Henry King's name isn't mentioned when critics start bringing up John Ford or Howard Hawks, and yet even his forgotten and little-seen works hold up better than many of his contemporaries.
Although rarely mentioned among Hollywood's greatest directors, Henry King was one of its most reliable and successful in both the silent and sound eras. He entered films as an actor in the Teens and began directing in 1915. When he and actor Richard Barthelmess founded their own company in 1921, Inspiration Pictures, they promptly made one of the great hits of the era, Tol'able David, establishing King's reputation for carefully paced, pictorially detailed films. He spent his 30-year career in talkies at Fox, where his resumé includes In Old Chicago, Jesse James, Wilson, Twelve O'Clock High, The Gunfighter, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, and Carousel.
It's been harder to see his pre-Fox items, but two new double-feature discs partly rectify this with fascinating glimpses of the early King. The White Sister, a double-feature from Warner Archives' made-on-demand website, contains King's silent 1923 version of the story plus the 1933 remake directed by someone else. (For the record, there was also a 1915 version, so the 1923 is already a remake.) Meanwhile, VCI ballyhoos a Precode Hollywood Double Feature that again shows off King to advantage in comparison with a broadly similar film.
The White Sister was a 1909 novel by Francis Marion Crawford, an American writer who lived mostly in Italy. He was a popular and prolific writer who today is known mainly for a handful of horror stories. This novel tells the story of a rich girl in love with an army officer. When she believes he's been killed, she becomes a nun. Wouldn't you know it, the rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated and he comes back--too late. Now he wants her to break her vows. I forgot to mention that all this occurs in a town under Mount Vesuvius, which conveniently erupts at this point.
The 1923 version was produced as a vehicle for Lillian Gish, who had left her longtime collaboration with D.W. Griffith to strike out for more money and creative independence with Inspiration Pictures. After King's hit with Tol'able David, Gish wanted to work with him. Together they cast an unknown leading man called Ronald Colman. They filmed on location in Italy and the production went over time and overbudget.
According to an excellent report by Bret Wood at TCM.com, the first cut ran 15 hours and then they trimmed it to four hours before the editor brought it to its current length of 13 reels (about 130 minutes). At first nobody wanted to distribute this independent production, but a smash run in New York led MGM to pick it up (the general release was even shorter) and the whole thing became a big hit for all of them. Gish re-teamed with King and Colman for another Italian project, Romola, also a hit, but then things started going sour and Gish would up in court amid suits and counter-suits with one of Inspiration's executives, Charles Duell.
That lay in the future. Here is the 135-minute version of The White Sister, with some tinted scenes and a new orchestral score. It's a fascinating example of full-blown storytelling tosh, mounted with lavish production value, star power, and a sense of stately style that makes all the absurdity tasteful and compelling. Many's the modern viewer who will at first think "This thing is bit slow" and "This is totally unbelievable", only to be spellbound, almost against their will, by the unashamed melodrama of the personal story and the incredible spectacle of the climactic disaster-movie it becomes. Today, only Bollywood and certain Spanish melodramas still have the guts to go for broke in the storytelling sweepstakes full of contrived miseries, coincidences, separations, reunions, and fraught recognitions. If this isn't common Hollywood currency now, it's not because audiences are more sophisticated. It's only that we don't have faith in those particular stories anymore.
And this movie is all about faith. Well, first it's about money. In a manner of Brideshead Revisited, we tour idly through scenes of conspicuous consumption among the unconsciously privileged, as highlighted by a delightful scene where the spoiled Angela (Gish) dances to the tunes of Gypsy peddlers wafting from over the high wall of the family estate. Here she's patronizing the quaint, funny little beggars by tossing them coins for the entertainment. She cannot know that later, as a nun, she will tend to the bronze baby of a mother of indeterminate race, and she will supposedly experience the grace of humility and service.
But first, there's an hour of shenanigans in which the evil stepsister (Gail Kane) has cheated Angela out of her inheritance after their papa's unfortunate fox-hunting calamity, and unwittingly done her a favor by putting the kibosh on Angela's arranged marriage to some effete snob she wouldn't have wanted anyway, and after we've lived with Angela through the news of her fiancé's death at the hands of Arab raiders while leading an expedition through the desert (this section filmed in Algeria), the movie finds its focus in the churchy part. As in a Griffith movie, the elaborate scenes of Angela taking the veil to become a bride of Christ are cross-cut with her resurrected lover (Colman) crossing land and sea on his way home, in order to stir the audience into the false hope that he may arrive in the nick of time to save her from a fate worse than life.
Melodramas often turn on scenes of recognition, and this movie has plenty of juicy ones. Angela's dilemma is a real one for she has made a commitment to the Church, and even though The Nun's Story taught us much later that, in fact, nuns do leave their vocation, this story isn't prepared to allow such a thing. The bishop compares it to marrying another man and expecting her to leave her husband. In order to be a heroine worthy of the name, Angela must resist temptation bravely. Her lover initially rails against the "tyranny" of the Church for enslaving women who should be wives (this would have been the most controversial moment), but the bishop raises his arms mightily to show he's having no backtalk.
All this makes the volcano business seem a bit unnecessary in symbolic terms. It can't really be a sign of divine judgment when that part of the story was basically resolved without it, but this final crisis lets off steam cathartically, as it were. The films keeps cutting back to the volcano subplot just to remind ourselves that it's there. The early shots of the bubbling lava, supposedly actually photographed in the volcano, look as if they're upside-down and backwards. Later, presumably to avoid having to deal with lava, it's explained that the eruption has caused a levee to break and flood the town with water. King would handle a much more spectacular flood a few years later in The Winning of Barbara Worth, just as he would handle Catholic faith (he converted after making The White Sister) more straightforwardly in The Song of Bernadette.
Apart from King's sense of construction, this is Gish's movie all over. She had one of the most recognizable faces in the world, and she's introduced here with only the top half of it peering through slats. Even by one eye, we know her instantly. She does the thing where she's thunderstruck and tries to pretend she hasn't understood something. She does the thing where she freaks out and turns in a circle. She does the beatific thing. All that's missing is a scene where she uses her fingers to make herself smile. Surely even at the time, the scene where she reacts to bad news by freezing stiff as a board must have seemed over the top, but this is one of those films that disregards the top. She can do pathos in spades, but nothing beats the early scenes of her carefree, careless dancing, unless it's some of those late Madonna shots in which she simply sits there, weary, cradling a dying character as hell breaks loose around her.
Lillian Gish in White Sister
Kane is also excellent and compelling as the bad sister in every twitch and sneer and fabulous shroud. She has a juicier role at the end of the picture than Gish. What happened to her? Actually, this movie is what happened to her. It was her penultimate film after ten years of screen stardom, though her stage career lasted a few years longer.