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Monday, July 25, 2016

THE WHITE SISTER (1923)

After a legendary decade with D. W. Griffith more-or-less inventing narrative film*, Lillian Gish traveled to Italy with director Henry King (and fresh discovery Ronald Colman) to film F. Marion Crawford’s well-known religious romancer. (Second of four adaptations.) A 1933 remake with Helen Hayes/Clark Gable streamlined much of the story out; this one all-too patiently keeps most of it in. And what a tale of woe it is! Gish, second daughter to a Prince of Naples, loses her father to a riding accident and her inheritance to a jealous half-sister. On the plus side, it saves Gish from a loveless, arranged marriage, allowing her to wed her heart’s desire (military man Colman) once he completes a tour of duty in Northern Africa. But when he’s reported killed, she tends to her grief by marrying . . . the church! A white sister, now & forever . . . until her ‘dead’ fiancé shows up alive & well. And all the while, Mount Vesuvius heaves with incipient threat! Yikes! Director King set this colossal, handsome production on a very slow fuse, at least in the first two acts. Temperature & pace rise significantly in the third act when Colman returns and the narrative cogs start falling into place. Ms. Gish is still a Griffith girl in the first half of the film, with emotional feints & hysterics that can feel displaced away from his formal style. But she sheds mannerisms as the film gathers force. (A continuing process that would reach its apogee under Victor Sjöström in her late M-G-M silents.) Colman is a complete natural right out of the gate, remarkably modern. An instant star, and one of a mere handful of top silent players to thrive when sound came in.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The fine VOD from Warner Archive uses an excellent new score (2009) from Garth Neustadter, but mastered at a very low setting. Set your volume at eleven!  Beware of other editions.

DOUBLE-BILL: SISTER was such a success, Gish (plus sister Dorothy), Colman and director King, along with some new guy named William Powell to play villain, returned to Italy for another heavily-plotted family epic, ROMOLA/’24, set in a phenomenal recreation of renaissance Florence in the time of Savonarola. A stupendous achievement, the film didn’t catch on and remains underrated to this day. A situation unlikely to change with the dire video editions currently available. Superb elements exist (gorgeous resolution, state-of-the-art tinting & toning), but until a better edition comes out, don’t expect its rep to improve.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Yes, an exaggeration, but not that much of one.

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