The White Sister
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THE WHITE SISTER starring Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Gail Kane and Juliette La Violette. Directed by Henry King. The beautiful Angela Chiaromonte is disinherited and left homeless through the machinations of her cruel, jealous half-sister. With the help of her friend, Madame Bernard, she establishes a small school and re-unites with her sweetheart, the dashing captain Giovanni Severini. While on an expedition in Africa, Giovanni is attacked and believed dead prompting Angela, in her grief, to take her vows and become a nun. When Giovanni returns, Angela must choose between God and the man she loves
Shot on location in Italy and Algeria and lavishly produced, "The White Sister" is Lillian Gish's first starring role after leaving D.W. Griffith. It was produced by the same company and director who brought Richard Barthelmess (another Griffith alumni) lasting fame in "Tol'able David".
Presented with an original music score composed and performed by Stuart Oderman.
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The story is about a prince in Italy who had a daughter by his first wife and one by his second wife, who was played by Gish. Her name is Angela. The prince’s first daughter hates her father and Angela because her father loves Angela more than her and because Giovanni, played by Ronald Colman, loves Angela and Angela loves him passionately, while the older sister also loves Giovanni, but cannot have him. One day, during a fox hunt, the prince falls from his horse and is killed. The older daughter rushes to their home steals her father’s will from his cabinet and burns it. Because there is no will, all of the prince’s property went to the older daughter. She orders Angela out of her home. Angela goes to live with her former chaperone.
Giovanni is a captain in Italy’s army. He is ordered to lead an expedition in Africa, but promises Angela that he will marry her when he returns. While he is in Africa, his camp is overrun by Arab bandits. Newspapers in Italy report that he was killed. Actually, unknown to anyone in Italy, he was captured and placed in prison for a couple of years.
Distraught, Angela is influenced by a priest to take vows to be married to God by becoming a nun. Hence the film’s name “The White Sister,” for the nuns in Italy wore white.
Giovanni escapes the Arabs and returns to Italy and finds that Angela is a nun and that she feels that despite loving Giovanni passionately, she is married to God, and no human, not even the Pope can release her from her vow. As the priest says to Giovanni, if you returned and found Angela married to another man, you would not force her to divorce him, would you? Do you want her to divorce God?
A lot more than what I wrote happens in the 2 ½ hours and I have not hinted about the film’s end.
Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, the second daughter to a wealthy Italian nobleman. When her father is tragically killed, her evil, older half-sister quickly burns her father's will, thus assuring herself by law of possession of his entire estate. She wastes no time throwing poor Angela out of the house. As if things weren't already bad enough for the sweet and innocent Angela, she soon learns that the man she loves, Captain Giovanni Severini, is being called to lead a military excursion into Africa. Ronald Colman, in his first starring role, is wonderful as Captain Severini, playing his part with great emotion. When Angela later gets word that her beloved has been killed, she chooses to become a nun and work for humanity in the memory of the man she loved. Captain Severini is not in fact dead, but it takes him the better part of two years to make his way home and find, to his heart-breaking horror, that Angela, who had promised to wait for him forever, had chosen to wed herself to the church. The last meeting between Angela and Severini is an incredibly poignant one, one almost equaled by the power and passion of the final tragic moments of the film.
The White Sister, directed by Henry King, was filmed in Italy, predominantly in the beautiful locations of Rome and Naples. It premiered in New York on September 5, 1923 before being distributed in general release the following year, and it met with much critical and popular success. There is some question about the length of the film. Apparently, the movie at its premiere exceeded 13,000 feet but was cut down in stages to ten reels totaling less than 10,000 feet by the time of its general release. The version I saw totaled 68 minutes, but significantly longer versions of the film can reportedly be found. The picture quality is unfortunately rather poor, at least in the print I saw. A number of scenes were all but impossible to make out due to the obscurity of the print, and actors' faces, so crucial to the acting performances of silent films, were oftentimes blanked out to a nondescript white blob. Even still, The White Sister is a powerful emotional film that goes some way to proving just how good a silent film could be both then and now.