I’ve sometimes thought that if Lillian Gish hadn’t become an actress, she would’ve made an excellent Catholic nun. That’s a sincere observation–Ms. Gish, a highly-disciplined woman of innate dignity and fine character, seemed like a good match for a contemplative life. But come to think of it, she did come pretty close when she starred in the 1923 drama The White Sister.
This was Gish’s first film after her long tenure under D.W. Griffith. They had parted on friendly terms after completing Orphans of the Storm (1922), with Griffith admitting he couldn’t pay her a high enough salary and encouraging her to strike out on her own. Fellow former Griffith actor Richard Barthelmess and talented director Henry King had started working for the new independent company Inspiration Pictures and had just made the Americana masterpiece Tol’able David (1921). Gish decided to join them, and after some thought decided the 1909 novel The White Sister would make a fine melodramatic film.
Gish was particularly drawn to the novel’s description of the solemn “taking the veil” ceremony, where a nun takes her final vows: “It had never been re-created on stage or screen. Then, as now, it was not easy to find new material.” Biblical stories were pretty commmon in the silent era, but other types of religious stories were more rare. Studios assumed people could “get religion free on Sundays” and weren’t going to flock to faith-based stories during the week. But this didn’t daunt Gish, and soon Inspiration Pictures agreed to make the film and also gave it a generous budget for its production in Italy. They were assisted by Monsignor Bonzano, who helped the location shooting go smoothly in a country where Benito Mussolini had seized power only weeks before. Bonzano also helped ensure the religious aspects of the film were treated with both accuracy and reverence. Gish and crew would enjoy their time “among the Italians,” especially since their studio was on the outskirts of Rome–although when they first arrived they found it had no equipment.
Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, the younger of Prince Chiaromonte’s two daughters from two separate marriages (she’s described as “ethereal” in a title card, highly aware of Gish’s image). The older daughter Marchesa dislikes Angela and is jealous of her romance with Captain Giovanni Severini, who she wants for herself. After Prince Chiaromonte dies from a bad fall from a horse, Marchesa burns his will so she can inherit his estate. The lack of a will means the father’s second marriage is declared invalid, and Marchesa casts ex-step-sister Angela out of the house. Angela finds herself even more alone when Giovanni’s called away to an African expedition, and soon word comes that he’s been killed. Distraught, without family, and wanting to honor Giovanni’s memory, she decides to become a nun and devote herself to helping others. (Never mind that it’s typically a years-long process before a nun takes her final vows…!) Ah, but could it be that Giovanni–isn’t really dead?
(Some SPOILERS in this paragraph.) The plot of The White Sister departed from the novel in one key aspect. In the novel Angela renounces her vows and she and Giovanni marry. But this didn’t sit right with Gish, not only because becoming a Catholic nun is a serious vocation (certainly not something you discard like an old glove), but because “You can’t care about a character you see taking solemn vows before God at eight o’clock and then by nine o’clock changing her mind.” It was decided that Angela would stay true to her vows and Giovanni would have to perish, although not before heroically saving some innocent townsfolk during a flood. (End spoilers!)
The White Sister has pretty obvious strengths and weaknesses, some strengths being the high production values and fine cast. Gish gets those moments of high drama she had finetuned under Griffith, and some quieter moments that probably leave the deepest impressions (the scene with Giovanni’s portrait, for example). The distinguished Ronald Colman shines in his first leading man role–I was surprised to learn it was his first leading role. He has just the right amount of presence and restraint that pairs so well with Gish’s delicate emotions.
Some of the weaknesses might have the original novel to thank–I believe the gimmicky “volcanometer” device (or whatchamacallit) does stem from the book, believe it or not. Its presence during the natural disaster scenes seems ridiculously convenient, especially since we get plenty of “foreboding” scenes already from the uneasy farm animals and townsfolk. And actress Gail Kane had a somewhat thankless job as the jealous Marchesa.
I first saw The White Sister a few years ago, and remembered the “loyalty to religious vows” aspect being handled rather clumsily. Upon rewatching it, I was happy to find my memory had been wrong–the “taking the veil” scene is handled with great dignity and beauty, and we do understand how important it is for Angela to stay true to her religious vows. Where I think the film would’ve been stronger, however, is if they showed Angela being drawn to religion early on, or showing it as a stronger part of her life. We do see her father at prayer, but a couple scenes of Angela praying or perhaps interacting with nuns would’ve gone a long way. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt the drama, either.
Now, being a Catholic myself and all, and one who even knows a few gals who’ve taken the veil (they’re literally the warmest and most joyful people I know, by the way), I was curious about which order Angela Chiaromonte was supposed to belong to. There’s a lot of different Catholic orders and they all have their own styles of habits. Some nuns wear black, others gray, some white, some deep blue–some even have pink habits (and there’s always an element of white). There’s different styles and lengths of veils, some orders wear crosses and others don’t–the variety is endless. Pardon this educated guess, but it’s likely they chose an order whose habit looked the best on film! Gish said they visited thirty cloisters before deciding on the “Order of Lourdes,” as she recalled.
Aaaaand I absolutely can’t find anything specific about an “Order of Lourdes.” It’s possible it had a slightly different name or a longer one than Gish remembered. I will say that a lot of Carthusian nuns seem to wear a similar style of long veil, kerchief around the face and neck, and rounded neckerchief. Although Cistercians kind of do too. Hmm, and some Dominicans. And–DANG IT.
At any rate, Gish does indeed look like a perfect holy card in this particular habit. Maybe they altered it a tad, too.
If you’re interested, here’s the lovely order of nuns I grew up around: The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, along with some Schoenstatt priests.
They’re a comparatively recent order, founded in 1926 by Fr. Joseph Kentenich in Germany. A wise and gentle man, he managed to survive the Dachau concentration camp after Schoenstatt was targeted by the Nazis. Today there are Schoenstatt centers around the world, each with their own replica of this adorable little shrine:
So yes, you can probably see why something like The White Sister piqued my interest! And while it has its flaws, I hope it piques yours, too.
Note: The original version of this article stated the following: “Two fellow Griffith veterans, actor Richard Barthelmess and director Henry King…” I changed this sentence after realizing that King had never worked for Griffith, although he had certainly studied his work.