Here are two movies built around strong female characters, neither of whom is a cinematic vamp, though both are losers in life’s lottery.
Each film follows all the conventions of their respective eras but then goes beyond that to deliver riveting performances and a timeless story that still grabs you today.
To avoid spoilers in case you haven’t seen Stella Maris (1918) or The Goddess (1934), I can only say that both films are psychological thrillers from a feminine perspective, and both have hair-raising violence at the end – oh, nothing graphic when compared to today’s splatter porn, but hair-raising, nonetheless.
You may already know this, but while exploring the Internet Archive, I learned for the first time that Hollywood did not hold the patent on silent movies. Sergei Eisenstein was not an exception – people were making movies in many countries back in the day, and one of those is today’s first feature.
The Goddess is the story of a Chinese prostitute and her struggles to support herself and her baby.
When this movie is mentioned, erudite film-lovers start talking about the pinnacle of Chinese silent movies and the leftist school of film makers, etc., but you don’t need to know anything about that. I didn’t and really enjoyed the movie.
It could be made today in any city of the world and win awards. It’s that good.
Lingyu-Ruan, as the title character (in Mandarin, the word for “goddess” also means “loose woman”), has many emotional moments but plays them with tight control until the very end.
She can also very believably switch gears from walking the street as a hardened hooker to being a mom and cuddling her baby in the morning when she returns to her one-room apartment. It’s a wonderful performance!
Zhizhi Zhang plays his role as an underworld boss so well, you’ll hate him, but also pity him a little bit.
I don’t know the name of the actor who played the school principal, but he is very good at portraying a decent man in a harsh world, especially in the scene where he wordlessly shows his inner struggle while making a tough decision.
Don’t let the Chinese titles worry you. Whoever uploaded this to the Internet Archive not only added a soundtrack, they also put in English title cards at a few crucial points so you’ll know what’s going on (though like most good silent movies, the story itself is conveyed directly by movements and facial expressions which mean the same thing all over the world).
Here is The Goddess.
OK, this movie is rightly famous as Mary Pickford’s masterpiece (as well as for the special effects – she plays both main characters who sometimes are together on the screen and it’s believable, even when done with 1918 FX).
Still, I wasn’t sure whether to put it before or after The Goddess.
The 1934 film hits you hard because of the realism of its world, which is something Stella Maris lacks. Pickford’s film is set in storybook land, though it isn’t fantasy.
This difference could be jarring for somebody who watches The Goddess first, if not for the totally realistic way Pickford plays Unity Blake, the loser who is really the central character. As a film blogger wrote:
Based on a novel by William J. Locke, with a screenplay from the legendary Frances Marion, Stella Maris is a story very much in the tradition of Charles Dickens—and if you regard Dickens as highly as I do, you know that’s not a bad thing—filled with melodrama, improbable coincidences, shameless moralizing, biting social commentary, and grim depictions of alcoholism, child abuse and grinding poverty.
Unlike most of Dickens, though, there’s no happy ending, at least not for the character we care most about, and 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.
That performance, as well as the unique special effects, have a powerful impact – there’s just no way any other film can follow it in a single sitting.