STELLA MARIS ( 1918 )
My Great Grandma, who I was very close to was born in March 1919, so I’ve always been fascinated in the period known as the Edwardian Era, which is the decade just before the twenties approached. This lapse of time began on January 1st, 1910 and ended on December 31st, 1919. During that ten years, there were an array of catastrophic events, including the sinking of the Titanic on April 14th, 1912, and World War I, that has always drawn my attention, and since hearing all about those disasters and my Grandma’s reflections of the era, I started to delve into the Edwardian period, or as some people refer to it, the 1910’s.
Many years ago when I first became passionate in classic cinema, I started collecting silent movies, and I was elated to discover that there were a treasure trove of films made in that specific decade of time, some of them featuring a few of my favourite stars, Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore and Lillian Gish to name a few, but because their films don’t really fit into the criteria of fashion, I thought I would do an article on “Stella Maris”, a film my Great Grandma loved and listed as one of her favorites. Shortly after talking to her about it, I was fortunate enough to attain a copy of it on DVD, and now I can see why she appreciated it so much. Because of my Grandma’s adoration for this film, I’m dedicating this piece to her. This is for you Grandma. I love you.
After the wide encomium and critical acclaim that she had received for her work in 1917, Mary Pickford decided to repeat that success with “Stella Maris” a film that would encourage her to step out of the boundaries with a more ambitious role that would epitomize her acting prowess.
Based on William John Locke’s successful 1913 novel, and written for the screen by Frances Marion, “Stella Maris” opened on January 1918 to high recognition, garnering Mary Pickford positive accolades for her performance, while director Marshall Neilan reached the pinnacle of his directorial efforts that would embolden him to work with Pickford in three more films, one of them having Pickford direct the entire production due to Neilan being chronically intoxicated.
Mary Pickford took on duel roles in this poignant tale about two girls who live in the same vicinity, but in totally different worlds. Stella Maris ( Mary Pickford ) is a beautiful young cripple, living with a family of opulence, who shield her from the harsh realities of life, while Unity Blake, also played by Mary Pickford is an unwanted and unloved orphan, who is subjected to the depravity of the world everyday.
During the course of the movie, Stella and Unity intersect. They are both in love with John Riska, a notable journalist who escapes his unhappy married life by visiting Stella in the quiet solitary of her bedroom. Eventually Stella undergoes an operation, and in a few years is able to walk. Now that Stella can venture out of the house, she comes to discover that life isn’t just filled with happiness from what she had known it to be, it also consists of betrayal, deceit and hatred, which makes her reflect on the evil existence of life.
When talking about fashion from the Edwardian Era, “Stella Maris” really depicts the trend of the day, representing the style of the wealthy and the poor side of life. Mary Pickford in the role as Stella wears frilly dresses with her hair adorned in curls, but once she starts to walk, her gowns appear more exquisite, and her hair glistens in the sunlight. During one seen she is seen wearing a long coat and skirt with a matching pom pom hat, a style that was strictly kept in that decade, and if worn these days would be considered old fashioned.
While most films exhibit the name of the costume designer, there is no mention on who designed the costumes for “Stella Maris”, but it has been said that to create the character of Unity, Mary Pickford’s teeth were darkened, her trademark curls slicked down and pulled into a tight bun, and her clothes suitably drab and tattered, but it was Pickford’s body language and facial expressions that made the transformation from “Little Mary” to Unity so effective. Her back curved from malnourishment, Pickford’s Unity carries herself like a dog who’s been beaten too much. Her eyes are downcast and look at the world sidewise, and she flinches from very human contact, revealing the years of verbal and physical abuse, and the constant disappointment she has endured.
The period between 1910 and 1920 were a rather transitional time for fashion. It was the days that the S-shape started to soften, and by the time that the 1920’s approached it took a dramatic turn. Women were flattening their busts and hips and unbinding their waists, which resulted in a long, slim line known as “Garçonne.” A March, 1924 issue of Vogue called the line “Tailleur Masculin.” Dress waistlines fell, starting out at about the natural line at the beginning of the ’20s and dropping to around the hips just a bit later in the decade.
When John Riska returns to his house one night, Unity offers him a ‘Sally Lun’ (sic). A ‘Sally Lunn’ is a type of bread, from Bath in the English West Country. The recipe is said to have come to the area courtesy of a French immigrant in the 17th century. It can be served sliced horizontally and toasted, with sweet or savoury toppings such as plain or flavoured butters, jam and clotted cream.
To test the makeup for Unity, Mary Pickford had to wander around the studio under pretense of finding work as a cleaning lady. She was delighted when nobody recognized her.
To allow Mary Pickford to appear on screen as Stella and Unity simultaneously, director Marshall Neilan and cinematographer Walter Stradling used a “split-screen” technique, exposing one side of the film then the other, to allow the same actor to play two roles in the same scene, a common enough technique now, but here one of the earliest examples if its use in a feature film. (Georges Méliès used both double exposure and matte shots to interact with himself in such early short films as Un homme de tête (1898), Le portrait mystérieux (1899) and L’homme orchestre (1900), while Lois Weber used split-screen in 1913’s Suspense to show two people having a phone conversation at the same time.)
Stella Maris: “How beautiful this world is – and how good.”
Stella Maris: “I no longer pity the blind! All the ugliness of life is shut away from them.”
John Risca: “We were happy until she could no longer control this habit. Then the woman in her died and she became a Thing – a beastly – cruel – Thing!”
Mary Pickford: Born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8th, 1892 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Died: May 29th, 1979 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 87.