HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

Close-up : the Hollywood director

HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

  • General Editor: Jon Tuska
  • Associate Editor: Vicki Piekarski
  • Research Editor: David Wilson
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J. & London 1978
Close-up : the Hollywood director – Henry King

Henry King is a man of slightly more than average height. He looks surprisingly good wearing a hat, even if it is only a straw fedora; and were it not for the fact that his hat shields his grayish, thinning hair, you would never be able to guess how old he is from his alert, observant blue eyes and his deeply tanned skin. He is chary of revealing his age, having been born on 24 January 1896 at Christiansburg, Virginia, but then his active interest in life belies his years, as much as the fact that he still flies his own airplane and enjoys playing golf. He lives in Amelia Earhart’s former house in North Hollywood, bordered in the rear by a golf course, verdant turf spread beneath majestic trees stretching quietly in the California sun.

While King was at work on FURY (First National, 1923), featuring Richard Barthelmess (their last picture together) and Tyrone Power, Sr. , Charles Duell was taken with the idea of making a film with Lillian Gish. FURY was a sea story and King had chartered a ship for sixteen days to get the sea episodes filmed. When he docked, Duell had Lillian Gish with him. Edmund Goulding, who had done the screen play for FURY, wanted a chance to write the scenario for the Gish picture, to be titled THE WHITE SISTER. Goulding claimed he could complete it in ten days. When King saw Goulding’s treatment, he threw it out. Fortunately, King bumped into George V. Hobart, a Broadway playwright, in a restaurant. King told Hobart he would pay $1,000 a week for a good screenwriter, somewhat a measure of his hardening opinion of Edmund Goulding’s abilities. Hobart joined King in a short trip to Atlantic City to talk about the storyline. A week later they had twelve pages of story and King liked it.

The White Sister – Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish

When King returned to New York, he encountered Edward Small, who was a talent agent in those days. Small said there was a good play on Broadway at the 39th Street Theatre and that King should take a look at the actor in the second act. The play was a starring vehicle for Ruth Chatterton. Ronald Colman was the actor Small had had in mind. King was impressed by him and arranged a meeting. He wanted him for the role of the male lead, Giovanni, in THE WHITE SISTER. Colman told King that he had come from England with the hope of appearing in films, but that he photographed poorly and having been given a role in the play, felt he couldn’t leave. King insisted on doing a screen test anyway. He slicked down Colman’s pompadour and drew a moustache on him. The four-hundred-foot test was shot three times. When Gish saw the rushes–THE WHITE SISTER had been inspired by her desire to play a nun; it was the first film she was signed to make after leaving D. W. Griffith– she was enthusiastic about Colman. The picture was to be filmed in Italy. Colman agreed to play in it. He was offered $450 a week. Gish was getting $1,000 a week.

The White Sister – Lillian Gish

By modem standards, THE WHITE SISTER is one of those curious clerical dramas of the silent era, with Gish in her customary role of a sainted and vestal heroine. According to the screenplay, she falls in love with Colman. Then, believing him killed in the Great War, she decides to enter a convent. Colman shows up after she has taken her vows, and, however waveringly, Gish successfully resists him.

This film, like DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1923) with Richard Dix, requires today a suspension of the critical faculties, particularly in view of the presumed motivations prompting the actions of the principals. First National, which had been distributing Inspiration’s features, thought THE WHITE SISTER (Metro Pictures, 1923) held little box-office promise. The film was then offered to Nicholas Schenck, who was president of Loew’s, Inc., the theatre chain which owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Schenck was willing to distribute. The picture proved a commercial success. It had cost only $300,000 to make in spite of its location shooting in Europe. King found the Italians easy to work with and not at all the difficult and lazy bunch they were according to Fred Niblo who was working in Italy on M-G-M’s BEN HUR.

Colman so liked working in pictures that he asked King if there was a part for him in King’s next project. King wanted to make ROMOLA (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), based on the George Eliot novel. The location was again to be Italy.

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

It was to be a costume drama, a much more expensive film to make with its fifteenth-century setting, once more with a religious motif, a romantic drama played against the ravings of the fanatic Savonarola. Lillian and Dorothy Gish were the heroines. William Powell and Ronald Colman were the male leads. ROMOLA bombed. But the picture did bring Ronald Colman to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn offered Colman a contract. Colman was undecided. He felt he should stay with Henry King. But with the failure of ROMOLA, Inspiration was in financial straits. King urged him to accept Goldwyn’s offer.

Ronald Colman, William Powell and director Henry King while filming Romola

When Henry King returned to the United States, he signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. Both films were mediocre love stories, although the second one, ANY WOMAN (Paramount, 1925), made some feeble attempts at comedy.

WAY DOWN EAST (Fox, 1935) was Henry King’s last film for the old Fox regime. It was, of course, a remake of what remains perhaps D. W. Griffith’s best film after THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Epoch, 1915). King had always been impressed with Griffith’s film and he considered the remake a great challenge. Unfortunately, Fox was financially strapped. The Shirley Temple musicals, the Will Rogers pictures, and Charlie Chan were the only consistent money makers the studio was producing. King could not, as Griffith had, film the exteriors during the blizzard, crossing the river on the ice floats, on location; he was confined to the back lot at Fox’s Western Avenue studio. King wanted to simulate frozen eyelashes, such as Lillian Gish had had in the original. He couldn’t. Henry Fonda was able to jump around on the cakes of phony ice, but he was sweating when he did it.

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