Lillian Gish, away from the guiding hand of Griffith, proves to be as moving as ever. In an emotional race with Vesuvius in eruption she captures all the honors. In her support she has a tragic but uplifting story, real Italian scenery, and a charming new leading man named Ronald Colman.
Excerpts from – The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
Some Souvenir Postal Cards.
Agnes Smith (Known MGM – professional hired – hater)
Lillian Gish went to Italy to make “The White Sister,” and the result is some beautiful scenes showing native life and some shots of that great dramatic star, Mount Vesuvius. Miss Gish’s error was, not in going to Italy, but in taking a scenario of F. Marion Crawford’s novel with her. Of all the aggravating and annoying plots in the world, “The White Sister” is the worst, except maybe a few by Hall Caine. Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies and by making a lot of fuss about the difference between worldly and spiritual love. And then he turned on the soft music of Italian scenery to ease the story over on the public.
Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out. Unless you handle it with care, the Catholics are apt to be offended while, on the other hand, a great many non-Catholics can get none too excited over the girl who takes the veil. I am not trying to imply that “The White Sister” will stir up feeling, I am only saying that there are certain rational aspects of the public mind that demand consideration from producers. Most fans are apt to look at “The White Sister” merely as florid and romantic melodrama. The postal card views of Italy have a certain charm and the unreal story works itself up into a good thrill climax. Dear old Vesuvius jumps into action and obligingly kills off some of the characters. However, the hero, in the midst of the eruption, for some strange reason goes and gets drowned. A dambursts and floods the city. It seemed an unnecessary trick to bring in the flood and a nasty crack at the destructive talents of Vesuvius besides. The incident was as foolish as though I should get mixed up in an earthquake and die of hay fever.
Miss Gish gives Vesuvius and the flood a winning race for the honors. The girl has a habit of breaking my heart. Once she gets that heart-broken, woebegone look on her face, I am simply overcome by emotion. Miss Gish has a perfect technique, combined with the face of an angel. She deserves more reliable material than “The White Sister.” Her new leading man, Ronald Colman, breaks all records by playing an Italian role without imitating Valentino. He gives a splendid, sincere and truly convincing performance, even though he is called upon to do all sorts of ridiculous things. A recruit from the stage, he is an addition to the screen. And he has such a way with him in love scenes that I suppose he’ll have to engage a secretary to answer his fan mail.
THE production of “The White Sister” on which Lillian Gish worked for seven months in and near Rome, will not be released until fall. So, for consolation, Picture-Play offers in the meantime, this exquisite photograph of her in the role.
This glimpse of one of the early scenes in “The White Sister,” Lillian Gish’s first picture for the Inspiration company, holds rare promise of beauty, for it seems to haye caught in its very backgrounds her ephemeral charm.
Only in Italy could be found such exquisite and time-worn walls as those which provide settings for some of the scenes in ”The White Sister.” Of all her portraits, the one above is Lillian Gish’s favorite. In this famous old Italian garden which has been visited hy scores of Americans traveling abroad, “The White Sister” meditates upon the spiritual life and seeks to crowd out of her consciousness the tragedy that sent her to seek the solace of the convent.
Ever since the first announcement almost a year ago that Lillian Gish was going to play this widely known heroine of F. Marion Crawford’s there has been keen interest in this production. For such quiet power and spiritual beauty as hers suits the character of the little romantic girl who enters a convent when her sweetheart disappears. In ‘ the scene shown above, the three nuns are played by three old and famous character actresses of the Italian stage.
Concerning “The White Sister.”
The most interesting feature of your magazine to me is the review department by Agnes Smith. I always read the reviews first and usually find that I not only agree with Miss Smith, but wish that I might have thought of expressing my judgment in her delightful way. Naturally, I was eager to see her review of “The White Sister,” for Lillian Gish, it seems to me, is by far the most important person on the screen. Miss Smith’s flippant and disparaging remarks were a distinct shock. I cannot understand her point of view when she says “Most fans are apt to look on ‘The White Sister’ merely as florid and romantic melodrama.”
