Romola (1924)

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. 

William Powell and Lillian Gish as Tito Melema and Romola

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.”

Dorothy Gish as Tessa

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.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish as Carlo Buccellini and Romola

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.

Lillian Gish and Bonaventure Ibañez play Romola and Bardi

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.”

Father and Son

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow

Photoplay Magazine, February 1925, p.56

Motion Picture Magazine, March 1925, p.47 


Coming Soon! Romola – from the Fan Magazines

Romola was the film that really made Hollywood take notice of William Powell. A huge, mega budget enterprise produced by Inspiration Pictures and directed by Henry King, the picture was shot on location in Italy and trailed in a big way in the fan magazines with beautiful photographs and full length features. Over the next few days I will be presenting offerings from the fan mags, which whetted the movie going public’s appetite for this latest spectacular. Today, here are a couple of wonderful photos of Lillian Gish and with her sister Dorothy:

Motion Picture Magazine, May 1924
Photoplay Magazine, October 1924

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