It is hard to think that I have had this weekly column on silents for some months now and have barely mentioned Mary Pickford. Considered to be one of the first super stars, Mary Pickford was a national phenomenon. Like other mega stars of the silent era, she was known for playing one type of role: the adorable young girl forced into unfortunate circumstances, but providing comedy along the way. These roles made her insanely rich, but also instilled a fierce independence in her. She wanted to known as an actress and not just as a cultural phenomenon, so she tested her audience by taking on new challenges that showcased her range. Stella Maris is a great example of a challenge she excelled at. In Stella Maris she plays two girls, one a sheltered naive cripple, and the other a down and out orphan who gets beaten up by her new “mother.”
Unity, the orphan, is the highlight of the film. Scrappy, unpolished, and unloved, Unity goes through horrible events in her life without the slightest want of anything different. She is neglected, forced to do maid work, beaten, and eventually gives up her life in order to save her unrequited love, but she still smiles, jokes and has a good time on-screen. She is endearing in every way. The same can also be said about Stella Maris for different reasons.
Stella is a beautiful young girl in love with a striking young man. She loves flowers, young children, animals and pretending. Her parents refuse to tell her anything about the real world or the truth behind the many visits from the striking young man. However a doctor finds a cure to her sickness, and she is made to walk again and realize that the young man does not live in a castle, is in fact married to an alcoholic drug addict who beat her adopted daughter, Unity. This realization crushes her but only momentarily. Finding out things are exactly the way she dreamed them to be does not ruin her goodness and her want to be kind to everyone including Unity.
What makes this film unique is how complete and distinct Mary made both of these characters. Unity has a simple hairstyle, coarse demeanor, a flat-footed walk, and an inability to express full thoughts and feelings. Stella on the other hand looks like the supreme example of what a woman should be and act like. Her language is flowery, her walk (when she is finally able to) is light, and her expressions are one of ultimate beauty. I could point to several scenes in the film where the contrast is most evident in the demeanor of the characters but if you haven’t seen the film than I would never be able to express how truly different they are. There is a uniqueness to Mary Pickford’s ability to express her feelings that I think a lot of little girl wonders (like the Gish sisters for instance) sorely lack. She is a wonder to watch, and I hope to review some more of her films soon.