I do not know on what Miss Smith bases her opinion on what the fans are going to think. I only know that both times I saw the picture the strangers all about me were sincerely and deeply moved. Two women, sitting near me, who looked as though they could ill afford the price of the tickets, murmured several times during the course of the picture that they had never seen anything so exquisitely beautiful.’ The people were so real that they forgot it was a plot and not life that they were watching. Now, if you will permit me the space, I would like to comment on a few points that Miss Smith raised. She says, “Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies.”
Mr. Crawford may have shown poor taste and been artificial sometimes in his writings, but I am not so sure that the sentiment he aroused was artificial. I think that it was sincere just as the sentiment aroused by George Cohan’s flag-waving and other bits of hokum is sincere. “The difference between worldly and spiritual love” will, I believe, continue to be one of the most engrossing themes in all literature in spite of Miss Smith’s disapproval.’
“Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out,” she continues. When the world ceases to be interested in faith, it has ceased to be interested in the most vital and important factor in human life. The faith of “The White Sister” may not be mifaith ; in fact, I was enraged by her insistence that her vows to her church were more binding than her promise to the man she loved. But, any sincere and convincing presentation of another person’s beliefs commands my respect, at least. It was reassuring to find that even though she was thoroughly out of sympathy with the story, Miss Smith was deeply moved by the work of the star and Ronald Colman, the gifted and magnetic young leading man. I do wish, though, that her review, which is sure to influence many people, had not shown such a strong personal bias. – Joice Marie Sidman – Ansonia Hotel, New York City.
Picture Play Magazine Volume XXII July, 1925 No. 5
An Illustrious Sister Act
An appraisal of the art of Lillian Gish, who is about to begin a new phase of her long career, with a few words about her sister Dorothy.
By Malcolm H. Oettinger
IF you or some other curious person were to stop me some summer morning and ask point blank: “Who is the best actress unrolling her talents on celluloid?” I- should, -without quibbling, cast my two or three votes—for such is the system in Pennsylvania — in favor of Lillian Gish. When serious thinkers and cynical souls of all sexes begin to crown the baby art with wild raspberries it is always possible to exact a temporary reprieve for the films by mentioning Lillian Gish. Such reluctant optimists as George Jean Nathan and Joseph Hergesheimer have dedicated psalms to Lillian; aloof fellows, they have abandoned their usual frapped poise to compose veritable paeans of praise in her honor. No one can doubt the sincerity of these testimonials; no one can question the worthiness of the recipient.
Her work in “Broken Blossoms” alone is sufficient evidence. Those who refuse to consider one count as final are referred to “The White Sister,” in which the Gish sincerity made one forget the glucose sentimentality: “Way Down East,” in which her poignant characterization gleamed like a diamond in a popcorn ball; “The Birth of a Nation,” in which Griffith blended her gifts with a moving symphony of tremendous power.
Lillian Gish could wring my heart even if she played Little Eva or Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model; she has the steadily glowing spark of genius. Her great performances are not occasional, they are consistent. Nor is hers an art that must, like virtue, be, to some extent, its own reward. Unfortunate contractual agreements have handicapped her, but that her box-office value has remained intact was shown by the line-up of producers who, glowering at each other, stormed the lobby of her hotel upon the recent announcement that a Federal judge had declared her free from all claims of her late impresario, and open to new offers. As you probably know, she decided, after weighing all offers, to sign with Metro-Goldwyn.
Ordinarily it is simple to write of the ladies of the screen. They are bound to be beautiful, in varying degree ; they are likely to be engaging, if only as a concession to their great public ; occasionally they turn out to be clever. Writing of Lillian Gish is more difficult. Standing head and shoulders above her sister players, she is to be pointed out as the one artiste of the silver so-called sheet. Nazimova was mentioned in the same breath until she began to look upon picture making as a Ford owner looks upon a one-man top. Now it is Lillian Gish alone. (The Negri of “Passion” flashed across the horizon and disappeared, never, apparently, to return.
The rest of the ladies—Swanson, Pickford, Talmadge—hold no claim to greatness save as tremendously popular favorites.) There is no hocus pocus to encounter and overcome before gaining an audience with Lillian Gish. Granted a reasonably good phone connection, a taxi, and an elevator, and you stand at her door without further ado. And very likely she will open it.
