HENRY KING – Director
From Silents to ‘Scope
Based on Interviews by David Shepard and Ted Perry
Copyright 1995 by Directors Guild of America, Inc.
It is ironic in this day of home video and cable television, when we have virtually every existing motion picture within easy grasp, that we seem ever more in danger of allowing film history to fade away. Too many of the greatest artists of the medium are today nearly unknown. Twenty years ago the works of Griffith, Keaton, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Ford and Hawks were taught in college cinema courses as a matter of routine. Today you can throw a stone on any college campus without hitting a student who has even heard of Foolish Wives or True Heart Susie or Sherlock Jr. If the acknowledged masters of the cinema are in danger of being neglected, what of the brilliant craftsmen whose careers have cried out for rediscovery: Herbert Brenon, Marshall Neilan, Maurice Tourneur, Henry King? Of these, King is undoubtedly the best known, yet appraisal of his career has always seemed particularly problematic. In the Twenties, with acclaimed masterworks such as ToVable David (1921), The White Sister (1923) and Stella Dallas (1925) under his belt, King was considered among the pantheon of American directors, a worthy successor to Griffith. But his tenure at Twentieth Century-Fox, beginning in 1930 and lasting until his retirement, muddied the waters a little. Still highly regarded critically, particularly for his serious dramas like Twelve O’clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950), King’s creative signature became so intertwined with the Fox aesthetic that, during his lifetime, he was regarded more as a supremely commercial filmmaker than an artist.
Rediscovery has seemed imminent at several points in the last two decades. Late in his life, King received tributes at film festivals and museums and a few articles were written about his oeuvre but, by and large, film scholars passed King by in favor of more “personal” artists. As historian William K. Everson wrote in his book American Silent Film, “For directors of the past to be rediscovered by contemporary critics, they usually have to have been off-beat, ahead of their time, or even abysmally bad but at the same time interesting in a bizarre way. But King fits into none of these categories. Far from being ahead of his time, he was exactly of his time.”
To me, motion pictures are less about art than about story telling. The moment I started making pictures, I started looking at pictures to see what they were all about because I hadn’t seen many before. D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914), with Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, really stood out in my mind. The thing that impressed me about this one was that it definitely told its story better than any of the pictures that I had seen. I didn’t particularly notice the form or method Griffith used. The story stood out and he told it well. A motion picture director is a story teller. If he knows how to punctuate and accentuate, he knows the art of telling stories. One night in the Thirties at Twentieth Century-Fox, I was at a dinner at which Irwin Cobb was giving a talk. I don’t remember precisely what story he told — probably one of his “Judge Priest” tales — but the way he told it was just dynamic, it was very, very funny. There was an audience of about 150 people and when he finished his story, he got a standing ovation. About a month later I heard someone else tell the same story and it was the dullest thing I ever heard in my life. From that I learned that sometimes it’s the way you tell a story rather than the story itself that makes it effective. When I was filming The White Sister in Italy in 1923, I was in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Rome waiting for someone. I saw an Italian, who looked very much the part of a nobleman — so well dressed, so immaculate — go over to greet a beautiful lady who had just come down the stairs. He bowed and, very gallantly, he kissed her hand. Moments later an elderly man got off the elevator and came over to them. He took out his handkerchief and rubbed her hand off before he kissed it; he rubbed off the other man’s kiss. Later, when I was doing The Woman Disputed (1928) with Norma Talmadge, that incident popped into my mind, and I found a situation in which to use it. In the theater it got a terrific laugh, it was very, very funny. And it was real.
One day Charlie Duell asked me, “What would you think if we could bring Lillian Gish into the company?” I didn’t know that he was a little bit sweet on her. I said, “I think it’d be a great asset. But what’s she going to do?”
“That’s what I want to ask you,” Charlie said. Like a flash in my mind, I remembered an old play, The White Sister, that had come around when I was in stock. I hadn’t played in it, but I had read it. It was from Marion Crawford’s book and Viola Allen had played it on the stage to tremendous success. I said to Charlie, “The White Sister seems to me a great thing for Lillian Gish.”
THE WHITE SISTER (1923)
[Lillian Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, an Italian woman whose half sister usurps their late father’s estate. Angela joins a convent when her fiance Soverini (Ronald Colman) is reportedly killed in a war in Africa. Soverini (** Giovanni Severi – original film character) returns home alive, and tries in vain to convince Angela to renounce her vows. Soverini gives his life to save his townspeople from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.]
I had used my free time on the Nearis to re-read The White Sister. In my little berth, I was reading it in bits and pieces. It wasn’t as good as I had remembered. When I met Charlie Duell and Lillian Gish in Boston, they had both read it and were just thrilled to death. They thought it was a good story. I said, “I think it’s terrible and I’ll tell you why.” We were in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and I started in telling them this awful story and about two-thirds of the way through I stopped. “It strikes me,” I said, “that I’m telling you a pretty good story.”
Lillian said, “That’s what I was thinking. If you’re telling us a bad story, we need more bad stories like it.”
