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

Happy Birthday Myrna Loy!

I am grateful to Aurora for reminding me that today is Myrna Loy’s 112th birthday – due a recent bout of illness I’ve been tardy with the blog, I even forgot it was Bill’s birthday on Saturday! Back in the game now though!

The famous Fountain of Education statue at Venice High School, California

An Exotic Vamp

Myrna Williams’ career as a Hollywood actress was marked out by her unconventionally attractive features – Myrna had been appearing in plays at Venice High School, and had a portfolio of photos produced that were noticed by Rudolph Valentino. On the recommendation of Natacha Rambova, Myrna began appearing as an extra in a number of pictures, starting with What Price Beauty (1925), a film that was publicised via this feature in Photoplay Magazine from September 1925:

This feature led to a contract from Warner Brothers, who changed Myrna’s last name to ‘Loy’ as it sounded more exotic and oriental, and so her career as the exotic vamp began. 

Finger Prints (1927)

However, Myrna was determined to appear in as many pictures as she was offered, no matter how incidental the role, as this would provide the exposure needed to move beyond the narrow confines of the exotic vamp. Hence the sheer number of films which appear below. Of course, many of the silent movies that Myrna Loy appeared in are lost:

Why Girls Go Back Home (1926)

The Gilded Highway (1926)

Across the Pacific (1926)

Finger Prints (1927)

Bitter Apples (1927)

The Climbers (1927)

Simple Sis (1927)

Pay As You Enter (1928)

State Street Sadie (1928) – part talkie

Fancy Baggage (1929)

Happily and unusually though, the majority of pictures Myrna appeared in have survived:

What Price Beauty (1925)

The Wanderer (1925)

Pretty Ladies (1925)

Sporting Life (1925)

Ben Hur (1925)

The Caveman (1926)

The Third Degree (1926)

When a Man Loves (1927)

The Heart of Maryland (1927)

A Sailor’s Sweetheart (1927)

The Girl from Chicago (1928)

A Girl in Every Port (1927)

The Crimson City (1928)

Noah’s Ark (1928) – part talkie

Hardboiled Rose (1929)

Granted, as noted above, Myrna Loy’s work ethic and determination to succeed meant that her appearances in the earlier films are as an extra or in bit parts. Years of typecasting was the result and Loy wasn’t able to shake off the exotic vamp character until well into the sound era.

However, Myrna’s first starring role was in 1927’s A Girl from Chicago with Conrad Nagel, so it is a pleasant surprise to see so many of her silent pictures still with us that we can enjoy.

References/Recommended Reading:

Hometowns to Hollywood – Myrna Loy

Photoplay Magazine, September 1925, p.72

Movies Silently – The Silent Life In 1925 – Ladies, Now Art Deco Hairstyles Are Yours For The Asking!