She is delicately beautiful, with haunting eyes set far apart, dainty nose verging on the retrousse, and lips that a more pyrotechnical phrasemaker would term rosebud. They are small and curved and shy. But in describing her you are certain to come back to her eyes—soulful, wistful, fine eyes that seem to say, “I am a little disillusioned, a little weary, a trifle sad, but tomorrow may be brighter.” Her manner is reserved, almost timid. Her poise extends to the point of placidity. She is balanced and calm and thoughtful In her opinions. Her conversation further reveals her underlying tolerance regarding all things. When we discussed the theater—and she had seen everything from “The Miracle” to “Abie’s Irish Rose”—she was kindly in her judgments, speaking well of most plays and performers, maintaining a significant silence to indicate disapproval. “How fine it would be,” she remarked, “if the Theater Guild were to create a sister organization that would function through motion pictures ! The Guild has done so many splendid things. The screen could well afford such a group of artistic producers.” She spoke of the cruel necessity for condensing pictures to meet standard theater requirements. “After we’ve put months and months into the planning and making and careful cutting of a picture play,” she said, “it hurts terribly to see it slashed mercilessly until it is inside the two-hour limit. Jumps appear, continuity ceases … what have you? … I always feel a personal loss when a scene is hacked away, a scene that may have represented days of careful work. . . . Yet I realize the practical necessity for reducing a feature picture to regular running time.” She sighed, and a helpless little frown appeared. “That is. where we are so handicapped.
We must always bow to practical demands. The sculptor does not. The author does not. No one dictates to the poet or the sincere playwright. Yet the artist working in the medium of films is permanently hobbled by certain restrictions and fetishes and unwritten laws.” When she talks it is quietly, briefly. The quotations you are reading did not flow forth. They are a series of observations gathered, assorted, and bound together. I had seen Lillian Gish at Mamaroneck in 1921 when she was engaged in making “Orphans of the Storm.” Seeing her again reminded me how little she had changed. To my notion, the remarkable thing is her utter lack of affectation, her absolute sincerity, her genuine simplicity and naturalness. After all, when you pause to consider that here is the great actress of the screen, worthy of being ranked among the great stage figures of her time, the absence of pomp and importance is a bit amazing. She has nothing of that charming artificiality or artificial charm, if you will, characteristic of so many actresses. She has charm alone. Midway during my visit Dorothy Gish joined us. Were one to search the seven seas one could find no contrast more complete than the sisters Gish. Together they form the last word in opposite temperaments. Dorothy Gish is the modernist, fresh from shopping on Fifth Avenue, luncheon at Pierre’s, and Dorothy Gish is the the latest in shingles ; Lillian – is the classic-modernist, impetuos, observant, thoughtful, reserved. Dorothy is impetuous, fleeting, impulsive, flip; Lillian pensive, deliberate, calculating”, practical.
The little disturber is typical of the young American; Lillian, Old World, aristocratic. Dorothy spoke glowingly of the Duncan sisters, “The Firebrand,” Heifetz, Nurmi, Robert Edmond Jones, and the weather ; Lillian listened, smiling. (“I’ve seen ‘Rain’ nine times,” Dorothy exclaimed. “Whenever it comes near New York I see it over and over. Jeanne Eagles, grows better every time I see her. She’s marvelous, wonderful, superb!”) Dorothy is an opportunist, reckless perhaps, but gay, and ever on the go.
Lillian is the planner, cautious, even reluctant in taking decisive steps. Well she may be. From a purely commercial viewpoint hers has been a heart-breaking career. Time after time fortune has hovered above her head, only to fade into thin air before becoming a reality. Griffith never was able to pay huge salaries because of the reckless manner in which he mounts his pictures and the leisure with which he completes them. The Frohman Corporation signed her as a high-salaried star, then promptly dissolved. And latterly Inspiration Films had proven inspired only in so far as acting has been concerned. Both Dick Barthelmess and Henry King had legal difficulties over the trying matter of remuneration, and then Miss Gish was obliged to resort to courts for adjustment of her affairs with them. Her last picture with Inspiration was “Romola,” in which Dorothy shares honors.
