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Seldom has a Hollywood film embraced the Catholic church with as much passion and reverence as Henry King's 1923 drama The White Sister.
Set in an Italian village in the shadow of smoldering Mount Vesuvius, The White Sister stars Lillian Gish as Angela Chiaromonte. Angela is the daughter of a wealthy Italian prince (Charles Lane), and is in love with a dashing military officer: Captain Giovanni Severini (Ronald Colman). When the prince dies, a wicked stepsister (Gail Kane) swindles Angela out of her inheritance. Angela's woes are compounded when Giovanni is shipped on an expedition to Africa, where he and his men are attacked by bandits and reported killed.
For a time, Angela is literally petrified by the news of Giovanni's death. She eventually returns to her senses and decides to devote herself to helping others, becoming a nun. The preparations for Angela's symbolic wedding to Christ are depicted in lavish -- one might say fetishistic -- detail, intercut with footage of Giovanni, who has escaped his captors and is now rushing back to Italy to surprise his fiance. When he finally reaches her, Angela must choose between fulfilling her vows to the church and her obvious desire for Giovanni, a choice that becomes hugely complicated when Vesuvius erupts, threatening to destroy the town and everyone in it.
Gish became involved in the project after a chance encounter with actor Richard Barthelmess, with whom she had starred in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). Barthelmess had just finished shooting the film Tol'able David (1921), and was eager to screen it for Gish and Griffith. Gish was so impressed by the film that Barthelmess encouraged her to work with the director, Henry King.
After being so closely affiliated with Griffith for so many years, Gish felt a need for some financial and artistic independence. And so, her lawyer, Frederick Neuman, arranged a meeting between Gish and the film's producers: Inspiration Pictures, a newly-formed production company founded by Charles H. Duell and Boyce Smith (Tol'able David had been their second endeavor).
In an unpublished memoir, quoted in Charles Affron's Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life, Gish recalls that, "Within an hour an offer was made me to star in two pictures. The new producer, a suave and cultured man, won me over by saying that I could pick my own story and director... Almost too good to be true, something told me." The man was Duell, who would have a deep impact on Gish's life.
Gish's initial reservations were overcome when Inspiration agreed to offer a contract to Gish's sister Dorothy. Affron comments, "Lillian was determined to assure Dorothy's financial security." The starting weekly salary offered by Inspiration ($1,250) was less than what rival Tiffany Pictures was willing to pay ($3,500), but Gish was intrigued by the idea of profit-sharing. In a letter to childhood friend Nell Dorr, Gish wrote, "If it makes money I may get some of it. If I could only get my hands on some, Nell, so I could put it away. This thing of having fame and no money is bad business." She signed with Inspiration on September 1, 1922.
Inspiration proposed the idea of adapting The White Sister, which they purchased for $16,000. The White Sister was a popular literary property in the early decades of the 20th Century. After originating as a novel by F. Marion Crawford in 1901, it was adapted to the stage (by Crawford and Walter Hackett) in 1909. The first screen adaptation was a 1915 version starring popular stage actress Viola Allen. After the 1923 Gish version, The White Sister was brought to the screen a third time, starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable, in 1933. No director is credited in that version, though it was produced by Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind ). Incidentally, novelist Francis Marion Crawford should not be confused with prolific screenwriter Frances Marion.
Having a vested interest in the The White Sister's success, Gish became closely involved in its planning, going with King to the theatre to scout actors for the film. At a performance of La Tendresse, they discovered a 31-year-old Ronald Colman. A screen test was hastily arranged for the following morning, and Colman was quickly signed to the film. Two days later, November 18, a crew of twenty-four sailed for Naples on the S.S. Providence, with the plan to expand the cast and crew with regional talent upon arrival.
Filming took place primarily in studios in Rome, with location footage shot around the city (such as the Villa d'Este in Tivoli) and in Naples. The desert ambush scenes were shot in Algeria.
Production lasted much longer than scheduled, due partly to the ill-equipped studio facilities where they had arranged to shoot (additional equipment had to be imported from Germany). The three-month excursion ended up lasting almost six. But for Gish, it proved to be an artistically liberating experience. Liberated from Griffith's paternalistic tutelage, she was free to involve herself in every facet of film production.
En route to Naples, the filmmakers met Monsignor (soon to be Cardinal) Giovanni Bonzano, who arranged for the Catholic Church to advise the crew on how to properly present Angela's taking of the veil. Gish remembered, "Officials of the Church advised on every religious scene, to ensure its authenticity, and arranged for me to visit more than 30 cloistered orders before I decided on the one that we would use for The White Sister - the Order of Lourdes."
