The English Mary Pickford

Stella Muir – the ‘English Mary Pickford’ – was born in Scarborough in 1902, but soon moved to Leeds. She appeared in a number of films in the late-1910s and early 1920s, including The Heart of a Rose (1919), A Lass O’ the Looms (1919), The Call of the Sea (1919), The Old Actor’s Story (1922), The Magic Wand (1922), and The Lights O’ London (1922). She also appeared in a series of short films in 1920 directed by Geoffrey H. Malins called Film Pie No.s 1-12.

Getty Images has two pictures of Stella Muir on from 1917 (below) and one apparently from 1930 (here).

Muir features in two articles in the Yorkshire Evening Post, published on 29 June 1920 and 8 March 1921 (this latter being an interview), and they provide an insight into the life of a young actress working in the silent British cinema. These are some of the edited highlights.

By the time of her first interview, Muir had been at the studios for three years apparently working on a ‘feature,’ but had not yet appeared on screen. The YEP gives the reason for this being the slow release of productions ‘owing to far ahead booking,’ and that because of this The Heart of a Rose was only finally released in 1920. Now advance booking has long been a part of the distribution practices of the film, but a three year delay does seem extreme given exhibitors would change their programme twice a week. Like Muir’s other early films, The Heart of a Rose has a northern setting and was filmed in Sheffield. Described as ‘a simple story of the novelette type,’ it apparently has some ‘interesting scenes of the interior of an iron foundry.’ The reviewer – credited only as Lantern Man by The YEP – is not that enthusiastic: ‘Although containing nothing new, it is thoroughly clean and wholesome, and possesses that “heart” interest so dear to most cinemagoers.’ This ‘heart interest’ is based upon Muir’s journey from the slums of Sheffield  – ‘wherein the “motherly” child “minds” the unwashed ragged urchins, who are not poor because “the poor are only those who feel poor”‘ – to a new life as the ‘young lady of a mansion.’ Sounds ghastly, but in the view of Lantern Man, it ‘has an appeal that makes for popularity.’

The article ends announcing Muir’s upcoming releases, The Call of the Sea, shot at Robin Hood’s Bay, and A Lass O’ the Looms, shot in Blackpool.

The 1921 interview with Muir covers her entry into the film industry, and her experiences of filming, mainly with reference to A Lass O’ the Looms. This article begins by recounting Muir’s transition from a factory girl working in a clothing makers in the York Street area of Leeds to the ‘English Mary Pickford’ – a journey obviously similar to the plot of The Heart of a Rose. However, this did not make her popular with audiences from a similar background, and she recalls visiting her former workmates.

‘Some of them,’ said Miss Muir, to Lantern Man, ‘seemed a bit mean with me when I called round to see them. They said: “Oh, so you’ve come to visit the poor work girls, have you?” I replied: “Don’t be silly. I’ve come to see friends, I hope.”‘

Sh goes on to describe how, when staying with friends in London, someone remarked that she had a ‘film face’ and should look for work in films; and that on the basis of this advice she applied for ‘crowd work.’ However, when she got there she had no inkling of what to do, and having been called for work was dependent upon the other girls at the set for being properly made-up for the cameras. Continuing work appears to have come by catching the producer’s eye and sheer determination:

‘… the producer said he’d try to remember me when calling a crowd again, and perhaps – if I worked hard – a small part might come my way someday.

After that it was ‘crowd’ work and again a small part, and bombarding film studios with applications and photos all the time.’

Unfortunately, the article does not tell us the title of this first film.

The article then goes onto cover the more unusual aspects of Muir’s career – filming in the crow’s nest of Blackpool Tower (for A Lass O’ the Looms), and with a troublesome chimpanzee that did not like the camera. She also recounts a scene shot in the boiler room at Crystal Palace with a Hippopotamus.

Considering that this monster weighed several tons and I only scale seven stone, I felt very small when we had the scene to ourselves. And when it opened its mouth – oh! – well, I was glad when the camera snapped.’

Now a Hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in the world and in the wild they will attack humans, so one is left to wonder how they got it into the boiler room at Crystal Palace! I would love to find the records of the production meeting in which this was discussed. Does anyone know anything of the history of Crystal Palace that would shed some light on this?

The interview ends with Muir noting that she receives a great deal of fan mail from young girls asking how to get into the film industry. She also receives offers from ‘all manner of men – mechanics, shopmen, and even naval officers – [who] write offering the services to play “lead” in a picture play.’ She also says that she receives ‘offers of scenarios that as photoplays are mostly impossible’ – which is a damning indictment from a woman to have performed with a Hippo in a boiler room!

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About Nick Redfern

I graduated from the University of Kent in 1998 with a degree in Film Studies and History, and was awarded an MA by the same institution in 2002. I received my Ph.D. from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006 for a thesis title 'Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002.' I have taught at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. My research interests include regional film cultures and industries in the United Kingdom; cognition and communication in the cinema; anxiety in contemporary Hollywood cinema; cinemetrics; and film style and film form. My work has been published in Entertext, the International Journal of Regional and Local Studies, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal, and the Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Posted on June 17, 2010, in British Cinema, Film History, Film Studies, Silent cinema, Stella Muir and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Stella Muir was my Great Aunt – I did some research into her life a few years ago – she ran her own production company based in London for a few years. She married the brother of Victor Sylvester, but I don’t know much more…

  2. Michae Horrex

    Stella was a great friend of my mother’s in later life. I have a cane, which she gave me, with her husband’s initials engraved on the top. He was
    a magician who frequently cut women in half.They lived, for the last years of their lives in Marlow-on-Thames.

  3. Stella Muir was my grandmother’s cousin and my great aunt Lily had several anecdotes about growing up with her.We also have three images of her from publicity stills which we would be happy to reproduce or provide for your archive if interested.Are any of her films available to watch still, as we would love to see them?

  4. Betty Wright (nee Muir)

    Stella Muir was my aunt.
    My eldest sister has early memories of her occasional visits back to Leeds to stay with grandma being the focus of extended family gatherings. She remembers Stella as warm, kind and beautiful and enjoying playing with her ‘big’ cousin Pat, Stella’s daughter, who sadly died young after a winter sports accident. The home in which Stella grew up in Shakespeare Street was lived in by the family until it was demolished in the 1960’s. Family anecdotes recall the publicity stunt for the local premier of ‘The Heart Of A Rose,’ Stella toured Leeds sat on the back of a rose strewn and garlanded flat back lorry. The route included Beckett Street in front of St James hospital, which was very much her home turf.

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