You could almost feel bad for Mary Philbin. A Chicago-born beauty, she’d been discovered by virtue of proximity, a childhood friend of Rebekah Laemmle, niece to Universal’s Carl Laemmle who loved nothing more than to give family and the family-adjacent a break. It didn’t hurt that she bore a passing resemblance to Mary Pickford whom Laemmle had in the fold for one magical year back in 1911. By the time of Stella Maris Philbin was one of the bigger names at Universal, having appeared in the successful Merry Go Round opposite Erich von Stroheim and most recently in the film that launched Lon Chaney into the big time, The Phantom of the Opera. She’d risen in part by attrition, others having left Laemmle for bigger salaries elsewhere, and had a reputation in the business for being merely a face without technique. Edward Sloman, who directed her in 1927’s Surrender opposite Russian acting legend Ivan Mosjoukine in his only Hollywood appearance, later told Kevin Brownlow that Philbin required “hard-riding direction,” a bracing phrase if you speculate about what that might have meant.
Psychological games on set were hardly rare, or old-fashioned. A DVD extra from some Francis Ford Coppola movie from the 1990s shows teamsters unleashed on ingenue Claire Danes, storming around her on the set, yelling and thrashing props until she produced tears. Coppola sheepishly regretted the tactic but called it necessary to get the shot. (Who knows, he may have inadvertently provided her with a lifetime “sense-memory” as countless Crying Face memes of her Homeland character attest.) Lon Chaney used similar methods on Phantom as the de facto director of all his scenes, frightening Philbin for real as the cameras rolled. All for the good of film (well, not all, with the lecherous director Rupert Julian and costar Norman Kerry pawing at Philbin every chance they got during that shoot). But Philbin’s no Danes and needed manipulating, and not just for waterworks, never having mastered the craft. It seems almost cruel then to cast her as the lead in Stella Maris, a dual role involving physical and emotional transformations of a kind that appeals to Oscar voters today. Plus, Mary Pickford had already turned the material into her acting triumph back in 1918, casting herself as the two primary characters whose fates are intertwined in the 1913 British novel by William J. Locke, making the most of her cascading curls as the bed-bound heiress of the title, and also playing Unity Blake, a household drudge with an ugly countenance and a beautiful soul.
To portray Unity, Pickford took a naturalistic approach, taming her hair, darkening her teeth, and downplaying her comeliness in other simple ways. But Philbin is unrecognizable in the role, hidden by a prosthetic mouthpiece and a truly terrible wig, a mask that does a lot of the work for her, or, as one review put it: “The star’s association with Lon Chaney has apparently inspired her in the neat tight art of putting on make-up.” When the 1925 version came out, reviewers couldn’t help but contrast it with the earlier success. Photoplay, for one, admitted the remake cannot compare to Pickford’s yet insisted it was not to be missed, its reasoning being Philbin, for “daring to sacrifice her beauty in the role of a deformed slavey.” Milton Moore’s photography also garnered praise—Variety calling his skillful double exposures “a revelation,” one in particular that allowed for Stella to bestow Unity with a tender kiss on the cheek. Sadly, that scene is part of nine irretrievable minutes missing from this new Universal restoration. An earlier scene of Stella passing in front of Unity uses a stand-in, fooling at least one critic into thinking the moment was further proof of Moore’s expertise.
Mostly, though, reviews were unfavorable, with Film Daily basically throwing up its hands at what comes across as more horror movie than melodrama about the great class divide: “Something is wrong with Stella Maris but it is rather hard to define exactly what it is.” Everyone took notice of supporting player Gladys Brockwell, however. In her early thirties at the time of Stella Maris, Brockwell had rebounded after being let go by the Fox studio when her stardom seemed assured. She transformed herself into a memorable character actress, taking roles as mothers (in 1923’s Penrod and Sam, in which Philbin also appeared) and a run of supporting baddies, her turn as the whip-wielding sister to Janet Gaynor’s tender-hearted waif in 7th Heaven yet to come. Here she plays Louisa Risca as a dark pillar of scowl, mistress of the house where Unity serves and sadistic architect of the poor girl’s pointless misery. Stella Maris is worth Brockwell alone, plucking her eyebrows as if they were her enemies, seething over an ash-laden cigarette, or, later, in a darkened room languidly draped in an armchair like a jungle cat who’s just devoured some nice fat prey. “Strikingly effective,” said Moving Picture World of her performance. “Character honors,” proclaimed Exhibitors Trade Review. Variety suspended its relentless bashing of director and cast—outright calling Stella Maris a “flop”—to tout Brockwell: “After seeing this girl in this picture, one pauses to ask why and wherefore of Pola Negri, Nita Naldi, et al. Miss Brockwell trouped around everyone else in the picture.”
Nearly all the principals involved in the production saw their movie careers fade with silents, including cameraman Moore. His credits begin in 1916, running through Victor Sjöström’s celebrated He Who Gets Slapped in 1924 and Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman, the same year as Stella Maris, followed by a ten-film collaboration with director Dallas Fitzgerald at Peerless Pictures, under Laemmle’s old colleague Jules Brulatour. Director Charles Brabin had a good run in programmers and gained prestige after self-financing his 1923 no-frills mountain drama, Driven, which critic Robert E. Sherwood said “atoned for a number of past sins.” Brabin’s remembered now, however unfairly, for marrying vamp-tress Theda Bara and getting replaced on two MGM pictures: Ben-Hur’s money-pit of a location shoot in 1924 and 1932’s Rasputin and the Empress after clashing with the mighty Barrymore siblings. Stella Maris was Jason Robards’s third feature and he had the longest career of all, albeit in mostly minor roles. He supported Warner moneymaker Rin-Tin-Tin three times in 1927 but never really broke through; as Robards Sr. he played bit parts on the big screen through 1950 and then in television after a lengthy bout with blindness. Stage actor Elliott Dexter had begun late in films and was already in poor health by the time of Stella Maris and his portrayal of John Risca turned out to be his last. Brockwell was nearly the exception. Her well-established reputation as a character actress and her early years on stage made her an asset as sound took over. She proved her worth in the Warner Bros. all-talking crime drama Lights of New York from 1928, an intriguing new niche for her talents. But it was not to be. She died in 1929 from a punctured appendix caused by a car accident five pictures into her Warner contract.
For a while Mary Philbin continued at the top of the Universal heap, playing opposite Conrad Veidt in both Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs and in The Last Performance directed by Hungarian import Paul Fejos. Her story goes that she and producer Paul Kohner fell in love, and he cast her with an eye for keeping her close. He also cowrote Love Me and the World Is Mine for her, directed by another European émigré, E.A Dupont. But Philbin was devoted to her controlling parents, pious Catholics who, it was said, refused to let her marry someone Jewish, and she and Kohner broke off their relationship after half a dozen years. She dubbed her voice in the 1930 rerelease of Phantom of the Opera, made two fully sound films, then retreated to her home in Huntington Beach where she lived out her days in apparent peace and quiet, never needing to work again. She died in 1993, at ninety years old, passing mostly unseen and even more rarely heard from, barely uttering a bad word about Hollywood or how she was treated.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne