Stella Maris (1918)

Film Review

STELLA MARIS

Release Date: 21 January, 1918

Studio: Mary Pickford Film Corporation

Director: Marshall Neilan

Starring: Mary Pickford, Conway Tearle

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

Stella Maris, who is unable to walk, lives with her aunt and uncle in luxurious seclusion, sheltered from knowledge of the cares and troubles of the world. John Risca, her aunt's cousin, visits frequently and tells Stella Maris fanciful stories about his castle, but not of his alcoholic and disagreeable wife Louisa, from whom he is separated. Stella undergoes an operation on her spine that will enable her to walk.

Unity Blake lives in an orphanage. Her misaligned face and body conceal a warm and loving nature. Unity is adopted by Louisa, John's wife, to help her with the housework. One day when Unity comes home without the groceries, an enraged Louisa beats her with a poker. Unity is hospitalized, and Louisa is sentenced to three years in jail. In recompense, John adopts Unity, and they go to live with his Aunt Gladys.

Three years pass, and Stella Maris begins to walk. Leaving the isolation of her home, she encounters people and situations that she did not know existed. She learns about unpleasant aspects of the world, such as poverty, greed, war and killing. Her illusions are not completely destroyed; she continues to believe John's fanciful stories of his castle. During these years, Unity has been happy with John and Aunt Gladys. She has been valued and sheltered. Secretly, she has fallen in love with John.

Her sentence complete, Louisa is released from prison. She goes to live with her estranged husband John in their old house. However, John does not wish to see her because she has become thoroughly vicious and vindictive. Stella Maris, wishing to make John's castle a home for the two of them, visits his house. She is surprised that it is not a real castle, and she is wounded to the heart when she learns that he has a malicious and degraded wife living there. Having lost all her illusions, Stella is now thoroughly heartbroken.

Winter comes, and John Risca is in despair. He and Stella Maris are separated as long as his wife lives. Unity also loves John and decides to release him from his unhappiness. She goes to his house and shoots Louisa and herself. John and Stella Maris honor her devotion and sacrifice. When spring comes, the lovers are united.

Discussion

This bittersweet film features Mary Pickford - at the time one of the most famous film stars in the world - playing two characters: sweet, innocent, and beautiful Stella Maris, and playful, friendly, unattractive Unity Blake. Pickford, who often played spunky, determined, and resourceful characters, shows considerable acting range in her two roles. An unusual aspect of the film, and a departure from Pickford's wholesome screen persona, is the use of cold-blooded murder to amend a situation that might otherwise be settled in divorce court. The film attempts to justify the murder as a noble act of self-sacrifice, with Unity giving up her own life and hopes of love in order give happiness to John.