The Hollywood Professionals
by Clive Denton – 1974
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. Typical also of the stories which, fortunately, he has been paid to put on film is the longevity of a romantic feeling, through tribulations and changing circumstances. Much of King’s long career has been dedicated to an idealistic but not fatuous celebration of chivalry and a form of romance as much akin to friendship as to passion. Is this approach “sentimental”? It is I think, an hottest sentiment, almost never sugary and committed to a human affirmation not easily achieved nor maintained in am facile manner. In 1923 and 1921 King and his crew went to Italy and filmed two expensive, expansive productions, The White Sister and Romola, both Inspiration Pictures in association with Metro. Lillian Gish starred in each and King gave a double well-taken opportunity to a virtually unknown British actor by giving him, twice in succession, such a shining lady. The actor’s name was Ronald Colman and he went on to appear in three of the Henry King-Sam Goldwyn movies which occupied the director (on a profit-sharing basis) until the upheaval of sound pictures towards the end of the decade. Stella Dallas (1925) paired Colman with the touching Belle Bennett, The Winning of Barbara Worth ( 1926 ) and The Magic Flame (1927) cast him opposite the more glamorous Vilma Banky.
As one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen, he also learned and appreciated the actual pictorial sheen and loveliness possible with star portraiture within his silent movies. He and his cameramen produced breathtaking likenesses oi Lillian Gish and Vilma Banky, later equalled (in other hands) only by close shots of Garbo and Dietrich. This understanding of portrait heads within a film became rapidly waning art in the sound era but the knowledge remained with Henry King.
The Henry King hero or heroine is lonely. Many of his leading characters share, as a common bond, some form of isolation from their fellow men. Sometimes this isolation is physical and may spring from the conditions of a life outside the law. In Kind’s vision, there are compensations and consolations for all sacrifice. His world is a generous place in which spiritual ache is relieved by love, friendship and, to some extent, sheer bustle. What we may term “King Country” has a lot of people in it. A weary protagonist can expect to be cheered by kind words from a supporting player or distracted from his own problems by the diversity and simple interest of life around him. Still, the loneliness remains a central theme. It presses hard on those whose service takes religious forms. (King became a Catholic some time after The White Sisters production.)
The circuit riding minister and his wife find some ignorance and suspicion mixed with their generally warm welcome into the Georgia hills. In The Song of Bernadette (a film of very restrained sentiment, incidentally, which many skeptical people like better than they expect to) Bernadette Soubirous is tormented by questions and jealousies and doubts after she has seen The Virgin Mary in a vision. And Lillian Gish becomes a nun in The White Sister.
There are many parallels between this film and The Song of Bernadette. Although twenty years separate them, the visual continuity in scenes of convent life is a remarkable gift from one picture to the other (and both may have influenced Fred Zinnemann with The Nuns Story ) . This is a context where the extreme visual blacks and whites contrast with an emotional tone of ambivalent grey.
The White Sister relies unusually heavily for King on atmosphere and nuance. A young woman of high family (Gish) falls deeply in love with a handsome and dashing suitor (Ronald Colman).
Believing him killed in the World War, she enters a convent as a novice and eventually becomes the gracious lady of the title. It transpires that Colman was captured in the war, not killed. He returns and tries to persuade Gish to renounce her vows. She refuses but is wavering when a natural disaster (the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) delays a romantic decision. Colman dies heroically and Gish returns to her chosen (?) world. This was a reasonable story for the time but growing sophistication and the added pitfalls of sentiment expressed in dialogue proved hazardous for the reception of a sound re-make in 1933 (starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable, directed by Victor Fleming).
THE WHITE SISTER (1923).
Romantic drama, shot on Italian locations. Sc: George V. Hobart, Charles E. Whittaker (novel by Francis Marion Crawford). Ph: Roy Overbaugh. Art dir: Robert M. Haas. Ed: Duncan Mansfield. With Lillian Gish (Angela Chiaromonte) , Ronald Colman (Capt. Giovanni Severi), Gail Kane (Marchesa di Mola), J. Barney Sherry (Monsignor Saracinesca) , Charles Lane (Prince Chiaromonte), Juliette La Violette (Madame Bernard), Signor Serena (Prof. Ugo Severi), Alfredo Bertone, Ramon Ibanez, Alfredo Martinelli, Carloni Talli, Giovanni Viccola, Antonio Barda, Giacomo D’Attino, Michele Gualdi, Giuseppe Pavoni, Francesco Socinus, Sheik Mahomet, James Abbe, Duncan Mansfield. Prod: Henry King for Inspiration Pictures ( Metro release).