Thanks to Christine of Ann Harding’s Treasures for recommending STELLA MARIS, a Mary Pickford vehicle from her favourite director, Marshall Neilan. This time, Pickford doubles the winsomeness in a dual role, which might cause the more ringlet-averse Shadowplayers out there to fear diabetic complications, but needlessly –
In the titular role, Pickford plays a rich, paralysed girl who dreams of a fairy-tale world beyond the bedroom to which she is confined. Her aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Blount (ever wonder what the B. in Cecil B. DeMille stands for? No, no one ever does, but it’s Blount) have protected her from the world’s wickedness. Bruno Bettelheim may speak of the Uses of Enchantment, but the fairy tales Stella has been weaned on are devoid of poor people, suffering, jeopardy, and any hint of want. As a result, Stella is a fantastic drag to have around for her first few minutes of screen time, playing like Pickford to the power of infinity, a one-woman apocalypse of goodness and innocence annihilating all in her path.
BUT — balancing this sickly tsunami of sweetness is little Unity, a cockney “orfant” raising by chubby nuns but handed over to a vicious alcoholic to act as skivvy and whipping girl. Her life is as great a torment as the limpid Stella’s is bliss (being paralysed doesn’t dampen our Stella’s spirits, not one jot) and Pickford rises to the challenge of transforming herself out of all recognition: it’s as if playing the uber-Pickford in one half of the film absolved her of the burden of prettiness elsewhere. Unity is lipless, shapeless, with one shoulder higher than the other, and her every movement is painstakingly constructed from minute pieces of cringing and cowering. If she had a forelock to tug, she’d tug it till her head came off.Stella will learn something of life and Unity will attain some happiness, but brilliantly the film doesn’t exactly do this. First, Stella gets an operation to restore the use of her legs, which threatens to remove the one interesting cloud in her otherwise tediously sunny existence.
“That’s Gustav Von Seyffertitz,” I say, recognizing the chief surgeon.
“Is she in safe hands?” asks Fiona.
“She’s in Seyffertitz’s hands.”
The prospect of
America’s Canada’s Sweetheart running about on fully functional legs, dispensing sunshine in all directions has me nervous.
Meanwhile, Unity is beaten unconscious by her adoptive mother, then rescued by the woman’s husband who takes her to live with the Blounts. But (1) Stella and Unity barely meet, saving on splitscreen and relieving us of a predictable plot turn and (2) Unity’s life gets WORSE — ignored by the Blounts, pushed around by the servants, and in love with her adoptive father.
I would defy even a modern audience to predict exactly where this one goes.
Meanwhile there’s a gripping subplot involving Teddy the Wonder Dog, who appears courtesy of Mack Sennett. Teddy plays Teddy, Stella’s faithful hound, forever discomfited by the arrival of fresh pets — bunnies, kittens, what have you — at his mistress’s bedside. The final straw is the delivery of a tiny, frou-frou pooch, who Teddy clearly views as a diabolical usurper. One morning, spying the intruder at Stella’s garden table, he leads the canine co-respondent out of the garden and turns it loose in the street. Then he calmly resumes his place at Stella’s ankle.
Later: Stella is sunk in gloom because now that she can walk, she’s discovered that the world isn’t such a pretty place. She’s read a newspaper, met a poor person, and discovered that her beau has a drunken wife. But Teddy doesn’t know this. He presumes her distress is caused by the missing doggie, and Neilan brilliantly lets us know this with an effects shot literally illustrating what’s on Teddy’s mind. As he always does in the Mack Sennett shorts he’s famed for, Teddy the Wonder Dog must Save the Day.
Fiona is very impressed by this. “That’s exactly what a dog WOULD think. ‘This is something I’ve done.’” Dogs may not recognize themselves in mirrors, as chimpanzees do, or play video games with skill and focus, as pigs do, but they do feel shame and guilt. We taught them that. We’re brilliant.
“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Fiona concluded. She then suggested I write this review entirely in cockney, but I haven’t, swelp me guv’nor.