3 April 2011 | Steffi_P
"Nature seemed to hold her breath"
The 1920s were the golden age of the screen melodrama. As motion pictures became ever more elaborate in their expression and ever more legitimate as part of culture, so they became less of a picture show and took their cues more from stage and literature. The White Sister is a typical example. Derived from a book by F. Marion Crawford, like so many novels from the previous hundred years, it tells a tale of romantic love versus social convention, with fate, or rather bad luck, playing a hand. Crawford is all but forgotten today, but in 1923 he was still remembered as a popular author of the previous generation, and regarded worthy of this rather extravagant production.
The White Sister was directed by Henry King, another name not so familiar now, but a high profile one in Hollywood throughout his career. King was a firm believer in physical space as a psychological factor – a bit like Fritz Lang but not nearly as abstract. The large sets provide him with a lot of material, and he really allows them to dominate, emphasising both their height and depth, in the early scenes showing the disinherited Lillian Gish dwarfed within them. But he knows to keep focus on the characters by placing us inside the action, for example with the point-of-view shots of the musicians when Gish and Ronald Colman sit together on the wall. He is also able to move right in on a personal level, such as his memorable introduction to Gish, a face peeping through a barred window. Throughout the picture he is juxtaposing the big canvas with the little. For example, when Gish's carriage rides away after her goodbye to Colman, we get a close-up of her pulling down the blind, followed by the carriage receding away down a lonely looking street – the emptiness of the latter image complements the emotional moment of the former.
As for Miss Gish, this were first picture since parting ways with her mentor D.W. Griffith. Her recent performances for that great director had not been impressive. For one thing she had too often been cast as a teenager and encouraged to put on a twee girly act. Secondly in pictures like Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm she had been unbearably hammy, throwing wild gestures and pulling faces in every scene. The White Sister finds her refreshingly understated, just as she was in her earliest Griffith pictures. In scenes such as the one where she meets Colman after being turfed out of her home, or the moment she takes her vows, her face is passive, her emotions stifled, but clearly burning below the surface. Of course, when she is lead to believe that her love has been killed her reaction is extreme, but this is natural given the context, and compared to the subtlety of the rest of her performance it has all the necessary impact. In some of her later Griffith movies Gish would have reacted like that if she heard the next-door neighbour had a cough.
Ultimately however The White Sister bears the traits of a movie industry seeking to become more literate and prestigious, in that its title cards are too long and too many. At 143 minutes this is not a short picture, and a lot of that runtime is accounted for by wordage that would be better left out. After all, King's images are so meaningful, and Gish's performance is so intelligent, there is no need to break them up with a lot of text. We even get a title pointing out that the portrait of Gish as a nun by her lovelorn admirer shows her as an unattainable ideal, forcing the symbolism upon the audience rather than allowing them to interpret it for themselves. Incidentally Henry King was also the producer, and while not actually responsible for writing the titles he certainly would have had final say over what was included, so perhaps to some extent he lacked confidence in his own ability to tell a story visually. Whatever the case, it makes what could be one of the more sophisticated melodramas of its era just a bit more boring than it ought to be.