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Thursday, July 7, 2016

THE WHITE SISTER (1933)

After donning ill-advised YellowFace make-up for THE SON-DAUGHTER in ’32, Helen Hayes did penance by putting on the veil as a lovesick nun in this ill-conceived romantic twaddle, a remake of an old Lillian Gish silent. (Gish made a great success of it, her post-D. W. Griffith debut, along with newfound star Ronald Colman, in Henry King’s silent 1923 version.) Hayes is rich, titled & engaged to a dull banker when dashing soldier-boy Clark Gable sweeps her off her tiny feet. These two then play coy for two insufferable acts (sans heat or chemistry) before war breaks out to save the third act. Separated at last, the film noticeably improves. Gable, who’d just solidified his stardom in RED DUST/’32 with this film’s director (Victor Fleming), gets action & relief in a terrific flying sequence; sexy rapport with the Swiss family who rescued him, then swaggers out of a grim POW camp. Hayes, believing him killed in battle, ‘marries’ into the church as a nun, with Fleming detailing the churchly initiation as a masochistic cult ritual. Naturally, Clark finds a way back to Hayes. Will she abnegate or capitulate? Will anyone care?

DOUBLE-BILL: Write-up of the 1923 version to come. As recalled from two decades back, many goodies sheared off for the remake, rather like the cascades of hair lost in the initiation ceremony. Lost items include: dying Dad’s missing will; the jealous sister who’s also a romantic rival; even an eruption from Mount Vesuvius!!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hayes left Hollywood in 1935, according to her, never having quite caught on. Well, maybe. She certainly did well against Gary Cooper in A FAREWELL TO ARMS/’32 and Ronald Colman in ARROWSMITH/’31. A more likely explanation is that the strict enforcement of the Production Code, starting mid-1934, meant the boss’s wife (Irving Thalberg: Boss; Norma Shearer: Wife) needed to ditch her daring, sexy lady specialties. In their place, Thalberg wanted the sort of prestige stage items Hayes , or perhaps, Katharine Cornell, would have played. Ergo, slim pickin’s left for Hayes.

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