Romola gives us another opportunity to admire William Powell’s cracking pins encased in Renaissance tights whilst putting his all his efforts into a plum villain role, that of Tito Melema, a con artist on his uppers looking for his one chance to attain power, fortune and glory. That opportunity comes via the aristocratic Romola, played with customary ethereal grace by Lillian Gish, who falls in love with him.
In the meantime a peasant girl, Tessa, is also falling in love with Tito, and he does everything to encourage her, including participating in a fake wedding! The dirty dog eventually gets his comeuppance but as William Powell pointed out years later:
“[Tito]… married the woman he loved and because he found her cold, he took the little peasant girl… and had with her the simple peasant-like life he craved. But he didn’t go around making fools of women just because it was easy, or he could.”
Although the picture did provide an excellent villain role for Powell I have to concur with the fan mag reviewers that Romola does lag in the middle, an issue which plagues even modern movies (La La Land being a good example). It certainly doesn’t have the energy, pace and melodramatic confidence of The White Sister and Ronald Colman’s part is rather flat in comparison.
Henry King describes Romola as a difficult picture to make as its scale and scope was much larger and more complicated than The White Sister, if you can imagine that. The set was in Florence and involved the construction of ships and 274 foot replicas of the Duomo and Campanile! Despite all this great care and attention taken, it does mean that the actual story does get somewhat lost, as well as the fact that the characters of Romola and Carlo are a bit wet, Powell’s characterisation of Tito Melema leaves him with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, which leaves Dorothy Gish as the sparky peasant girl Tessa as the one character who has a bit of zip, but ends up betrayed. As it’s difficult to empathise with the characters and be swept along by their journey, Romola ends up feeling rather flat.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that unlike The White Sister I watched a poor quality print of the film which was difficult to view and as a result perhaps lost a lot of context. While watching The White Sister I was able to immerse myself in the sumptuous glory of King’s location filming in Rome, Sorrento and Capri, whereas with Romola it was impossible to gain any appreciation for King’s aesthetic vision, the time and effort taken in the art direction as you can see in the photograph below.
The photographs I’ve included here give a much better account of how the picture should look and the potential of a fully restored print. Indeed, the addition of a more sympathetic soundtrack would make up for the paucity of the story and move the action on more effectively. I have to say though, I did watch The White Sister without a soundtrack which I thought would be a challenge as it’s quite a long movie, but the pace of the action means that the picture motors on at a fair lick with the dramatic tension fully maintained throughout. In the finish up I was so engrossed in Angela and Giovanni’s story that I forgot there was no music!
It just goes to show how silent movies are a far more immersive experience than the talkies and if elements are missing how disappointing they can be!
The filming of Romola is also notable for one significant episode in William Powell’s personal life. Powell and his first wife, Eileen Wilson, by this time had been separated for many years, however as their son, William David Powell recounted:
“Unknown to one other (both being romantic) they decided to go to the same place to forget – Italy. They ran into each other in Venice. It was midsummer. A full Italian moon was riding the skies – music floated up from the gondolas gliding along the Grand Canal. I made my debut in 1925.”
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant
The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow