constantly hunched with a twisted spine due to malnutrition with her hair constantly pinned up. It may be a simple trick but it is still a very effective one. At times you would not think these were the same actress and that is exactly what Pickford wanted.
Unity was Pickford’s chance to remind the world that she could play a dramatic role very well and she does so with great ease that it is truly a shame that she did not do it more. Unity is intensely physical throughout the film with her mannerisms and actions. Nonstop movement. Compare this in contrast to Stella who is loose, fluid and happy. Unbelievable work from Pickford.
Apparently, her methods and techniques to change into Unity caused a lot of concern on the studio lot who thought that Pickford was throwing away her career for artistic integrity. Pickford was able to bring some of her known comedic talents to Unitys role, such as her daydreaming of walking with John, by merely using his coat on a coatrack. It is simple things like this that help brings the audience to care for Unity and hurt more when she decides to take actions into her own hands.
Again, it has to be mentioned that not only how different Stella and Unity are, but how their arcs are also polar opposite, one has to adjust to a world where pain and suffering expectantly exists whereas the other has to deal with the pain and loneliness she has already endured all of her life and to try and improve herself so she can be with the one she loves. To play such starkly different roles and arcs take a lot of effort, but to make sure that she does not undercut the importance of either character and make one or the other the focus of the picture is a very hard scenario to juggle.
Stella Maris helped Mary Pickford show the world that she had terrific range as an actress, something she would prove when she would play on stage to prove a point to directors and studio heads. It is a must-watch and a great start point into her career.
Mary Pickford wore many hats in Hollywood, world-famous actress, a producer, a studio head and a founder of the Motion Picture Academy. For all intents purposes, she was the most powerful woman in Hollywood, not very many if any other women have wielded the power she did. It should be remembered how much influence she has had on Hollywood as it seems even Hollywood itself has forgotten.