I turned to Charlie. “Buy it,” I said. He bought the rights to the play for $16,000 and two weeks later William Randolph Hearst wanted to buy it for Marion Davies. The rights owners could have made a lot more from Hearst than from selling it to us. Charlie Whittaker wrote the first screen treatment of The White Sister, but I didn’t find it satisfactory. Then Eddie Goulding said to me, “I can do the greatest screenplay of this.” I said, “Go ahead.” He wrote it in ten days and when I read it I dropped it right in the waste paper basket. He had been writing these pictures for Robert Z. Leonard and Mae Murray [Broadway Rose, Fascination and Peacock Alley; all 1922] and had turned The White Sister into a pure Mae Murray, one of those flippant, fluttering little butterflies. So I threw it away. Eddie got so mad he didn’t know what to do and it sort of left me in the lurch. I had the story and Lillian Gish but I didn’t know exactly which way to go. I went over to the Lamb’s Club for lunch and saw George Hobart sitting there. I asked him to have lunch with me. George was a very capable man. He wrote the Follies for thirteen consecutive years and he wrote many of Lillian Russell’s plays like Wild Flower. I said, “George, how would you like to work with me on a screenplay?”
“I’ve seen very few pictures in my life,” George said.
“I don’t know, pictures never appealed to me.” I took him up to the Capitol Theater, to impress him. I said, “Theaters like this show motion pictures.” He didn’t know such things existed. The Follies always played at the New Amsterdam Theater, so he only knew the little theaters around 42nd Street; the Capitol was way uptown. He was awestruck. I asked George, “What will you take to work with me for a couple of weeks?”
“For $765,” he replied, “I’ll commit murder, if it isn’t too obvious. I’m in desperate straits right now.” They had just foreclosed on his house. I said, “I’ll give you $1,000 if you work with me this next week.” Went down to Atlantic City, where he lived, and started working. He had brilliant ideas. We worked from eight o’clock until noon, had lunch, took a walk on the boardwalk, went back and worked until about six thirty in the evening and he would go home. We did that every day for, I think, eight days. When I left, I had the entire story on twelve sheets of paper. And that was the script the way it was shot. We went to Italy to make a feature from twelve pages of script!
When I was planning The White Sister I was desperate to get a man to play Giovanni. Everybody, in fact, was trying to help me cast the picture. Eddie Small called me and said, “I have a woman playing at the Empire Theatre [Ruth Chatterton in La Tendresse] who I think you should see to play Lillian Gish ‘s half-sister.” He said, “I’ll send over two tickets for you to see it tonight. And I’m sending two other tickets so that you can see her in the first act at the Empire, then go right around the corner to the 39th Street Theater. There’s a man that I want you to see for Giovanni’ My wife and I went to the Empire Theatre that night and watched the first act. I saw the woman I was supposed to see and when the act was over we got up and went out into the lobby. My wife said, “You know, I’ve seen the first acts or the last act of almost every show in New York. I haven’t seen one show all the way through. Why don’t we stay and see Act Two? You don’t want to get around there until the third act, anyway.”
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll do that.” We walked back into the theater and the curtain went up on the second act. There was a knock at the door, the leading lady opened it — the play was about a clandestine affair — and in walked a man and he played through this act. When her husband returned, the adulterer went out the window and the curtain came down. My wife said, “Now there’s the man you’re looking for. Let’s stay and see the next act.” I agreed that he looked very good. I looked at the program and saw his name: Ronald Colman. We stayed and saw the last act, and he wasn’t in it at all — he was just in that one act. The next day there was an agent in my office and I asked him, “Do you know an actor named Ronald Colman?” He said, “Yes, I represent him.”
“Well,” I said, “I’d like to talk to him.” He brought Mr. Colman over to my office and Mr.
Colman was very appreciative and said that he had had a screen test in England and was told that he didn’t photo graph well. “I came to the United States on the recommendation of one of the directors from Paramount.”
I said, “I think we’ll just have you make a test.”
“I’d love to make a test’ he said, “but I hate to waste your time and money. Mr. [Gilbert] Miller put me in this show and I think I’d better stay where I belong — the theater.”
I made a test. I just set the camera up and asked him embarrassing questions to take his mind off the camera, so he was only thinking about me. Soon, the real man was coming out. I asked him to answer me absolutely honestly — I can tell when anything is honest or when it’s a little bit strained — so he did some of his best acting in this scene. He was natural, he was himself, he answered sincerely, you believed everything he said. When we finished this first scene, I said, “Go out, do something with your hair.” He wore it in a kind of pompadour. We parted his hair, slicked it down and combed it and I made another 400 feet. He was going to play an Italian army officer, so I took a retouching pencil and put a little mustache on him. When we got finished with all these tests I said, “Mr. Colman, you are 90% on the way I don’t want to make any decisions until I actually see the film but, from my judgement, you’re the man I’m looking for.” I called Duell and said, “I think I have the man I want but I want you to see the film with me tomorrow morning. Let’s have Lillian Gish there, too, and see what she thinks of him. She has to work with him, after all.” At ten o’clock the next morning the three of us met in the projection room and it turned out exactly as I thought it would. You could see the development from the first test to the next — the hair, the mustache, that made him Giovanni. Lillian said, “The only objection I can think of is that he’s an Englishman and Englishmen are awfully stiff.”
