Mary Pickford, in the 1910s and '20s, was famous on a level which it's truly difficult to contextualise in the modern era. It's lazy and smacks of nostalgia to talk about how they don't make movie stars like they used, but in a ruthlessly pragmatic sense, it's also completely accurate: the kind of culture of outright adoration that led publicists to declare Pickford the most famous woman in the world simply does not exist any more, and all the tumblrs and all the blogs can't put it together again. The scale of Pickford's fame - second only to Charles Chaplin in the late '20s as the single most recognisable face in the movies - can perhaps be judged by the observation that she's still well-known, after a fashion; the name "Mary Pickford" can suggest even to a casual fan of movies some impression of an old-time movie star, while contemporaries like Mabel Normand and successors like Norma Shearer, each hugely popular in their way, are likely to be met with a blank stare. Pickford, as much as anyone to ever live, defined what being a movie star meant, and as long as there is some level of historically-minded admiration for the art form, her place in the firmament will never yield.

Now, like so many stars to attain that level of stratospheric success, Pickford didn't just want to be famous and adored by her fans; she wanted to prove that she was an actress. And this is something that her producers did not discourage, the line between "celebrity" and "talented person" being more porous at that point in Hollywood's development than it is now; or perhaps it's more than talent tended to be defined in terms of what celebrities were capable of. The point being, Pickford began to take a very active role in developing and deepening her acting portfolio, a process that would culminate in the founding of United Artists; but that came later than the point we have reached in 1918.

For it is here that Pickford starred in what is perhaps the most daunting of her roles, and certainly the one that offered the most opportunity to show off. The film was Stella Maris, with Pickford playing the title character, a role not at all far from her small but defining run of playing children; but it was also conceived in this version as a double role, allowing Pickford to play, essentially, the two most widely disparate characters she could without having to change her age, race, or gender in the process. Having not read William J. Locke's source novel, I cannot say if this concept is burned into the material, or if it was simply layered upon the story at Pickford's insistence. Certainly, there's nothing in Frances Marion's script that requires the two women be played by the same actor at all, save for a single line of dialogue about how they vaguely look like each other. Which, in the end, is almost entirely frivolous: one of the most jaw-dropping things about Pickford's physical performance and makeup is that Stella Maris and Unity Blake don't resemble each other, to such a degree that even knowing damn good and well that they were being portrayed by the same person, I sometimes couldn't persuade myself that it was actually true. It is, I think, an open question as to whether or not Pickford's performance in either case is objectively and timelessly "Great", but she surely achieved the one thing she desired, which to show off range the likes of which very few performers have ever demonstrated in a single film, even when playing a flashy double role.

The plot, meanwhile, is the most unapologetically melodramatic hokum that Victorian sensibilities could kick off; in many particulars, it feels like something written by an author who felt that the biggest problem with Charles Dickens was his icy lack of sentimentality. Stella Maris, we find, is a young lady without the use of her legs, who has been raised by her relatives Lady Eleanor (Ida Waterman) and Sir Oliver Blount (Herbert Standing) in a beautiful house in London, and her overprotective guardians have dedicated themselves with unyielding commitment to the singular goal of making sure that she never encounter anything unhappy or troubling about the world. She is kept locked in her bedroom where nothing sad can touch her, to such an unrelenting degree that not only is she unaware that there's a war happening in the world at that very moment, she appears to be totally unaware that such a concept as "war" even exists. She certainly doesn't realise that there are people in the world like poor Unity, an orphan who has been beaten and abused every day of her wretched life, culminating in the dirty trick of being "adopted" by the selfish and cruel Louisa Risca (Marcia Manon), a violent alcoholic who has earned such a rotten reputation among the city's housekeepers that the only way she can keep a maid is by plundering orphanages. Louisa's journalist husband John (Conway Tearle), meanwhile, is a great friend of the Blounts who has begun to develop a more-than-friendly relationship with Stella, telling her grand stories of his life as a knight in a castle, and steadfastly refusing to so much as mention the existence of his wife.

Things come to a head when Louisa is sent to prison for three years after having beaten Unity in a particularly severe manner after the girl had the day's groceries stolen by a gang of mean kids. A distraught John immediately commits himself to raising the girl and making up for his wife's dvii behavior; this makes it extremely difficult for the Blounts to keep her, and the obvious fact of her miserable existence, away from Stella. Meanwhile, a deeply grateful Unity has fallen in love with John herself. Time passes this way, Stella receives surgery restoring the use of her legs, and eventually Louisa is released from prison; it's hardly any time after that, that she finds Stella and spills the whole sordid affair to the girl, demolishing a cheery worldview that has already begun to crumble, and ruining many lives in the process.