“We spent six months in Italy on ‘Romola,’ ” said Lillian. “We were completely absorbed in it. A beautiful story. I had always had my heart set upon doing it. “We worked night and day. While light permitted we would And locations and take exteriors. At night at the hotel we would rewrite the script, adjusting it in many instances to local conditions.” The fact that Lillian Gish has directed pictures and is fully conversant with the technical side of the studio increased her cares tenfold. There were huge dynamos to he imported from Rome, trucks to be located, currents to be converted, licenses to be obtained.
“There were a hundred and one difficulties to overcome.” Her slender white hands fluttered in a descriptive gesture. “The places for backgrounds that were in reach of lighting equipment. Extras. Dependable technical assistants. The authorities were most kind, but there were so many obstacles.
“I loved Florence, though,” said Dorothy. “So did Ronald Colman and Henry King.” “We saw them in Hollywood recently,” Lillian interposed. “We went out for the opening of ‘Romola.’ They said they wanted more Florence and less Hollywood. . . . How that little town has changed. I hadn’t seen it for years and years. . . . Since ‘Intolerance.’ It was a nice little country town then. Make-shift. Delightful. Now it’s … it’s so grown-up !” Dorothy was reminded of Michael Aden,, a favorite of the moment. Lillian expressed her admiration for the new Burke autobiography, “The Wind and the Rain.” Both of the blond sisters had enjoyed Milne’s inimitable “When We Were Very Young.” They were curious regarding the Sinclair Lewis novel, “Arrowsmith.”
Although you would never learn such things from Lillian herself, it is true that she- has made tremendous sacrifices for her various successes. In “Way Down East” she played in a raging blizzard until she collapsed before the camera. Her hands were frozen. During the making of “Broken Blossoms” she lost thirteen pounds in ten days as a result of the high emotional tension under which she was laboring. For “The White Sister” she worked night and day all of the final week to complete it on time. Despite all this she looks youthful and fresh, twenty-five perhaps, pink and white, ethereal. There is nothing of the theater about her even though she has devoted something over fifteen years to stage and screen.
“The trying part of picture making,!’ she confessed gently, “is the combining art and business. You are expected to create just as one creates a painting or a symphony, yet you must submit to efficiency men, time clocks, schedules, and manufacturers’ methods. It strikes me as incongruous. . . . Yet I can see perfectly why it is so. But until things undergo a distinct change it will remain an herculean task to lift pictures above the machine-like standards of “program features.'” By the time these lines appear, Lillian Gish should he in Los Angeles, at work on “The Outsider.” But wherever her present—and I trust, more gratifying—contract may take her, Lillian Gish still will remain the great actress of the screen.
Lillian Gish – Vanity Fair April 1925 detail
Lillian Gish Master for Way Down East cover, here in ROMOLA (photo 1925) detail
Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Romola High Resolution Promotional
William Powell lends a much-needed note of humanness and charm to those abused screen characters.
By Nadeyne Fergus
WHEN I had five stage failures in one year I decided it was about time to think of making a decent living again.” Thus did William Powell concisely and eloquently explain the question of how it all happened. I had met this fascinating screen intriguer in a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, than which there seems no place more outlandishly isolated to the New Yorker. And after we started talking and Mr. Powell began to radiate something that must be the “It” Elinor Glyn talks about, I forgot that I had planned to stay only long enough to collect a few facts and rush back to civilization. What cared I if I were two hours late for dinner? You don’t meet “It” every day. But, you are probably thinking, if William Powell is so charming as all that, why such a disastrous stage record? Alas, it isn’t only being a good actor or an attractive personality that matters nowadays. As a matter of fact William Powell was a clever, capable actor with ten years’ stage training in all kinds of parts. But his experience is typical of a curious situation that now exists on the stage. Plays open in New York constantly and with much trumpeting. Plays die out in New ‘ York almost as constantly, but without the trumpeting. And when they die in New York,- that is the end of them. “There is practically no road any more,” said Mr. Powell. “Whether it’s the movies, or the radio, that has killed it, is hard to say. But the stage actor to-day can depend really only upon the New York runs, and there are so many miserable plays that open only to flop that even that is becoming more hazardous all the time. Why, I know any number of clever, responsible actors who are hanging around the Lambs Club and other places, without jobs, pretty nearly broke.
