A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The White Sister (Henry King, 1923)

Watching Lillian Gish in a film directed by Henry King after seeing her as directed by D.W. Griffith, Victor Sjöstrom, and King Vidor is, to say the least, instructive. All four of these movies are romantic melodramas (though The Scarlet Letter is lightly touched by the greatness of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel), but Griffith, Sjöstrom, and Vidor each possessed a degree of genius, whereas King will never be regarded as anything more than a director of solid competence. Despite his long career, which ranged from 1915 to 1962, amassing credits on IMDb for directing 116 films, his movies are not particularly memorable. Who, today, seeks out The Song of Bernadette (1943) or Wilson (1944), two of the "prestige" films he directed for 20th Century-Fox? In his great auteurist survey The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, the best Andrew Sarris has to say about these and other movies directed by King is that they display a "plodding intensity." King was, in Sarris's words, "turgid and rhetorical in his narrative style," and that certainly holds true for The White Sister. Griffith, Sjöstrom, and Vidor all made use of Gish's rapport with the camera, her ability to suggest an entire range of emotions with her eyes alone -- hence the many close-ups she is given in their films. But King, filming on location in Italy and Algeria, is more interested in the settings than in the people inhabiting them. (Roy Overbaugh's cinematography is one of the film's virtues.) Nor does he seem interested in moving the story along, dragging it out to a wearisome 143 minutes. When Prince Chiaromonte (Charles Lane), the father of Angela (Gish) and her wicked half-sister, the Marchesa di Mola (Gail Kane), goes out fox-hunting, we're pretty sure that disaster is about to happen. But King stretches out the hunt so long that when Chiaromonte is killed the accident has no great emotional impact. And when Angela takes her vows as a nun, effectively preventing her from marrying Captain Severini (Ronald Colman), the man she loves but thinks is dead, King gives us every moment of the ceremony, trying to generate suspense by occasional cuts to Severini's ship steaming homeward. There's also an erupting volcano at the picture's end, but King fails to stage or cut it for real suspense. Gish is perfectly fine, though she's not called on to do much but look pious and to go cataleptic when Angela receives the news of Severini's supposed death. Colman is handsome but not much else, and Kane's villainy seems to be signaled by her talking out of the side of her mouth, as if channeling Dick Cheney many years in advance.

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