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 overtime and over budget.
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 are the modern viewers who will at first think “This thing is a 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 film 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 backward. 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.
Colman is dashing as all get out in his uniform, his imprisoned bravery, his angry frustration. He and Gish are a powerful, credible match. In The Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 2, Clive Denton writes that “perhaps King’s greatest strength as a director is that constant ability to make us really believe that two people are in love. Hollywood romantic films have been common enough, heaven knows. How often, though, have the feeling and the emotion had to be taken on trust? In his work, there has been no doubt that Susan Hayward loved William Lundigan, that Nancy Kelly loved Tyrone Power, that Shirley Jones loved Gordon MacRae and that Jennifer Jones loved God.” He also observes that King’s films are marked by a deliberate pace, a preference for the middle-distance shot in which a great deal happens, and lonely heroes.
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.
King Forayed Fearlessly Into Talkies
Denton’s remarks about the believability of love come to mind while watching the 1933 remake with Helen Hayes and Clark Gable, for this is indeed one of those cases where it must be taken on trust. Neither Hayes nor the romance is interesting, although the entire approach has been re-imagined on a more strictly credible basis.
Gone are the complications of the stepsister. Gone is the volcano. Angela is placed more firmly in control of her fate. Instead of having her betrothal removed before she ever knew it existed, she breaks it off herself, and her impetuous actions in defying her father indirectly cause his death. She now has a reason for remorse long before her lover apparently dies (this time in an aerial dogfight during WWI), and her religious devotion has been carefully planted from the beginning and referred to consistently.
In fact, the opening scene occurs in a cathedral and spends time emphasizing pomp and ritual while introducing the characters. The religious aspect doesn’t appear to come out of the blue, and the remake devotes as much attention to the ceremony of becoming a “bride of Christ” with a virtually fetishistic attention to detail. It’s rare to hear classic Hollywood characters referring so much to Jesus Christ; it wasn’t allowed except in the most literal and respectful contexts.
There’s nothing to fault in terms of production value. In the first act, a lot of money and style is expended on a street festival, with the camera gliding along the parade and at one point employing a crane shot. All the sets are huge and elaborate, giving a sense of how the world imposes on and defines its citizens. No director is credited, but it was evidently producer Victor Fleming. There’s one surprising gaffe when the shadow of a huge swinging boom is obvious on the chassis of a car. Still, with all its handsomeness and taste, this is a more tedious affair than the Gish version.
It must be noted, however, that Gable does what Colman didn’t and steals a kiss from his veiled lady, though she’s in a faint and doesn’t know it. It must also be noted (again) that classic Hollywood’s reputation (or rap) for the “happy ending” is a myth. What Hollywood required were endings in some sense affirmative of some common values, not endings in which lovers always end up together and nobody dies. You can’t watch too many women’s pictures and come away with the delusion that Hollywood loved happy endings. “Serious” pictures more often than not didn’t have them.
Henry King continued to work through Inspiration in the early sound period, as Hell Harbor (1930) shows. Filmed in Florida, it’s King’s first full talkie and, according to John Wakeman’s World Film Directors, one of the first shots outside a studio. The aforementioned Denton opines: “It is very doubtful that these last three Inspiration Pictures ever transcended the triteness suggested by their synopses. Certainly, they made little mark in those early days of sound movies. Naturally, it would be fascinating to be able to see them and not have to make shaky tentative judgments based on lack of evidence.” Well, now we can see this one, and although not a masterpiece, it’s indeed a fascinating rediscovery.
King has a reputation as a stagey pictorialist, and early talkies have their own stagey rep, so it ought to be a double whammy. Ah, but both reputations are unfair, and what’s fascinating is how much of camerawork is lyrical and graceful, and that the film is packed with the kind of bold foreground and background compositions that wouldn’t shame Orson Welles. The photography is credited to three men: John Fulton, Max Stengler, and Robert M. Hass (who’s also the art director!).
It also has an adventurous soundtracked cluttered with background chatter and music. Sound mixing wasn’t possible at this time, so these were either recorded directly on set as the actors were speaking or there’s lots of post-dubbing. Attention is paid to interesting sound effects like Hersholt’s squeaky shoes and the click of his pocket knife.
The thing is peopled with stars of the silent era making their transition: Lupe Velez (mostly famous for the ’40s Mexican Spitfire series), Jean Hersholt (mostly famous as kindly Dr. Christian and for having a humanitarian award named after him, though he’s an excellent villain), and Gibson Gowland (famous for Greed and still conveying it). There’s an uncredited role for the instantly recognizable ’40s horror star Rondo Hatton as an evil barfly; one of the missing shots would seem to be his death by stabbing at the hands of a fierce black sailor.
