Photo: Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set
Director: Henry King Writers: George Eliot (novel) Will M. Ritchey “Adaptations of novels made up a large proportion of motion pictures in the 20s, as the medium of cinema began to see itself as continually more prestigious and legitimate. The trouble is they were still figuring things out when it came to translating from one narrative form to another. Romola is taken from a novel by the brilliant 19th century author George Elliot, and her work is typically rich in character detail and interwoven subplot.
However this movie version pares the story down to a basic melodrama, with a handful of simple characters flitting from one plot point to the next. As if to compensate, the action is peppered with lengthy title cards, which while they preserve little snatches of the original text, break up the flow of visual storytelling. But all is not lost. The language of images was well developed in Hollywood. Romola’s director is Henry King – not a well-remembered figure, although he ought to be. King’s shots are consistently stylish, and he has a good handling of space and framing. Take for example when Dorothy Gish is abandoned amid the festivities after her sham wedding. We see a close-up of her, distraught, while the dancing revellers around her make a wild, blurry backdrop – far more effective than some expressionistic process shot, because it is realistic as well as evocative of mood. But what was really King’s greatest strength at this point was the slow, methodical performing he encouraged from his cast. It is this that really brings out all those layers of character that are missing from the screenplay. Look at the scene in which Lillian Gish gives the ring to her father to examine. The camera is simply held in mid-shot as the old man turns it over in his hands, and so much more comes out of that moment as a result. And the strength of the mise-en-scene is proved as for some key scenes those pesky intertitles disappear altogether – such as when Powell proposes to Lillian. It’s a pity so few directors these days are bold enough to simply performances play out like that. And this approach really suits star Lillian Gish. After parting ways with her old mentor D.W. Griffith she briefly formed a production company with King and, while it’s rarely acknowledged, she did some of her best work with in their handful of pictures together. In an age when overt mugging and gesture were the norm, Gish is beautifully subtle, the emotions drifting across her face like clouds across the sun. The villainous turn from William Powell is also nicely understated. Powell is probably better remembered for the series of jolly father-figures he played in the sound era, but as a young man his thin lips and piercing eyes marked him down a bad guy. But here he refuses to live up to the stereotype, portraying Tito as a villain by his deeds and not by his mannerisms. There are some nice touches from even the smallest parts in Romola, and it is generally very well cast.” – Source: IMDB –
- Lillian Gish … Romola
- Dorothy Gish … Tessa
- William Powell … Tito Melema (as William H. Powell)
- Ronald Colman … Carlo Bucellini
- Charles Lane … Baldassar Calvo
- Herbert Grimwood … Savonarola
- Bonaventura Ibáñez … Bardo Bardi
- Frank Puglia … Adolfo Spini
- Amelia Summerville … Brigida
- Tina Ceccaci Renaldi … Monna Ghita
- Eduilio Mucci … Nello
- Angela Scatigna … Bratti
- Ugo Uccellini … Bishop of Nemours
- Alfredo Martinelli … Captain of the Barque
- Attilo Deodati … Tomaso
Manager Sid Grauman had gone to all the expense and trouble he could think of to make this a record occasion. “Romola” was following Douglas Fairbanks’ “Thief of Bagdad.” It must not fall short.
“A premiere without a parallel. A night of all nights. The most gala festivity Hollywood has ever known. An opening beside which other far-famed Egyptian premieres will pale into insignificance.” These are a few bits of Manager Grauman’s rhetoric, and he added: “Every star, director and producer, will be there to pay homage to Lillian and Dorothy Gish.”
They were there. The broad entrance to the Egyptian was a blaze of light and gala dress parade. The crowds massed on both sides to see the greatest of filmland pass. Doug and Mary (who had already run “Romola” in their home theatre), Charlie, Jackie . . . never mind the list, they were all there. High above, the name of LILLIAN GISH blazed out in tall letters. “When she arrived, and Dorothy, and their mother, their cars were fairly mobbed. Cameras were going, everybody had to pause a moment at the entrance for something special in that line. Manager Grauman was photographed between the two stars of the evening, properly set off and by no means obliterated, small man though he was, by the resplendent gowns. After which, came the performance. Manager Grauman had fairly laid himself out on an introductory feature. There were ten numbers of it, each more astonishing than the preceding: “Italian Tarantella,” “Harlequin and Columbine,” “The Eighteen Dance Wonders,” but why go on? It was a gorgeous show all in itself. After which, the beautiful processional effects of Romola’s story.
There was no lack of enthusiasm in the audience. When the picture ended and the lights went on, and Lillian and Dorothy appeared before the curtain, the applause swelled to very great heights indeed. And when a speech was demanded, Lillian, in her quiet, casual way, said:
“Dear ladies and gentlemen, both Dorothy and I do so hope you have liked ‘Romola.’ If you have, then, dear, kind friends, you have made us very happy, very happy indeed . . . and you have made Mr. King, who directed ‘Romola,’ very happy, too.”
From the applause that followed, it was clear that there was no question as to the importance of the occasion — all the more so, had they known that, for Hollywood, at least, it was the last public appearance of these two together.
The critics did not know what to make of “Romola” —did not quite dare to say what they thought they felt. To William Powell, as Tito, nearly all gave praise; some regretted that Ronald Colman did not have a better part. Dorothy, as Tessa, had given a good account of herself, they said, and Charles Lane, as Baldassare. Of Lillian’s spirituality and acting there was no question, but there were those who thought the part of Romola unequal to her gifts.
As to the picture, one ventured to call it “top-heavy,” whatever he meant by that. One had courage enough to think it “a bit dull.” Another declared that it contained all the atmosphere and beauty of the Florence of Lorenzo de Medici. “Romola” was, in fact, exquisite tapestry, and the dramatic interest of tapestry is a mild one.