In her autobiography, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, Gish describes her preparation for the role. "I learned from the nuns how to walk and move in the heavy habit, and how to use my hands...I was given the privilege of seeing before dawn several ceremonies of the taking of the veil, the marriage to the Church."
Gish remembers that it was this component that "particularly appealed to me about the story...It had never been re-created on stage or screen. Then, as now, it was not easy to find new material. I decided that the story would make an interesting film." Gish remembers being warned that the public would not pay to see the sort of spectacle they could watch for free at the local church. She was undeterred, "I'll tour it in a tent if I have to."
According to Gish, it took 25 straight hours - from one morning to the next - to shoot the "marriage to the Church" sequence. "Then I was allowed two-and-a-half hours' rest before working again until 11:00 that night."
She left Italy exhausted and, by her account, "went to bed and slept around the clock" while sailing back to New York.
The initial assemblage of The White Sister was fifteen hours long, which was then cut down to four hours (under Gish and King's supervision). Eventually, editor Duncan Mansfield managed to collapse it to a releasable (but extravagant) length: thirteen reels.
The White Sister opened in New York on September 5, 1923 at the 44th Street Theatre, still without a national distributor. According to Affron, the premiere was attended by "New York's governor Al Smith, the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, the Harrimans, the Belmonts, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. President Calvin Coolidge sent a telegram to the producer, Charles Duell."
The film played for six months at the 44th Street Theatre, and convinced Nicholas Schenck of Metro Pictures to pick it up for distribution. After leaving 44th Street, The White Sister moved to the lavish Capitol Theatre, which was decorated in the style of a cathedral for the occasion. In addition to the 13-reel "roadshow" version, Metro offered The White Sister to exhibitors in a standard ten-reel edition.
In spite of Gish's initial misgivings, The White Sister had proven to be a great success. For her second Inspiration production, she returned to Italy and filmed an adaptation of George Eliot's novel Romola (1924), again directed by King, co-starring Dorothy Gish.
In time, Gish's premonitions of doom were realized. She had permitted Duell to make modifications to the contract and, in March, 1925, was on the receiving end of a lawsuit. But there was more to the case than contracts and royalties.
A January 31, 1925, article in the New York Morning Telegraph quotes a statement from Gish's lawyers, "She started with a fairly intelligent contract. It was between her and Inspiration Pictures, Inc., a highly responsible first class corporation. Her work was done faithfully and well. And yet, after two years, during which Mr. Duell constantly whittled down her rights and, from time to time, took first this and then that advantage of her...she suddenly finds herself ostensibly yoked to Mr. Duell's personal company...Acting in his dual capacity, he apparently hoped to bind her to him for a period of years under an arrangement by which he would share the fruits of her artistic efforts without any danger of liability to him whatsoever."
As this statement cryptically implies, Duell was more than Gish's employer, they were romantically involved. For a time, they were even engaged to be married, but Gish backed away -- perhaps sensing Duell's controlling nature -- and began trying to untangle herself from Duell, personally and professionally. Eventually Duell's case was thrown out of court, and Gish was awarded court costs. Federal Judge Julian W. Mack wrote, "In twenty-two years of judicial experience it has not been my fortune or misfortune to have had before me, with possibly one exception, any case of more flagrant, outrageous breach of trust and overreaching than has been shown on the plaintiff's own testimony in the case."
According to Affron, "Judge Mack then announced that he would direct that the plaintiff be disbarred, would ask the district attorney to seek an indictment for perjury, and released Duell into his brother's custody, pending the payment of $10,000 bail."
In her published memoirs, Gish puts the Duell matter to rest: "I was told by lawyers that I could have had him put in prison for a year. But I did not want revenge, only freedom from contact with such a man, which I finally gained. I might point out that Duell died in 1954 and is not to be confused with the other persons named Charles Duell who have achieved prominence in other fields."
Director: Henry King
Producer: Henry King
Screenplay: George V. Hobart
Based on a novel by Francis Marion Crawford
Cinematography: Roy Overbaugh
Production Design: Robert M. Haas
Music: Garth Neustadter (2009)
Cast: Lillian Gish (Angela Chiaromonte), Ronald Colman (Capt. Giovanni Severini), Gail Kane (Marchesa de Mola), Charles Lane (Prince Chiaromonte), J. Barney Sherry (Monsignor Saracinesca), Juliette La Violette (Madame Bernard).
by Bret Wood