All silent movies make certain demands on the viewer to adjust not merely one's artistic expectations but one's understanding of social codes as well; this is part of both the challenge and the fun of watching silents. But even by the standards of films from the World War I era, Stella Maris feels like something that came from another planet. The gender politics are freakish: having been persistently lied to by John Risca over the course of years for the sole reason that he is sexually attracted to her and knows that the truth would drive her off, there's still never any whisper of a suggestion that Stella won't or shouldn't forgive him at the first possible moment. The class politics are even worse: it's implied, and almost stated outright, that the biggest reason that Louisa transformed from a loving wife to a shrill drunk, or as John puts it, a "thing - a beastly thing" is because that's just what happens when members of the lower class marry above their station; let us also think of poor Unity, who is in no way less deserving than Stella and has unquestionably suffered more, but whose utility to the story is almost exclusively SPOILER ALERT FOR A 96-YEAR-OLD MOVIE that she understands that Stella and John ought to be together, and that her natural purpose to ensure that is to heroically and selflessly sacrifice her life to get Louisa out of the picture,

It is, I think, objectively the case that one should not let presentist tendencies get in the way of appreciating old art; but that's harder for Stella Maris than a lot of the films from its era. Still, if you can peer around its somewhat ghastly sense of ethics, there's a lot of the movie that's impressive, even without bringing Pickford into it; it's not the kind of silent film that stands out for the sophistication and forward-thinking of its filmmaking, but for the elegance with which it executes something very standardised. Anyone who has seen more than a couple mid-period silents will recognise every trick Stella Maris has to play: the introduction of characters, one at a time, in single shots intersperesed with explanatory title cards; the use of close-up shots to the main character to convey her expression above and beyond the action depicted; proscenium-style staging of scenes that are then broken into two-shots to emphasises conversations that we aren't able to hear. There is one hugely ambitious and exciting dolly shot at the very end of the movie, but it is otherwise a largely static affair; it is, on the whole, an excellent example of the narrative continuity editing that American filmmakers were quickly codifying into law while the European aesthetics of the pre-war era were trapped in those nations' reeling response to the war as it wound to a close.

That all being said, director Marshall Neilan (whose work I am otherwise unfamiliar with) does a fine job of communicating within the strict style he's encouraged to work within, and one of the things that primarily strikes me about Stella Maris is how fully it commits to the melodramatic excess of its narrative without recourse into broad theatricality; it is melodramatic without a moment's apology, but in a constrained, cinema-friendly register.

The one possible exception to that is Pickford herself, whose performance is actually quite cunning for how superficially tacky it seems. To distinguish between Stella and Unity, Pickford does not merely rely on make-up, though that alone is quite stunning: it was apparently of no small consternation to the studio heads that Pickford was so hellbent on letting herself go "ugly" for the role, and it is certainly the case that her look as Unity makes her look unusually plain and drab for a movie performer, but not in the garish way that usually signifies movie unattractiveness; it's more that she's simply unremarkable and commonplace, a person that you'd never pass by and say "wow, she's ugly", because she looks so anonymous that you wouldn't like say anything at all. It's a longstanding failure of Hollywood's image-obsessed approach to womankind that this sort of thing tends to count as "brave"; it is, though, undeniably striking and a great way to quickly and emphatically distinguish between the two women and the undoubtedly different ways that their looks have determined the way that they have been treated throughout their lives.

But I have lost the thread, which is Pickford's performance. She could easily have relied on the makeup to do her acting for her, as hundreds of descendants have done; but to her credit, she made a strong and consistent effort to distinguish between her two parts physically as well. What this means, in practice, is that she plays Stella as a typical Pickford heroine; glossy, hopeful poses and smiles that could level an army with their devastating charm. Unity, by contrast, she plays using the kind of abstractions that have come down as the typically hammy kind of gestural acting that everyone assumes silent films were lousy with, even though they rarely actually are. She desperately presses her hands against her face and recoils with exaggerated mousy deference; she trembles so much you're afraid she'll vibrate her atoms right into another dimension. This should be irritating, but somehow it works; possibly because the striking contrast between Unity and every other character (it helps to compare to Manon, playing the only other overtly melodramatic role, and surprisingly scaling back from the grandiose vamping that her makeup and costuming seem to insist upon) insists upon her singularity and her inability to fit in anyplace, and this is the driving truth behind the whole plot. And also, Pickford doesn't solely rely on this trick; there are moments of greater and lesser subtlety, for by all means this star above all stars knew how to thrust an audience into spasms of emotion using a sufficiently plaintive expression (it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that Pickford herself primarily invented the style of face acting that would dominate the '20s, or at least was the vessel by which it was normalised).

The result is a film that looks handsome and tells its story cleanly, but mostly does everything in its power to showcase the woman at the center of it all. Its melodrama is not now and was not in 1918 appealing primarily in and of itself; it was appealing primarily because it was happening to Our Mary, who survived it with rather considerable aplomb and strength of character, as she was wont to do. And this was what star vehicles throughout history have been designed to do, though Stella Maris stands out for the skill with which it accomplishes its task. For it is indeed one of the best showcases for Pickford's talent and considerable screen presence that I have seen, and one of the most confident melodramas of its era. Given how outlandish it is in every imaginable respect, the stateliness of the direction and the commitment of its actress are vital to keeping it working; and its does work like nobody's business, the kind of relentless tearjerker that doesn't give a damn if you approve of it or not, and is for that reason thoroughly involving.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1918
-Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner open the Warner Bros. studio in Hollywood
-The first of many film adaptations of Tarzan of the Apes is released
-The first entry in the Fleischer cartoon series Out of the Inkewell premieres

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1918
-Dziga Vertov's Kino-Week newsreel series begins in a civil war-torn Russia
-Ernest Lubitsch emerges as a major film director in Germany with The Eyes of the Mummy Ma
-Tih Minh, the last of Louis Feuillade's great serials, begins