I said, “I don’t think this one will be.”
I called his agent and signed him up for $450 a week plus expenses. There never was a man so surprised as Ronald Colman. He couldn’t believe it. He was able to get out of his contract with Gilbert Miller and ten days later we were on the ocean liner Providence, headed for Italy. All the time I was in Rome I was in touch with the Cardinal. He came to the hotel a couple of times to have tea. Lillian Gish invited him over a few times. Everybody at the hotel thought we were the greatest dignitaries in the world — Cardinals don’t run around with just anybody! From that time on, everyone at the hotel jumped to do our bidding because we knew the Cardinal.
THE WHITE SISTER (1923) Inspiration/Metro Pictures. Presented by Charles H. Duell. Scenario: George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker. Titles: Will M. Ritchey and Don Bartlett. Camera: Roy Overbaugh. Editor: Duncan Mansfield. Cast: Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Gail Kane, J. Barney Sherry, Charles Lane.
[Romola, based on an 1862 novel by George Eliot, re-teamed Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman in Italy, and also starred Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The story is about the daughter (Lillian Gish) of a blind scholar who marries an unscrupulous magistrate (Powell). After the magistrate betrays and angers the populace, a mob chases him to the river, where he drowns. Romola finds happiness with a sculptor (Colman).] I found the Italians to be tremendously serious in what they’re doing. They want things to be exactly right. They bend over backwards to have things exactly right and they know what they’re doing. We learned some of the most valuable things from them, especially when we were doing Romola.
In Romola we were trying to duplicate the Davanzati Palace, which is one of the great palaces of Florence — it stands there today. These people went down to the Davanzati Palace and plastered over it and made a cast. Then they took the cast off and nailed the stone up and it duplicated exactly all the detail in the world, like a mask. When Bob Haas and I came back to Hollywood we used that technique. We were the first people in the United States to use it and it’s been copied ever since. In Florence there was a studio that covered about forty acres. It had two small stages, nothing like the ones we had in Hollywood, but large enough for the interiors. They had just finished shooting some huge costume picture and the sets covered seventeen acres. Robert Haas was again my art director. He and I went up to see these standing sets and realized that all we had to do was peel off the fronts and change it to anything we wanted.
We rebuilt fifteenth century Florence on that back-lot. One building, the set for II Duomo, was 274 feet high. Our sets matched the real buildings perfectly, thanks to the Italian workmen. I made some scenes in front of the real Duomo and the real Campanile. They matched so well you couldn’t tell the difference. We needed galley ships for the picture and they were built for us at Livorno, a port south of Florence, by Tito Neri. He took the hulls of existing boats and put new superstructures on top so that they would look like authentic Italian ships of the period. We named the ships the Liliano and the Dorothea, after the Gish sisters. While filming The White Sister I had begun to take one-hour Italian lessons. I built up enough vocabulary to get along as long as you didn’t complicate things too much. The Italians have six forms of the verb “to be” and keeping track of those was enough to keep me busy. So on Romola I was beginning to speak a little Italian and that scoundrel Bill Powell — he went over without one word of Italian and within two months was speaking the language as fluently as he spoke English. When I was returning to Italy to film Romola, I called my friend Alfredo Berniggi and told him that there was an actor I wanted to meet in Rome. I said, “Get in touch with him and ask him to meet me at the Majestic Hotel.” The next morning, Alfredo picked me up and drove me to the Majestic. When we got within about a block of the hotel, there was a crowd of about a hundred and fifty people standing on the sidewalk.
“Are they here to see me?” I asked.
Alfredo grinned. “Yes, Mr. King.”
I said, “Alfredo, I wanted to see one actor. My God, you’ve got all the actors in Rome here!”
“Mr. King,” Alfredo said, “these people don’t want a job. All they want to do is just say, ‘Bon giorno, Signor King. They love you.” Well, I felt like a heel. As I got out of the car they formed a “V” and said together, “Bon giorno!” I thought, if they can do this for me, I can do the same for them. I started at the end of the line and called each one by name and shook hands with every one of them and said, “I’m glad to be back” or some other greeting in my little Italian. They applauded like everything. When I got into the hotel, Alfredo, a big husky man, was standing at the ban nister of the stairs, crying like a baby. He said, “Mr. King, any man in that group — you want somebody killed, he kill him for you.” That’s how much they loved me. They’d kill anybody for me.
ROMOLA (1925) Metro-Goldwyn. Scenario: Will M. Ritchey. Art Director: Robert M. Haas. Production Manager: Joseph C. Boyle. Shipbuilder: Tito Neri. Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William H. Powell, Ronald Colman, Charles Lane, Herbert Grimwood.
Henry King remained an active and creative man for the rest of his life. At 94, he passed a pilot’s physical, making him the oldest licensed pilot in the United States. He attended tributes to his remarkable career at the Telluride Film Festival in 1976 (he flew his own plane to the event), the British Film Institute in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA, both in 1980. He also, in the last decade of his life, granted several in-depth interviews with film scholars, including those which form the basis for this book. He died on June 29, 1982 at his home in Toluca Lake, California at the age of 96.