Stella Maris (1918)

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  • directed by Marshall Neilan
  • starring Mary Pickford, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Herbert Standing, Ida Waterman, Josephine Crowell
  • Stella’s well-meaning parents shield her from the world’s harsh realities, while the unloved orphan Unity suffers abuse at the hands of her alcoholic employer.

Although Stella Maris never went far enough into exploring the concept, I enjoyed the idea of a girl, shut off to the world to the point she should be bordering feral, then having the veil lifted to reveal a confusing world of hate, hurt, and nuance. Poverty, starvation, crime and were thrust on Stella very soon after she gained the use of her legs and emerged from her bedroom; it was like catching an hour of Fox News after a lifetime of blindness to all that lies outside home. It was interesting to see such a young and ignorant mind try and work out the moral arguments and purpose of something as large as war. Stella was unable to process the complexity of the men they call soldiers who on one hand “fight for existence, for principle, and for the good of humanity,” while on the other quite simply destroy the lives of their brothers.

On the other end of the spectrum, it then makes perfect sense for her to come out of an emotional coma and immediately have feelings for the man that’s been there for her all along. But to reciprocate romantic feelings more than sullies John’s image as a sympathetic character in my view. There was no backbone or moral conviction shown by John and he just bounced around basking in the adoration from each and every character without a moment of strength or character to earn it.

As compelling as most of the titular character’s journey was, the main draw of the film for me was Unity and I viewed the film from her beaten down perspective much more than I did Stella’s. Walking around all haggard and desperate for love and attention, it was very easy to get onboard and sympathize with Unity, especially after the extremely brutal scene between her and the woman she thought at one point would be a mother figure. With the character of Unity, again the film was able to tap into the theme of the yin and yang as she grew up very much the opposite of Stella, surrounded by the very worst of humanity yet always carrying on and open to the idea of a better day.

Very surprising to figure out midway through that it was the same actress playing both Stella and Unity. I imagine that audiences at the time felt similar, unless it was publicized and known, or maybe somehow I’m less sophisticated in terms of film trickery than the 1918 public. It was a new concept at the time, though, and the special effects involved along with Pickford’s talent produced something that would hold up today in terms of believability. Pickford gave the two characters enough differences that I was actually staring at Unity on pause unable to find her anywhere in there. If the performance wasn’t convincing enough, Neilan seamlessly presented both characters on screen at the same time, with different heights no less—an impressive feat for the time.

The film had a thoughtful director in Neilan who toyed with the light inside and outside of Stella’s bedroom to draw a stark contrast and swing between illustrating either the positivity or darkness of the world beyond the residence. While paralyzed and closed off, Stella’s bedroom was a warm place bathed in an all-encompassing light, but when she retreats to the same room after her dreams have been crushed by Louise, it’s dungeon-like with the only streams of light coming from the outside.

Stella’s story, the physicality of Mary Pickford as Unity, and a great, near-demonic performance by Marcia Manon were the film’s strongest points for me.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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