Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
The White Sister (MGM, 1933) – Director: Victor Fleming. Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart (s/p). Francis Marion Crawford (novel, play), Walter Hackett (dramatization). Adele Comandini, Charles MacArthur, Frances Marion, Leonard Praskins (uncredited). Stars: Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Lewis Stone, Louise Closser Hale, May Robson, Edward Arnold, & Alan Edwards. B&W, 105 minutes.
“Only the producers of the immortal 'Smilin' Through' are capable of bringing to the talking screen such a love story with such tenderness, tears and beauty…”
Now that sound was the rule in Hollywood, studios scrambled to find not only film-able, but cheaply film-able properties. There existed a literal treasure trove of these in the films from the silent era, and the studios mined as many of these as it could in addition to buying plays and commissioning adaptations and original works.
This film about a young woman during World War I who becomes a nun after believing her sweetheart has been killed in action had been filmed twice previously: in 1915 for Essanay, with a script by Frances Marion, direction by Fred C. Wright and starring Viola Allen, Richard Travers and Florence Oberle. It was remade in 1923 by Inspiration Pictures (released through Metro), with writing by George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker, direction by Henry King, and starring Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman and Charles Lane. The remake differed from the original in that heroine Angela Chiaromonte in that the father (Lane) had a screen role and the character of the aunt, Princess Chiaromonte (Oberle) was eliminated. MGM kept that arrangement for the 1933 remake and cast Lewis Stone to play the father. To play Angela they signed Helen Hayes and for her sweetheart, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was originally considered, but in the end the role was given to the up-and-coming Clark Gable. Edward Arnold was given the supporting role of Monsignor Saracinesca, played in the 1915 version by Thomas Commerford and in the 1923 version by J. Barney Sherry. Victor Fleming was brought in to direct and Donald Ogden Stewart penned the script.
With all these heavyweights, the film looked in pre-production like a big hit. Unfortunately, it was a misfire, though a profitable one, proving to be a step back for Gable, whose career was gaining real momentum after his appearances in A Free Soul, Strange Interlude and Red Dust. The problem was that the role was not a good fit; he was cast against type as a romantic Italian soldier. But the real problem lay with the producer, Hunt Stromberg, whose problem was that he wasn’t Irving Thalberg. Thalberg, who guided Gable’s career, finding the right vehicles to fit the image the studio had fashioned for him, was on extended leave due to health problems. Had Thalberg been around he never would have considered Gable for the role. Gable, without Thalberg to guide him, grew more mindful of his career and began to refuse roles he thought cast him out of type. After a string of such refusals, Louis Mayer took advantage of the lull in Gable’s schedule to teach him a lesson by loaning him out to Columbia for a B-picture called Night Bus. This eventually became It Happened One Night, a prophetic title for both Gable and Mayer.
The White Sister is the story of Angela Chiaromonte (Hayes). Her father (Stone) has arranged a marriage between her and eligible banker Ernesto Traverse (Edwards). But a short time before the wedding is to take place she meets Giovanni Severi, a soldier who has crashed his auto into her father’s chauffeur-driven vehicle. Smitten by the chance encounter Angela drags her maid Mina (Hale) to the town carnival, where she once again runs into Giovanni. Determined to win over the shy Angela, he takes her to a cafe and confesses that he has fallen in love with her. Although she feels the same way, Angela informs Giovanni about her engagement and later writes him a letter ending their involvement.
However, six days before the wedding, Giovanni appears at a dance at Prince Chiaromonte’s. After maneuvering Angela alone, he makes her admit that she loves only him. They embrace, but the prince walks in on them, condemns Giovanni for his actions and throws him out of the house. Despite Angela's protests that she wants to marry Giovanni, the prince, whose own wife deserted him for another man and later committed suicide, insists that she and Ernesto go through with the wedding. Angela, however, refuses her father’s order and runs off to find Giovanni.
While on her way to Giovanni’s home her car collides with that of her father, killing him instantly. Devastated, Angela moves to a small apartment, where Giovanni find her. She tells him she is too grief-stricken to continue their romance and sends him away.
