January 9, 2011

Stella Maris (1918)

This week's film was a little bit confusing.  The main actress, Mary Pickford, played both the title role of Stella Maris and the role of the homely orphan girl Unity.  I'm not quite sure why she played both roles actually.  At first I thought maybe it would turn out to be a "twins separated at birth and joyously reunited at the end" type of story, or perhaps something along the lines of "The Prince and the Pauper".  But this movie is neither.  The two characters are only connected through a shared relationship with one John Riska.  This part was slightly confusing, as I think I missed the explanatory title plate.  For most of the movie I was under the impression that they were cousins, but by the end I knew that was not the case.  Apparently he was the cousin of Lady Blount, the woman taking care of Stella Maris, though why she was being cared for by people unrelated to herself is still a mystery.  There was always a great affection between Stella Maris and John however, as Stella Maris always referred to him as the Great High Belovedest - a title which Robin now wishes to be known as by me.

Stella Maris is sheltered from the outside world and protected from all things remotely ugly or unpleasant.  Her life is literally sunshine and roses, whereas Unity's is the exact opposite.  Perhaps that's why Mary Pickford played both roles; to better illustrate the harsh differences in the lives of these two women.

Getting back to the plot, Unity comes into John's life in a much more dramatic fashion than Stella Maris does.  She is "adopted" in a manner of speaking by John's wife, Louise, to work as a maid since the hired help keep leaving.  Louise is an evil alcoholic, and at one point after Unity returns home empty handed from a shopping trip (the groceries having been stolen by other kids) she cruelly beats Unity with a hot ladle from a soup tureen.  For this crime she is sentenced to three years in prison, and John Riska, feeling a need to atone for his wife's actions, properly adopts Unity.  Unity then falls in love with him, perhaps as a result of his kindness; nobody had ever shown her love and kindness before, so he became the natural recipient for her affections.

Three years pass, during which Stella Maris (who was crippled at the beginning of the film) gets a surgery and learns to walk, which was all glossed over and reeked of plot device.  Now that she can walk she begins to see the real world in all of its ugly glory, but since she was never prepared for the harsh reality of the world she doesn't know how to cope with it.  Meanwhile, the evil Louise is released from prison and wants to get her revenge on pretty much everyone.  Somehow (again with the confusion) she finds out that John and Stella Maris are in love with each other and makes it her mission to break Stella's heart (Stella Maris is unaware that her Great High Belovedest is married).  She nearly succeeds.  When Stella learns the truth she distances herself from John and both sink into a deep depression.  John is on the verge of committing suicide when Unity realizes what is going on.  She knows that even though she loves John, she will never have him and moreover she is fond of Stella Maris, and wants her to be happy.  The only way the two can be together and happy is if both Louise and Unity herself are no longer in the picture to obstruct the happiness of John and Stella Maris.  So in tragic heroine fashion, Unity kills Louise and then herself so that John will be free to be with Stella Maris.

I was reminded rather forcibly of the original "The Little Mermaid".  Much as I love the Disney version, it's not as powerful or poignant as the original.  In the original the little mermaid is deeply in love with her prince but when she realizes she can never have him and that he's in love with another, she sacrifices herself so he can have happiness.  That's exactly what Unity did, and like the prince in the fairy tale, while John is saddened by her death he doesn't seem to grasp the true significance of her action.  It is perhaps this lack of understanding that makes Unity's actions so much sadder.

One bright note I wish to point out though is the dog, Teddy.  Apparently this dog was very famous and acted in 53 films during his lifetime.  And yes, I meant to say acted, because that dog ACTED.  It's crazy, but he made facial expressions and had comedic timing worthy of the greatest.  The biggest laughs during this movie always came from Teddy.  I've never seen a more talented animal actor before.  :)

I'm still not a big fan of silent movies because I think you miss a lot by only having pantomime and a handful of words to tell a story.  But this particular story is pretty timeless and I think if it got remade in a modern way with updated characters I would definitely go see it.  This movie was actually based on a book, so perhaps I'll track that down in the library and see how it compares.

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