The White Sister in A Bright Red Coat – 1923

Motion Picture Magazine – December 1923

The White Sister in A Bright Red Coat

By ADELE WHITELY FLETCHER

ALWAYS they have written of her eyes like shy blue flowers. Of her swift hands like white doves. Of her mouth, quivering like a startled butterfly. Of her genius. Of her Christianity. And this is not curious, for these are the things you see usually when you see Lillian Gish. For she is strangely like an Edmund Dulac fairy princess. . . .

Lillian Gish - White Sister study Albin
Lillian Gish – White Sister study Albin

It is only when you realize there must be stronger things to her or she could not have come the long way from obscurity and the quiet fields of her native Massillon . . . it is only looking for these stronger things that you are apt to find them a vital part of her. Then you see her ordering her life well. You find her availing herself of summer rates at the hotels. You find her entering into extensive research before deciding upon her coiffure or her costumes for “Romola.” Then you learn of her working all night in the factory that “The White Sister” might be cut down to the desired footage.

The White Sister
The White Sister

These are the stronger, the more material things which the years and which experience have given to Lillian Gish. And they are the things also which have given her genius to the eagerly expectant world. For genius unsupplemented will often die unclaimed.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Really Lillian Gish would fit better into Italy’s drowsy and serene picture. She might even be a White Sister . .  with her tender hands and her face like a soul-given form. But she has not chosen retreat. And, given the strife of New York for her background, she has adapted herself. We saw her at her hotel just before the  premiere of “The White Sister,” when blasé, sophisticated critics were flagging other things in order to be present. When they were bidding ridiculously high for opening-night tickets. When, in the same breath with her name, other names, legendary in the world of the theater, were being mentioned. “The White Sister” was her yesterday, could talk nothing but “Romola.” wasn’t unlike a master-chemist paring to compound some life-giving fluid. She had ready. That was still to be taken care of. This must be treated thus and so.

The White Sister
The White Sister

That was nearly completed. . . On a chintz lounge lay a copy of Giovanni Papini’s “The Life of Christ.” A place was marked half-way thru. We asked her if she didn’t think it strange that an atheist had lived to write such an orthodox book.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)

“No,” she said. And because she was very sure, her voice was low. No need to lend conviction by raising your tone when you know. “Atheists.” she said, “are inverted Christians. I’m sure. They have such a perfect conception of the Divinity that the things done in His Name offend them. They turn their hurt faces the other way.”

The White Sister
The White Sister

Talk of books brought us to Leonardo da Vinci. She knows his life as the clergy know their Gospel. She has reverence for him as one of the greatest men that ever lived. And if his greatness is assailed, she champions him with swift words. She bought Brentano’s out of every copy of the story of his life, giving it as gifts to her friends. All of this is what you would expect of Lillian Gish, perhaps. But then her telephone would ring. And fragments of her conversation reaching us suggested that she is a splendid executive. The office was on the wire. And numerous business details and financial matters seemed to be at her finger-tips.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

Her only boast is Dorothy. Dorothy was always quick, she tells you. When they were children, visitors always marveled at Dorothy’s wit … at Dorothy’s intelligence. We spoke of Dorothy as La Clavel in “The Bright Shawl.”

She wasn’t sure she approved of her in that . . . a wrist-watch warned us of another appointment.

“Mother and I were frightfully shocked when she smoked that big black cigar,” she said. “But most of the time I just couldn’t make myself realize it was Dorothy. She wasn’t the Dorothy I know. She wasn’t . . .”

And then, with something like maternal pride: “But wasn’t she beautiful? Oh, I think she was so beautiful!”

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 2
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish in costume]; ca. 1920s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.464

She had come in shortly before we arrived and she was still wearing her wrap. It was a heavy, bright red coat. It was the kind of coat the older schoolgirls wear. It wasn’t at all the sort of wrap you’d expect of Lillian Gish. Her face was even, more wistful and her hair even a paler gold above it. Her wearing that coat was like her sitting up all night to cut film . . . incompatible . . . contradictory . . . paradoxical. . . .

The White Sister
The White Sister

The time had passed pleasantly and swiftly. Our wrist-watch warned us of another appointment. “You live rushing about too,” she dismayed. “Your wrist-watch is your King. It is different in Italy. I’m glad to return for a few months. Minutes don’t matter so frantically there. And the only thing you’ve ever seen bluer than Italy’s sky is Italy’s sea.”

And then the telephone rang again, imperiously, and we left her.

The White Sister
The White Sister

It was an evening, about a week later, that we saw her as she stood alone on the large stage of the Forty-fourth Street Theater while one of the most celebrated audiences ever gathered under one roof paid tribute to her work in ”The White Sister.” She stood there some minutes . . . like a delicate porcelain in her quaint ivory satin frock . . . waiting, waiting for the tumultuous applause to die down so she might explain that only the co-operation of the entire organization had made her dreams for “The White Sister,” realities.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Paradoxical . . . A simplicity of manner to cloak a profundity of thought and a universal comprehension. Interludes, stolen from the trying labors of cutting film and manipulating the high finance of motion-picture production, to read “The Life of Christ.”

. . . Lillian Gish ; a White Sister in a bright red coat.

By Adele Whitely Fletcher – December 1923

The White Sister
The White Sister

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