HomeEntertainmentThe White Sister (1923): Lillian Gish’s leap of faith

The White Sister (1923): Lillian Gish’s leap of faith

This is a guest post for Silent London by James Patterson.

In a 1909 Los Angeles Times review of F. Marion Crawford’s novel The White Sister, the critic noted that Crawford (1854-1909) was “a greater favourite” in Europe “than any other American”. (1) The book is about a young woman who upon learning her fiancé is killed on a foreign mission, enters a convent to become a hospital nun. According to the LA Times, the novel has a happy ending. Spoiler alert: The 1923 film version with Lillian Gish (1893-993) and Ronald Colman (1891-1958) does not end happily.

The White Sister was a popular stage play in the U.S. with actress Viola Allen (1867-1948), who starred in the first film version in 1915. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said the film “is one of the important and pretentious attractions that has been achieved since the invention of motion pictures, for it not only presents a legitimate star in the play in which she was successful but also shows a distinct advance in the art of animated photography.” Publicity for the film boasted: “It was the most beautiful story ever written about a man’s devotion and a woman’s self-sacrifice.” Sadly, the 1915 version of The White Sister, an Essanay production, is among the thousands of lost silent films.

In her 1969 autobiography with Ann Pinchot, Gish explained that she read the novel in the summer of 1922. At the height of the Jazz Age, Lillian Gish “decided that the story would make an interesting film”. She signed with Inspiration Pictures to make the film in Italy for “very little salary and a gross percentage of the profits after double the cost of the [film’s] negative had been returned to the producer.” Her director was Henry King (1886-1982). Her leading man would be Ronald Colman.

A dedicated film artist, Gish, according to the Los Angeles Times, rehearsed her role while on the ship for the seven months of filming in Rome.  Archbishop Bonzano, the Apostolic Delegate from the Vatican to Washington, D.C, was aboard the ship. “This … made it possible for the film to contain impressive religious ceremonies which are correct in every detail,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s film critic in 1923. (5)

A popular novel since its 1909 publication, a popular stage play, and a popular 1915 film with Allen, Gish had found in The White Sister what her former director D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) had found in Thomas Dixon’s 1905 bestselling novel The Klansman, which was the source for his 1915 Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation. Both The White Sister and “The Klansman” had huge followings for a decade or more before becoming films. Neither Griffith nor Gish were guaranteed film success, but they took calculated risks that proved highly profitable for these two films.

In the film, Gish’s love affair with Colman is disrupted when he travels abroad on a foreign mission. When he is believed to have been killed by terrorists, Gish enters a convent, takes her vows, and becomes a hospital nun, or white sister. When Colman returns, he pleads with Gish to break her vows. She refuses.

The White Sister (Henry King, 1923)

By 1923, Gish had a legendary reputation for risking her life for her art. In Griffith’s 1920 Way Down East, Gish was famously set adrift on an ice floe down a raging river. In The White Sister, Gish has a much less physically demanding role when, near the film’s end, she runs through a mini windstorm caused by an erupting volcano. For added drama, Gish is wearing a nun’s traditional hospital habit while running. Other plot complications add to the drama in The White Sister.

A 1923 New York Daily News critic called The White Sister “marvelous.” Gish was “ethereal in her loveliness.” The Philadelphia Inquirer said, The White Sister was “the supreme triumph of Lillian Gish’s remarkable career as a screen artist.”

Though The White Sister was produced by Inspiration Pictures, MGM took over the film’s distribution after its September 1923 release. In her autobiography, Gish said the film was an “instant success”. After she screened the film for Griffith, she reports he told her that “a rush of religious films would follow its success.” He was proved right. In November 1923, Cecil D. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments was released.

A 1933 remake of The White Sister, directed by Victor Fleming, starred Helen Hayes (1900-1993) and Clark Gable (1901-1960). In her autobiography, Gish said that Gable “was subtly wrong for the part.” In 1956, DeMille (1881-1959) remade a nearly 4-hour version of The Ten Commandments. In 1960, the International Movie Database informs, a Mexican film version of The White Sister was released. 

The White Sister (Henry King, 1923)

Gish’s version of The White Sister remains an elegant film. Her costumes, prior to the nun’s hospital habit, are beautiful. Many interior scenes, filmed at Italian villas, provide an appropriately atmospheric European background. Colman, in his first major film role, is outstanding.

In June 1949, Gish had a special audience with His Holiness Pope Pius XII. Afterward, Lillian told columnist Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) that His Holiness remembered her performance in The White Sister. This experience led Gish to write a July 1949 article in Guideposts, the magazine founded by Dr Norman Vincent Peale, about making The White Sister. She said that it was professionally and financially risky to make a religious film during the Jazz Age in America. She proved that even during the Jazz Age, audiences were receptive to religious films.

James Patterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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