© Copyright 1976 James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke
- Editor: T. Allen Taylor
- Research Associates:
- Earl Anderson, John Robert Cocchi
- Michael R. Pitts, Florence Solomon
Introduction by Hal B. Wallis
Thankfully, movies have always been behind the times. Take military science. While aircraft carriers and machine guns were making the old ways of warfare obsolete, one doughty band of mounted swordsmen continued to flail away. These were the Swashbucklers—heroes of a thousand exciting films from silents to CinemaScope. Knighted by their king, embraced by their one true love, acclaimed by adoring peasants, they nevertheless worked their derring-do without proper recognition—until now. Entertainment historians James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke searched the secret archives of Hollywood . . . viewed hundreds of movies. ..braved a thousand dangers—anything to bring you these men of daring, up close.
Movie director Henry King and his star, Lillian Gish, were hunting for an actor to play the part of the Italian prince in The White Sister (Metro, 1923). Inspiration Pictures (headed by Charles H. Duell and Boyce Smith), the producing company, had booked passage to Italy where the film would be photographed. As the sailing date came closer, the search for a dark-haired actor became frantic. Then, photographer James Abbe told King that he had seen La Tendresse and that there was a young Englishman in the cast who would be perfect as the prince.
After seeing the play, King and Miss Gish went backstage and asked Ronald if he would make a test for them the next morning. Miss Gish has said in her autobiography. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Prentice-Hall, 1969), “Once we had run the test we knew our search was over. Ronald Colman was perfect for the part.” Miss Gish sent Henry Miller, the star-producer of La Tendresse, a note begging him to release Ronald from the run-of-the-play contract, “and that gracious gentleman, knowing what an opportunity it was for Mr. Colman, let him sail with us forty-eight hours later.” Since The White Sister was the first of the big American films to be made in Italy, there was a paucity of adaptable studio facilities and equipment. Needed items had to be purchased and rushed from Germany, while the company sought locations. During this period, Ronald sent for his wife. She joined him in his quarters at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, but the move was a mistake. (Mrs. Colman was given a small part in the feature to keep her occupied.) Their marriage was never too successful and the squabbles that came with their reunion were either witnessed or heard about by the entire company. Miss Gish wrote in her book, “Once Thelma Colman ran down the hotel corridor crying, ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’ Some of the company ran in to find Ronnie on the floor. When he came to, he said, ‘I must have fallen and hit my head.’ ” A short time later they had another fierce quarrel at a party that resulted in Thelma’s immediate departure for England.
For one scene in the film, Ronald, as the prince, was required to kidnap his love (Gish), who had become a nun after thinking that he had been killed in Africa. “To get him to play with the passion and abandon necessary for the kidnapping scene, Henry King plied him with whiskey. Ronnie actually said ‘damn’ during the scene. It was a great surprise to all of us.” They worked all night on the scene, but the next day Ronald was not able to remember what had happened. According to Miss Gish, “Ronnie looked like an aristocrat; he could make you believe that he was a prince. But he had all the reserve of an English gentleman.”
The White Sister premiered at New York’s Forty-fourth Street Theatre on September 5, 1923. Its thirteen reels of 13,147 feet of film were cut to ten reels and 10,055 feet for its February, 1924 national release and was subsequently edited to nine reels and 9,361 feet for its general release.^ The critics were enthusiastic about the film and its cast. The New York Times rated Ronald “splendid,” but like many another viewer of the spectacular picture, wondered just why the script had to introduce the rather incongruous flood scenes, which led to Colman’s death by drowning. For many it seemed a very overtly artificial manner of providing a means for Lillian Gish’s nun to remain true to her vows.
Ronald remained in Rome to take a bit part, without billing, in a Samuel Goldwyn presentation, The Eternal City (Associated First National, 1923), a film dealing with the current political struggle in Italy between the Communists and Mussolini’s Fascists. Meanwhile, with the release of The White Sister, he was hailed as a new Valentino, and was immediately signed by Inspiration Pictures for a key role in Romola (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), again with Henry King directing and Lillian Gish starring. This film was made in Florence, where an entire replica of the fifteenth-century city was reconstructed. Also in the cast were Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The latter appeared as the villain whose acting overshadowed Ronald’s more modulated performance as the overly virtuous sculptor who adores the heroine (Lillian Gish).
Before Romola was released, however, Samuel Goldwyn, who had recently formed his own company in Hollywood and had seen The White Sister, cabled Ronald with an offer of the male lead in a film opposite May McAvoy. Colman accepted, and, on returning to New York, found that he had just enough time to take a role in a Selznick comedy starring George Arliss, an actor whom he greatly admired. In $20 a Week (Selznick Distributing, 1924), Ronald was cast as Arliss’ son, who challenges the older man to a bet that he cannot live on twenty dollars a week. The father takes the wager by procuring a job in a steel plant which he saves from financial ruin by uncovering an inhouse embezzler. The father is taken into the firm as a partner while the son marries the daughter (Edith Roberts) of the plant’s owner (Taylor Holmes).