A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1918 – Stella Maris
Here’s something fun to talk about. This one’s not so much about the movie as much as it’s about the star system. One of the most important parts of film history and classical Hollywood.
When films began, you really had no idea who was in them, and people weren’t even credited. Most people didn’t even differentiate the faces in the film, only watching the characters. But then, at a certain point after 1908, right when D.W Griffith started his run at Biograph, people began to notice a certain face appearing in a lot of the films. She was Florence Lawrence. And Biograph, refusing to give out her name, caused people to simply refer to her as “The Biograph Girl.” Which was basically the early version of the “It” girl. She became insanely popular as The Biograph Girl, and eventually built a career out of that popularity.
Now, cut to Mary Pickford. Mary Pickford started working for Biograph, playing bit parts and lead roles, depending on the films, from age 16. Very quickly, she understood that film acting was a different style than stage acting, and as such turned in naturalistic performances. Making her a favorite of D.W. Griffith. Not only that, with the amount of films that were churned out, she was playing all sorts of roles – different races, ethnicities, social types. In one week, she could play a slave, an older matriarch, and a prostitute.
After a few years, she started to understand the way the business worked. She realized that studios were starting to capitalize on her fame, even though it was really her the people were coming out to see. So she learned how to cultivate her own star power. Eventually she managed to become one of the first stars to have their name above the title on theater marquees. And she realized that, instead of letting the studios dictate what roles she played, if she got creative control, she could hire her own writers, choose her own stories, and essentially mold exactly the type of screen persona she wanted. Which is a story you see time and time again with actors in the 30s and 40s. Think of Clark Gable, playing gangsters in the early 30s, until he broke through in It Happened One Night and got so big, he could essentially play whatever he wanted. Or someone like Cary Grant or Fredric March, who became so popular, they weren’t forced into studio contracts and could take work on a freelance basis.
So Mary Pickford started making sure she had the control over her own image. And by 1916, the two biggest stars in the world were Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. And even then, most people thought that if Chaplin were the bigger star, it was only barely. Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart. She had an essence of purity about her (which is exactly what the Soviets were trying to steal in 1964, until General Ripper set them straight), and used that cultivate her image and become a real power player in Hollywood. It’s actually quite impressive.
Watching a Mary Pickford film, you see the kind of image she was going for. She made Daddy Long Legs the year after this (which was turned into the Fred Astaire musical in 1955, by the way), which is a film separated into two halves. The first half is Mary’s misadventures as a schoolgirl (getting into comic adventures around the orphanage), and the second half is essentially a romance, with her (ten years later… naturally she plays completely different ages) falling in love with her mysterious benefactor. She was always making sure her parts were wholesome, likable, and showed off her beauty. But, she also made sure she showed off her acting talent as well. Which is what we get in today’s film.
Stella Maris is a great example of the kind of star power Mary Pickford had.
It’s a film about two girls – Stella Maris and Unity Blake. Stella Maris is a beautiful girl who was born paralyzed. She’s very rich, and is clearly a great person because she’s played by Mary Pickford and always has about six pets around her and is always playing with them. (If you want people to be likable in a silent movie, have them play with pets.) She is not allowed to leave her room, because her parents feel this is how she can maintain happiness. She has no idea World War I is happening and that there are people living on the streets. Things like that.
Meanwhile, there’s Unity Blake, who is an illiterate orphan who has been beaten and put down all her life. We see how horrible her life is, and how everyone seems to mistreat her. She’s also very plain looking. Basically the antithesis of Stella. And she ends up being adopted by a guy, who coincidentally is a friend of Stella’s. And both girls are in love with him. And Unity starts to better herself and learns to read so she can be with him, even though it’s clear he’d rather be with Stella. And then Stella gets an operation to that helps her walk again. And then it ends with Unity sacrificing herself by killing the guy’s wife (who had beaten her earlier), so he can be with Stella, since she realizes he could never love her.
So the rich white girl gets the guy, but the poor one has to die. The kicker, though – both girls are played by Mary Pickford. So at the same time, Mary gets to play sweet and wholesome, but also plays plain and downtrodden. And you end up liking both characters. You like Stella because she’s pretty and is Mary Pickford, and that’s star power all the way. But Unity you love because you just want to see her succeed, and she’s so likable even though bad things happen to her. And it’s pretty much all performance and Mary Pickford disappearing into the role. Which is pretty great, how she can both create a screen persona that is so much like Stella Maris, but also at the same time put in some good work as Unity Blake. Not many people would go out of their way to do that with her kind of power.
Oh, by the way, a postscript on how awesome Mary Pickford was. She used her power to promote a lot of causes. She raised money during World War I, she started the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which raised money for actors who were in dire straits financially. She also built a hospital for providing healthcare to people in the industry. Keep in mind… all of this was done before she turned 30. She also, along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, joined together to create United Artists, which was their way of saying, “We’re going to make movies outside the studio system, driven by content we want to make.” Because studios had all the distribution power of that day. So they used their star power to say, “Okay, try to force us out. We’re the biggest names in Hollywood, and we’re making our own films independently. Just try to keep them out of theaters.” She really was the first superstar of film. And that was an era when the star was worth way more than they are today.
So, all of those reasons are why Stella Maris was the choice for 1918. It perfectly represents what was going on within Hollywood at the time, the emerging star system and the increasing power of actors over the studios, which the studios soon realized and tried really hard to control over the following three decades.