Saturday 18 July 2009

The White Sister (1923)

Director: Henry King
Stars: Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman

I've seen The White Sister before, though not this version. In 1933, Helen Hayes and Clark Gable played the leads and Victor Fleming directed. It wasn't a great choice for Gable and the film reached the heights of mediocrity. Luckily for fans of F Marion Crawford's 1909 novel, it wasn't the first version to be filmed. It first reached the screen in 1915 with Viola Allen and Richard Travers, names that don't resonate down the years to us today. This second version is a much more important affair for a number of reasons.

It was made in 1923 by director Henry King, riding high after Tol'able David two years earlier. It's an independent Inspiration Picture, distributed by Metro, shortly before the studio merger that would create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. It was also shot on location in Italy, two years after the coup that brought Mussolini to power, with desert scenes in Algeria. It stars no less a name than Lillian Gish and introduces a future star by the name of Ronald Colman in his first starring role in the States. He had made eight films in England from The Live Wire in 1917 to 1920's The Black Spider, but all are presumed lost in the Blitz. The only American film he made before this was Handcuffs or Kisses in 1921, but he didn't have a major role.

Lillian Gish is Donna Angela Chiaromonte, second daughter of the Prince Chiaromonte by his second marriage. Her mother is dead and she seems to be her father's favourite, but as we discover later her elder sister, the Marchesa di Mola, born of the Prince's first marriage, hates her with a smouldering passion. It doesn't help that Angela has fallen in love with a soldier by the name of Giovanni Severi and he with her, because he is the only man the Marchesa has ever loved. Soon Giovanni will speak to the Prince and officially ask for her hand in marriage.

Angela is a popular girl. The son of the Count del Ferice is already promised to her and a painter by the name of Filmore Durand is hopelessly in love with her too, so much so that he paints a portrait of her as an unattainable beauty. She looks so shrouded in holiness, as it's suggested by those viewing it, that the title soon becomes obvious: The White Sister, the description of a nun. This is prophetic because before Giovanni can speak with him, the Prince dies in a fall during a hunt and Angela's life is turned upside down.

While Angela mourns over her father's body, the Marchesa burns the will and that simple act is enough to make all the difference. In the absence of a will, the entire estate falls to her, of course, as the eldest child, but it's worse than that for Angela. As the Prince's second marriage was never registered in a civil court, Italian law won't recognise her as a legal child. So her sister destroys her utterly: denying her her name and family and unceremoniously orders her out of her home. In the space of a single day she goes have having everything to having nothing.

Well almost nothing, that is, because the Marchesa can't quite control everything. Angela has two things left to her: the aid of Madame Bernard who takes her into her house and the love of her Giovanni, but he doesn't know where she is. He finds her with only a day remaining before he departs for Africa to lead an army expedition into the desert. She promises to wait for him forever and the day he returns will be their wedding day, but his expedition only gets as far as an oasis where they're promptly massacred by Arab bandits.

And so the final nail is hammered into the coffin of Angela's life. First she goes insane, only to come out of it through the assistance of another of Durand's paintings. Then she visits the memorial erected to Giovanni's doomed expedition, proclaims that 'Death was jealous of me' and promptly becomes a nun. And it's here at the hospital where she works as one of the White Sisters of Santa Giovanna d'Aza, who had nursed her during her illness, and at which his brother is being treated, that Giovanni rediscovers her, having survived the massacre, escaped imprisonment by the bandits and found his way back to Italy.

This is a long melodrama, 2 hours and 23 minutes long, but it's never boring, not least because of an excellent new score by Garth Neustadter, presumably commissioned by TCM. Melodrama is always enhanced by music, and it works especially well in silent film where the music is all we hear, except for the voices we conjure into our minds the way we would when reading a book. The film merely has to put us in a place, literally setting the scene and letting us do the rest. The locations here help immensely, and the players play us like a violin.

Visually, silent film is perfect for the depiction of anguish, as long as the actors are up to the task, and here they're perfect. Lillian Gish was arguably the predominant silent film actress, able to emote through her movements like nobody else. She could shake and convulse and ache so effectively that we could feel her through the screen, and she does so here, which can't have surprised anyone. What's more surprising is that Ronald Colman is able to emote along with her, palpably frustrated and torn. We get nothing less than an eruption of Vesuvius to highlight externally the internal torment going on but we don't need it with Gish and Colman doing their jobs wonderfully.

They're not the only people in the film, of course, though sometimes it's hard to realise that they aren't. Many of them are Italians, who all look the part, but the most notable has to be Gail Kane as the Marchesa di Mola. She can't approach Gish when it comes to the externalisation of internal feelings, and she's not a patch on her co-star when it comes to physical movement under extreme pressure either. Kane overacts when the world kicks her in the teeth, Gish is thrown asunder by the winds of turmoil. Yet somehow Kane is utterly right in earlier scenes where she smoulders under the shadow of her sister. Her mouth seems to be in the wrong place, somehow contorted up to her cheek in her hate.

At the end of the day though, it's Crawford's melodrama, Colman's passion and Gish's anguish that win through this, aided to no small degree by the spectacle that Henry King's production conjures up. This version plays fast and loose with some parts of the novel, which I haven't read, most notably the ending apparently, which goes against the usual Hollywood trend of Hollywood to throw a happy ending onto everything it possibly can. The new material, however much of it there is, works well though and fits the rest of the material. I haven't seen Tol'able David yet, one of Richard Barthelmess's early triumphs, having seen only one Henry King before this: his much later The Song of Bernadette. Having now seen what he can do with a silent picture, I need to seek it out all the more.

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