As I’ve already noted, Stella Maris is — in many ways — a very old-fashioned movie, especially in terms of its story. Its main character, Stella (Mary Pickford), is one of those people from fiction of that era suffering from a form of non-specific and very picturesque paralysis — you know, the kind that doesn’t even hint at the less decorous aspects of the condition or the effects it has on the body. And, oh yes, it’s the sort infirmity that can be taken care of with one of those completely undefined operations by a wunder-surgeon (Gustav von Seyffertitz) that will fix her right up. (At least the movie has the sense to present some form of physical therapy, if only of the walk-her-around variety.) She also lives a wholly sheltered existence where nothing of the ugliness of real life intrudes — her world is all flowers and a basket of bunnies (literally). Plus, there’s a nice family friend, John Risca (Conway Tearle), who dotes on her.
Unfortunately, Risca — unbeknownst to Stella — is trapped in a loveless marriage with an abusive and just plain mean alcoholic, Louisa (Marcia Manon). This is actually what drives the plot of the film — and brings the hapless orphan Unity Blake (a very glammed down Pickford minus her trademark curls) into the proceedings. Tired of her maids quitting on her, Louisa adopts the girl with an eye toward making her a slave. (Adoption seems to be as easy as divorce is hard in the world here — and that may well have been true at the time.) With unadorned melodrama it quickly transpires that Louisa nearly beats Unity to death — and gets sent away to prison for three years, which may dry her out, but scarcely improves her mood. Feeling guilty about Unity, Risca, of course, adopts the girl himself. It is only a matter of time till the two Pickfords meet and Stella starts to get a dose of reality. Similarly, Unity will fall hopelessly in love with Risca (she’s so plain and so…working class) and Louisa will get out of prison and…well, complications and a jaw-droppingly irresponsible ending.
Yes, it’s melodramatic nonsense — and I haven’t even touched on the truly boneheaded subplot where Stella’s faithful dog (Teddy the Sennett Dog) jealously leads Stella’s new Pomerianian astray and suffers a crise de conscience. So why am I recommending it? Well, first of all, it’s surprisingly compelling as entertainment — even at this late date, and even if the ending is cringe-worthy. It’s also remarkable filmmaking — remarkable to the degree that you get caught up in it, and caught up to a point where you forget that you’re watching a silent melodrama altogether. Now, that is truly filmmaking.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Stella Maris Sunday, July 12, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.