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After his performance as a brutal gangster who pushes Norma Shearer around in A Free Soul (1931) and a burly plantation overseer in Red Dust (1932), Clark Gable's screen popularity began to soar but The White Sister, which was made the following year, failed to exploit his strengths. Instead, it cast him woefully against type as a romantic Italian soldier in a screen version of F. Marion Crawford's popular novel. The 1933 romance, pitting Gable against God for the affections of nun Helen Hayes, didn't exactly derail his career, but it certainly put off the triumphs that were to come. It wasn't that it was a bad film -- few major MGM productions were in that era -- it was just the wrong picture for him.
Gable had benefited from MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg's interest in his career, but when Thalberg took an extended leave from the studio for health reasons, he left the actor to fend for himself. Gable knew he was out of place in the story, which had been a huge hit in 1923 for Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman, and at times almost seemed tongue-tied in Hayes' presence. Although the two got along perfectly well off-screen, she would later note that he kept trying to hide his big, scarred hands from her, embarrassed by his working class background. He would be even more embarrassed when his first wife and acting coach, Josephine Dillon, published a series of open letters to him about his acting in the fan magazine Motion Picture. Her complaint that in The White Sister he did "those funny things with your mouth to make your dimples show" didn't fit his he-man image any better than the film's intense romanticism.
Gable wasn't the only one suffering from Thalberg's absence. Writer Donald Ogden Stewart, who had made his name with a series of comic novels in the '20s, had recently earned Thalberg's favor by re-writing the dialogue for Smilin' Through (1932) -- a big hit for Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer -- and an uncredited re-write on Red Dust (1932). As a result, he found his position at the studio and his salary elevated. But with Thalberg away, he too had to work with less sympathetic producers. Stewart actually enjoyed The White Sister's producer, Hunt Stromberg. He was amused at the way Stromberg would read a scene, pace the floor while waving his riding crop and ask if "that dumb Scranton miner" would like it. Stewart even tried to get a miner to visit the studio, but none of his friends in that part of the country could find one dumb enough to fit Stromberg's image. Although the humorist felt miscast working on such a sentimental story, he couldn't help getting caught up in the romance and, particularly, the chance to bring his own World War I experiences to the screen. He even asked to play a small role in the film, the rear end of a horse, though he would later say the casting was strangely prophetic.
Problems started when it came time to shoot the final scenes of The White Sister. Hayes decided she didn't like them as written and insisted that her husband, writer Charles MacArthur, be brought in for re-writes. Since she was still riding high on the success of The Sin of Madelon Claudet(1931), written by MacArthur, and A Farewell to Arms (1932), she got her way. Stewart was disappointed but had to admit that MacArthur wasn't doing anything to him that he himself hadn't done to other writers at the studio. When he saw the film, however, and realized how little it resembled the script he had labored over so lovingly, he vowed never to take another film assignment seriously.
The White Sister met with mixed reviews, though most critics conceded that it had outstanding production values, but turned a profit. That wasn't enough for Gable, however, who grew more and more rebellious when faced with other roles he considered wrong for him. Eventually, his behavior would lead studio head Louis B. Mayer to punish him by shipping him to a lesser studio for a minor comedy -- It Happened One Night (1934) -- that made him a superstar.
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Director: Victor Fleming
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Walter Hackett from the novel by F. Marion Crawford
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Helen Hayes (Angela Chiaromonte), Clark Gable (Lt. Giovanni Severi), Lewis Stone (Prince Guido Chiaromonte), Louise Closser Hale (Mina), May Robson (Mother Superior), Edward Arnold (Monsignor Saracinesca), Alan Edwards (Ernesto Severi), Nat Pendleton (Corporal), Donald Ogden Stewart (Rear End of a Horse).
by Frank Miller