“So when I realized that the stage wasn’t what it used to be and that I would have to do something to insure a livable income, I thought of the movies. Luckily, white I was still on the stage, I had played a small part in “Sherlock Holmes” with John Barrymore, who had seen me in “Spanish Love” and asked me to appear in the picture. That served as an introduction, and I have been on the screen now for over two years.” In talking with him you become conscious that he is just the sort of person to play characters with a dash of devilment. Not that he is devilish, but in his rather strange blue eyes there is a potentiality of adventure, a promise of impetuous romance, that is very effective in arousing feminine interest and that seems particularly suited to such parts. He has just the thing we need to make our so-called villains more like the human and all-too-likable persons such characters very often are in real life. His performance of Tito in “Romola” brought forth much praise from the critics and caused considerable wonderment within the industry as to how it managed to slide through the cutter’s fingers.
Many persons who saw the production when it first appeared criticized Lillian Gish for making a picture in which she was almost a negligible figure, and in which the villain—of all persons—had the best acting part and most of the spotlight. But Mr. Powell explained that neither Miss Gish nor the director, Henry King, really wanted to go ahead with the picture. It was the choice of Charles Duell, president of the company, who, apparently, had power to overule every one else. Struggle as they would with the scenario, they could not fix it so that Miss Gish would have the chief interest, as a star naturally should. So it became a case of trying to save what story there was, let the interest fall where it would. Which is how it happened that William Powell was permitted to offer such a perfectly charming and magnetic sketch of an unscrupulous character that he snatched most of the sympathy and interest from a very fine and well-known cast. Usually, such things never get past the cutting room. When I saw him Mr. Powell was playing a hero—for the first time in pictures—in a film called “White Mice,” taken from the Richard Harding Davis adventure. His tall figure was clothed in a modern Palm Beach suit, which seemed rather a pity, for he is one of those rare actors who has a genuine flair for wearing costumes. And, even worse, the debonair mustache which seems so much a part of his personality, had been shaved off at the request of the company. They were afraid, perhaps, that the audience might not recognize him as the hero.
“Do you find much difference between playing heroes and villains?” I asked him. “No difference at all,” he answered promptly. You know, that’s the important thing about screen acting. You have to be careful not to grow type-conscious, and to have a certain set of tricks for a heavy role and another set for a hero. No matter what kind of a part I play, I just try to act like that particular human being and let the story explain whether I’m good or bad.”
This is rather a novel attitude for a film actor. And as has been said before, the secret of everything is in the attitude. That, probably, is what makes William Powell such a refreshing addition to any picture. You can always be sure that there will be a gleam of magnetism, a note of difference, in anything he does. Like Erich von Stroheim and Lew Cody he can play unscrupulous and even despicable characters so charmingly that you are anxious to forgive him and start all over again. Which, I have always thought, is the great test of screen personality. Later, after all our talk of acting, he suddenly surprised me by saying, “The more I see of picture making, the more I think that it is nine-tenths direction. The actor seldom has the chance he should to get really inside his part. I so often have a sense of bewilderment, a feeling that I haven’t really been able to grasp a scene, and I think that if I could have had a little more time to absorb it beforehand I would do so much better.
“You see, one of the hardest things about movie acting is keeping up with the new ideas the director gets overnight. You go to the studio in the morning, and discover that a scene you never heard of is going to be shot. You must jump right in and act it without any preliminary thought or preparation, and with only a sketchy outline from the director. You can see that an actor can’t get much satisfaction out of that system. “But it’s a fascinating game just the same. Even though there are a lot of things you wish were different, you keep right on. And then there is the credit side of the situation. On the stage you don’t have the variety of parts or contracts, the interesting side diversion. Neither do you have long trips to Italy, in which you can manage to see a good part of Europe in between times.’ And of course, with all that, you have a very nice salary.” William Powell so far has confined his screen activities to New York.
“I’ve been thinking a lot of going to the Coast,” he told me, “but” — with a rather wistful smile—”I hate to think of going so far away from the stage. You know,” he added more lightly, “we actors are always hoping that the great play will come along and that we will get the great part. And how terrible it would be to be in Hollywood if that happened!”
