--- ACTORS: Mary Pickford, Ida Waterman, Conway Tearle, Herbert Standing, Marcia Manon, Josephine Crowell
--- DIRECTED By: Marshall Neilan
--- PRODUCED By: Pickford Film
--- FILMING Location: Busch Gardens, Pasadena, California, USA
--- YEAR Produced: 1918
--- RUNNING TIME: 84 Minutes, B&W, Silent with music score
--- Region 0 (Playable Worldwide), NTSC-format DVD
After her critical and commercial triumphs of 1917 made Mary Pickford the most popular—and most powerful—actress in the world, she opted for an even more ambitious project, a dual role that would push the boundaries of both special effects technology and her talent as an actress.
The resulting film, "Stella Maris," the story of an orphan girl struggling to find love and acceptance in a cruel and indifferent world, was a resounding success with both audiences and critics, and ensured Pickford's place as the most popular actress of the silent era.
"Stella Maris" is based on a novel by William J. Locke, with a screenplay from the legendary Frances Marion. It's a story very much in the tradition of Charles Dickens, filled with melodrama, improbable coincidences, shameless moralizing, biting social commentary, and grim depictions of alcoholism, child abuse and grinding poverty.
However, unlike most of Dickens, there's no happy ending. While some might call "Stella Maris" a hokey Victorian melodrama, it's a hokey Victorian melodrama of the first water, a riveting story from beginning to end, and featuring the best performance of Mary Pickford's career.
The film opens on the first of Pickford's two roles, that of young Stella. Orphaned in childhood and paralyzed by a mysterious ailment, the beautiful, cheerful Stella lives in a carefully-constructed world created by a wealthy aunt and uncle, "unaware of sorrow, poverty or death." Her aunt and uncle, a houseful of servants, a dog and most importantly, a distant cousin, John Risca (Conway Tearle), attend to Stella's every need while cautiously sheltering her from life's harsh realities.
Although Stella was a typical Pickford role, - the perky girl with the curls that America had fallen in love with - the movie is really about Pickford's second character, Unity Blake, an "ugly duckling" with no swan in her future.
In stark contrast to Stella's life of sheltered luxury, Unity has grown up in a grim orphanage, unwanted and unloved, and inured to life's disappointments. Through the course of the story, Unity learns many of life's harshest lessons: pretty people flock together; character doesn't trump position, power or money; and regardless of how well we play the hand we're dealt, the game ends the same for everybody, - just sooner for some than for others.
To allow 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.
Upon its release in January 1918, the film was an immediate hit with both critics and audiences. Variety called the performance "a revelation," the Los Angeles Times deemed it "brilliant, powerful and poignant" and studio chief Adolph Zukor, who was initially horrified when he visited the set, later called the film "the most remarkable thing which Mary Pickford has ever done for the screen."