The White Sister (1923)

Now it would be remiss of me before I move on to the film that truly introduced William Powell to Hollywood as a star without first looking at The White Sister, a movie that links up two of our three amigos, Ronald Colman and Richard Barthelmess.

As outlined in my birthday message, Ronald Colman had toiled away in the British theatre since the Armistice as well as making a few pictures for the Hepworth company, but in 1920, not having found much success in London, Colman went to New York. The White Sister was his first feature film, made in Italy by Inspiration Pictures, and it was the success of this picture that introduced him to the world as a new Hollywood star. 

Inspiration Pictures had been founded by Richard Barthelmess, Charles Duell and Henry King, who had made the runaway success Tol’able David in 1921. The success of that picture enabled the company’s next big feature, The White Sister, to be made on location in Italy. Director Henry King utilised the most dramatic locations in Italy, including Rome, Sorrento and Mount Vesuvius itself! However, he also made full use of the expertise of his Italian crew, even down to small details such as ensuring that the original French blinds used on the sets were changed to Roman ones. 

Indeed, one of the most emotional scenes in the picture, the ceremony whereby Angela Chiaromonte becomes a nun, was in fact designed and directed by a priest who was the head ceremonial director at the Vatican. Henry King, who was to later convert to Catholicism, wanted to ensure that this scene, which carried enormous spiritual significance, was accurate and credible to the Catholic Church in every detail.

The review in Photoplay Magazine describes The White Sister as ‘another personal triumph’ for Lillian Gish, the performance more nuanced than in her collaborations with D W Griffith. Gish brings a mixture of vulnerability and vitality to the role of Angela Chiaromonte that feels genuinely real. Her legendary ability to convey emotion through the camera is apparent here although to my modern cynical self, it seems a shame that being thrown into poverty by her jealous and vengeful sister results in Angela Chiaramonte turning into a bit of a tedious, pious bore. I did have to wonder why Giovanni Severi was still bothered for her once she’d made it plainly clear that she was going to remain wedded to the church and not leave it for him.

However, I fully recognise that this type of overwrought Victorian-style melodrama was very popular in the 1920s and that the strictures of mega-institutions like the Catholic Church were powerful enough to control the thoughts of entire populations. To transgress would be to invite shame and isolation. It certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of a fantastic drama and a remarkable debut for Ronald Colman, who is sensitive and sweet and gorgeous throughout. Colman, Gish, Henry King and Inspiration Pictures were soon back in Italy in 1924 to make Romola, an adaptation of a novel by George Eliot. The plot had a nice villainous character, and this role was awarded to William Horatio Powell.

References/Recommended Reading:

Photoplay Magazine, October 1923, p.74

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow


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