“Romola” came to New York about the same time that “Greed” opened. It is Lillian Gish’s latest picture but it is Miss Gish’s picture in name only. The movies are a foolish business and “Romola” proves it. Here we have a girl who is rightly considered one of the greatest actresses on the screen. Instead of choosing a story that gives her an opportunity for all of us to enjoy her great gifts, her advisers drag out a slice of insomnia by George Eliot which gives Miss Gish nothing to do but dress in a fifteenth century Florentine gown and lug great big heavy books around a handsome set. It seems plain foolishness to me and all the more incredible because it must have been consummated with the consent of Miss Gish herself.
As George Jean Nathan has told the world, Miss Gish is hot stuff at suggesting emotions rather than acting them out. The trouble with “Romola” is that she has no emotions to suggest. She has a few scenes of great acting but most of these scenes are done without the aid of any close-ups. It is great art but it is awfully rough on literal-minded audiences. They feel cheated, baffled, and enraged. “Romola” is the story of a girl of a noble Florentine house who is married by her father to a handsome young adventurer who has wormed his way into the blind man’s affections. The father dies and the husband becomes involved in Florentine politics, which were as shady then as they are now. The girl is neglected and the husband sets up a left-hand household with a pretty little half-wit.
The little half-wit is played by Dorothy Gish, who gives a performance that is sometimes excellent and occasionally perfectly trite. The main glory of the acting goes to William Powell, who has the only real part in the picture. Mr. Powell plays the role of the unscrupulous scoundrel but he plays it so lightly, so easily, and so zestfully that he runs away with all your interest and most of your sympathy. Ronald Colman is the hero who has nothing to do but sit in a corner and wait for Fate to kill off the villain. Mr. Colman grew a lovely head of bobbed hair for the part, while Mr. Powell wears a very obvious wig.
Nevertheless, Mr. Colman doesn’t even ‘get a chance to wave his hair in the breezes, so Mr. Powell romps off with the glory, wig or no wig. The direction by Henry King has moments of being great but the story is clumsily told and the characters rather muddled. However, much of this can be blamed on the difficulties of making pictures in Italy and on the hash that was wrought in this country when the right place.
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.
There were endorsements from museum directors dithyrambic over the accuracy of historical detail, and no less an artistic luminary than painter Pierre Bonnard asserted, “It will awaken longings for the glorious past and enthuse all souls that follow ideals.” The concept central to publicity for Romola was Lillian Gish, the incarnation of the Renaissance woman. Nicolai Fechin’s portrait of her as the character was eventually bought by the Art Institute of Chicago; sculptor Gleb Derujinsky’s bust of her Romola is now in the collection of Washington’s National Portrait Gallery. French press materials, for instance, accentuated the Renaissance connection, even featuring side-by-side photographs of the Mona Lisa and a rather peculiar version of the portrait with Lillian’s face superimposed on it. The writer was quick to advise viewers that since Lillian was “as pure as she was good,” her eyes harbored none of the “devil” hidden in the subject of da Vinci’s painting.
Testimonials to her beauty were probably insufficient solace to Lillian, who, not especially enthusiastic about Romola at the outset, was decidedly unsatisfied with the finished product. “I never thought the drama matched the splendor of its fifteenth-century backgrounds.” (Charles Affron)
Although Romola did well, I never thought the drama matched the splendor of its fifteenth-century backgrounds. Douglas Fairbanks maintained that it was the most beautiful picture ever made, but I found it too slow-paced. Giavonni Poggi, then director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, said of it: “In the film Romola the costumes, the principals and the ensembles seem to have been studied with the greatest possible care. Bravo for the beautiful work of Inspiration Pictures.” And Firmin Gemier, director of the Odeon National Theater, Paris, wrote: “I must tell you how marvelous I think Romola is. Your reconstruction of the golden age of Florence gave me one of the greatest surprises of my life. It is a glorious moment from an epoch in which all true artists, all people of culture, all those who have loved and thought passionately, would like to have lived.”
During that time, two sculptors, Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski, modeled busts of me. Nicolai Fechin did a portrait of me as Romola that was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. When I was in that city playing in Life With Father, it was hanging in the Goodman Theater. (Lillian Gish)
Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955) also known as “The Tartar Painter”, was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s technique and approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking. Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract.Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches.His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.