Shot in the Florida Keys, the film is set on an unnamed Caribbean island littered with Cuban musicians (well-known composer Ernesto Lecuona is among those given a music credit) and where everybody speaks with a different accent. Velez’s character speaks like her late Spanish mother. Gowland is doing some kind of British thing. Hersholt is evidently Jewish and counts in Yiddish. A comic-relief yokel with eyepatch and accordion is Irish. There are black locals who speak like the American South, as well they might. Only a little native boy speaks like the American midwest–where’d he pick it up?
The source story, Rida Johnson Young’s Out of the Night, seems to be a thinly disquised take on Joseph Conrad. The irrepressible, English-deficient Anita (Velez) is the innocently nubile daughter of Henry Morgan (Gowland), a local slob descended from the pirate of that name. He kills a peg-legged man for money in an early sequence, and this is witnessed by local trader Joseph Horngold (Hersholt), who intends to buy Anita as his wife after he sells pearls to a visiting American sailor (John Holland). She thinks it might interrupt the plan if she kills this sailor.
Even though Velez is the picture’s sex object and nominal merchandise, the picture keeps taking her point of view whenever she claps eyes on Holland. She’s thunderstruck at first glance, pronouncing him “too beautiful to kill” and going after him with all her might. She hangs on his every word, even when she doesn’t understand him (she acts like she’s mentally translating everything he says), and her every response is palpable. Most striking is a wordless, sensual moment when she watches him dozing and lies down beside him to get an intoxicating sniff of his tobacco while he’s unaware of her. In fact, many scenes are about spying on men through windows and telescopes; that’s how most of the plot happens. It’s a world in which women are openly objects of appraisal while men are evaluated secretly yet constantly.
The package says this was released in a 90-minute version of which only the soundtrack survives. What’s included are an 84-minute version from the only known 35mm nitrate print, politely described as “only fair”, and the much sharper 64-minute version, “trimmed to improve pacing”, that got the widest release. The latter is from a mint 35mm nitrate print and has also been digitally restored. It looks and sounds much cleaner, and some bits of dialogue that couldn’t be made out in the one are clear in the other (“I’ll kill him deader than Kilkenny’s goat”). On the other hand, the shorter version glitches some lines heard in full in the longer version (and vice versa, such as “Nothing doing, Captain Kidd” in the first scene).
The titles say the shorter version still has “all the pre-code footage”, by which I assume they mean the shots where Velez is one moment away from letting her loose top fall clean away. Don’t get excited; despite the “pre-code” ballyhoo on the package, she never goes all Hedy Lamarr on us or anything. There are details in the longer version I wouldn’t want to lose, including some of those graceful camera moves, parts of the climactic violence, and several bits of business with the comic stylings of Al St. John as a flexi-limbed sailor who likes to hang around the island girls. The longer version has an eyeblink shot of him surrounded by these women; you really have freeze it. There are even a few extra shots in the shorter version that are missing in the longer when Anita is watching her father come aboard the boat.
A bonus co-feature is an indie production in surprisingly clear shape, Jungle Bride (1933–the same year they were remaking The White Sister!). It begins with the shipwreck of an ocean liner called the S.S. Brunhilde, conveyed mostly through borrowed footage from a silent film (notably at the wrong speed). Charles Starrett washes up “somewhere on the coast of Africa” with Anita Page, a peroxide Jean Harlow lookalike who doesn’t look remotely like she’s just been pulled out of the ocean. They instantly build a huge Gilligan hut between scenes and become acquainted with two rude chimps and a lot of stock-footage animals. Thanks to a pesky backstory, Page doesn’t think much of Starrett but she changes her mind when he wrestles a lion. At least he proves he’s “a real man” with the claw marks to prove it. Then it becomes ludicrous.
Along for the ride are a comic-relief bozo and the huffy reporter who’s taking Starrett back to answer a murder charge. The only thing “pre-Code” about the whole adventure is the implication, never stated out loud, that Page gets pregnant. The movie doesn’t even make as much as it might have with a peek-a-boo moment of backal exposure when she bathes. The whole is at best painlessly amusing (and mercifully brief) without crossing the line into “good”.
Somehow it took two directors to helm this one-hour wonder, Harry O. Hoyt (a prolific writer who’s big directing credit is 1925’s The Lost World) and Albert Kelley (a non-entity). Although this film is superficially smooth while its co-feature is superficially awkward, King’s film trumps this one as an infinitely more vital and involving piece. Henry King’s name isn’t mentioned when critics start bringing up John Ford or Howard Hawks, much less Hitchcock, and yet collections like these demonstrate that even his forgotten and little-seen works hold up better than that of many of his contemporaries.