Soon afterward, Angela learns of Italy’s entrance into the war and that Giovanni is going off to the front. Now she meets him and pledges her love. Months later, Giovanni becomes a pilot, is shot down by a German airplane, and is presumed dead. Overcome with grief, Angela meets with longtime family friend Monsignor Saracinesca (Arnold). With his help and backing she enters the convent to take her vows and begins studying to serve as a nursing nun.
Meanwhile, we learn that Giovanni hasn’t been killed after all. He has been recuperating on a German farm from the injuries sustained during his crash. When he learns that the German army is in the area, he bids Auf Wiedersehen to his benefactors and makes a dash for the Swiss border. But he is captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. After two years there, Giovanni, who has been sent to solitary confinement because of his repeated escape attempts, sneaks out during a cholera epidemic in a fellow prisoner's body bag. He steals a German plane and flies to Italy, where he begins to search for Angela.
He tracks her down to a hospital, where he is shocked to find that she has become a nun. Angela, too, is shocked to see Giovanni, but in spite of her love, she tells him her vows cannot be broken. He tries to change her mind, but during an air raid he sees her praying and realizes he has no chance. But he does get to see her again, for after he leaves the hospital and returns to the front, he is hit by enemy fire and returns to the hospital, where he dies in Angela’s arms.
This film marks the first appearance of Gable’s trademark mustache.
Gable gives one of the worst performances of his career as Giovanni. At times he seems overwhelmed by Hayes, unable to assert himself in their scenes together. Despite the fact that the two got along well off-screen she later noted that he kept trying to hide his hands from her, hands that were scarred from his working-class background. Further embarrassment came when his first wife and acting coach, Josephine Dillion, published a series of open letters to him about his acting in the pages of film magazine Motion Picture. She noted that in The White Sister he did funny things with his mouth to make his dimples show, probably in an attempt to soften his character in the movie. It was something that didn’t help his he-man image.
Problems arose when Hayes decided she didn’t like the film’s final scenes and demanded her husband, Charles MacArthur, be brought in for a re-write. Because of her success in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931, written by MacArthur) and A Farewell to Arms (1932), the studio acceded to her demands. Donald Ogden Stewart, who wrote the screenplay, wasn’t at odds with her demands, but when he saw how the final product diverged from his original, he made a vow of his own never to take a film assignment seriously, realizing it wasn’t art he was penning, but product.
The problem with The White Sister is that the plot is leaden, substituting saccharine moments for real emotions. Part of this had to do with the obvious lack of chemistry between Gable and Hayes. We just don’t understand what they see in each other because the script gives us no reason to see anything other than them looking at each other and painfully flirting, trying to build a relationship where clearly none exists.
There is also a problem with the motivation of Hayes’ character. We can intellectually understand why she decides to go into the convent, but we cannot emotionally understand it. It becomes sort of a Cook’s tour – we see her taking part in Catholic rituals and taking her vows, but it’s all at a superficial level, performed as if she were going shopping. Her life is sinking into stupefaction; the Church saves her and gives her life meaning, but we never see how it affects her. It simply seems as if the director can’t wait to get these scenes out of the way so he can pick up the romance where it left off.
As Gable was the wrong choice for Giovanni, so Victor Fleming is the wrong choice as director. Fleming is an action director when a more sensitive hand is called for, like Edgar Welwyn or Frank Borzage. The supporting cast is fine, but none are given a chance to stand out. Edward Arnold has little to do, as does Lewis Stone. And Louise Closser Hale is given practically nothing to do except drink up the family’s hooch in the role of comic relief.
The aerial sequences used in the movie combined stock footage from Hell’s Angels (1930) combined with newly shot footage by second unit director Cullen Tate over the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Though the film received mixed reviews, it still earned $750,000 in the U.S. and Canada, which combined with the $922,000 elsewhere, made for a profit of $456,000.
The final verdict on The White Sister is that it’s watchable, though more for hardcore film fans, Pre-Code enthusiasts and Gable completists.