Fechin painted Lillian Gish as Romola in 1925 (oil on canvas tacked over board) 49¼ x 45¼ in. (125.1 x 114.9 cm.). Estimate $150.000, portrait was finally sold for $464.000 and is part of a private collection since 2006.
Opened December 1, 1924. A picturization of George Eliot’s story of the fifteenth century in Italy, featuring Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
The drama is an extravagant passage from history, and, once the second part is introduced, it becomes completely absorbing. There is vitality in Tito’s political intrigues and in his dual love-making to Romola and Tessa, the ladies whose stations in life are so widely separated. This Tito is a sort of prototype of The Show-Off.
He builds his house on lies and carries on his -falsehoods until his lust for power brings his downfall and death. The picture, however, is not such a triumph for Lillian Gish’s art as was The White Sister. The dramatic foundation is built more upon political intrigue than romance. But Miss Gish lends a beautiful portrait as Romola — and her sister.
Dorothy, gives an animated study, one suggestive of her hoydenish roles in previous pictures. It does not carry the surging heart-beats of The White Sister. since it does not employ so much sympathy and pathos. And there are no great moving scenes, aside from the climax showing Savonarola’s execution. But one can call it a triumph of cinema art. Scenically, it is like peering at a group of rich tapestries by some artist of the Middle Ages. It is a rich, historical pageant. And what a treat for the eye!
1924: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) plays the title role in the film ‘Romola’, adapted from a novel by George Eliot and directed by Henry King for MGM.
My ideal for these interviews is to make the fans feel they’ve seen the person I saw. I’m out to be a realist, in drawing brief pen-portraits, in trying” for a sense of the atmosphere inseparable from each star. The fact that my subjects are extremely romantic does not debar realism in describing them. Oh, far from it! There are difficulties, nevertheless.
“When I start to write about Dorothy Gish and my visit to her, I feel impatient with the words I have to use, because words don’t seem to be gay and vivid enough to picture her charming personality. I’d like to find colored words.
She lives in a studio apartment, a block away from Gramercy Park, New York. It is furnished in Italian Renaissance, with lovely antique cabinets, high-backed chairs and “a long refectory table—all in dark, carved woods. One is reminded instantly of Romola. But Dorothy, standing by the fireplace and smiling her greeting, is not at all the black-haired peasant girl, Tessa, of the picture she made with Lillian in Italy last year.
Off-screen, Dorothy Gish is a blonde of the blondes. She has wonderful, big gray eyes, golden hair shading to red, a cream-colored skin. Her delicate hands were never made to choke ferocious villains in melodramas, nor do they attempt the role. Her manner is all vivacity. Heaps of things interest her, and she comments on them in sally after witty sally. But her voice warms to a rich ardor when it is a question of something that both touches her emotionally and earns her respect.
She cares infinitely for her own art of motion pictures. Every critic of importance agrees that D. W. Griffith’s “Isn’t Life Wonderful” is a notable creation. I look upon it myself as one of the greatest ever filmed. But there was a special thrill in hearing Dorothy say earnestly:
“I cried with joy at its fineness. Only Mr. Griffith could have made it. Beauty is first with him.”
After motion pictures, I gathered that books and etchings were twin passions with her. She admires the novels of Joseph Hergesheimer, and calls him the best stylist in America. The work of half a dozen artists was mentioned with enthusiasm. Tea was brought in. The conversation strayed to many new topics. But I’m going to resist the temptation of quoting her. She has a way of saying brilliant, unconventional things about the venerable totems of society which, in her opinion, would not look well in print. I promised her to keep my note-book to myself, and a promise is a promise. However, I can reveal that the most miserable hour in Dorothy Gish’s life was when she smoked a cigar in The Bright Shawl. The part demanded it, and she made good at the price of a prolonged spell of tobacco-nausea. The confidence came out when I noticed that she handed me a cigarette without taking one herself. She has no prejudice against the habit but simply has never been able to learn to like cigarettes. An enforced cigar, which few smoking women could stand, was consequently for her a doubly terrible experience.