falderal : a moving images blog
The White Sister ; 1923  ·  Posted by Tallulah

Director: Henry King
Actors: Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Gail Kane, J. Barney Sherry, Charles Lane, Juliette La Violette
Country: U.S.A.

Part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon. Please check out the other entries!

What to say about The White Sister… I think that the best way to put it would be “conflicted”.

In regards to mise-en-scène, it is absolutely breathtaking. I was astounded by the sets and how lovely all the costumes were. It was truly an impressive picture to watch purely for the sets alone. As for the leads, Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman, that is where the “conflicted” feelings comes in. Both Gish and Colman are formidable actors in their own rights but I was less than impressed with Colman in this film and Gish left me both impressed and kind of cold. Personally, the chemistry between the two actors (their characters are lovers) worked and did not work at the same time because I could not wrap my head around the coupling of the two actors. Gish’s character isn’t a child but her looks made her appear to be like a child-woman and Colman appeared a bit too old for her that they looked mismatched. However, what made me think that Gish was a nuanced actress was that despite her youthful face, she appeared incredibly mature, which left me baffled because my brain kept going, “She looks so young, BUT SHE OBVIOUSLY ISN’T!” I think that my thoughts were obstructing my ability to immerse myself into the love scenes because I thought that they were very well acted, but then I would always have an afterthought that ruined the moment.

So why did Gish’s performance make me think that it was impressive but also unimpressive at the same time?
As a disclaimer, I am going to state that I think Gish fans are going to like her performance in this movie. Heck, I think that the sets and her acting were the best things about the movie and it’s those things alone that make this film worth a watch. I actually feel bad for criticizing Gish because I haven’t watched many of her films and only watched some of her most famous pictures, so all I’ve seen of Gish are similar characters. I’m falling into the mistake that people (myself included) made about Mary Pickford so I feel a bit iffy saying not very nice things about Gish.
When I see Gish in highly emotional scenes, such as in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919), I am blown away by the power of her performance. It is both Brechtian-esque and immersing at the same time; Gish’s performance of emotional scenes makes my skin crawl and I become aware that I am watching a movie but at the same time, I am almost in a trance-like state where I am captivated by everything Gish does on the screen and all thoughts escape my mind. The reason I hold Gish in such high respect as an actress is because she is able to make me feel that way. I felt this way when I watched Gish in certain scenes in The White Sister (one of them is shown in Picture 2), but what was odd about watching this movie was that I felt as if I was watching Gish performing in the same mannerisms as she did in her previous pictures. What I loved most about Gish’s performance in her other silent pictures was what made me feel detached and a bit pooped in this movie. It’s quite a mystery as to why but I do have an inkling. I absolutely adored Gish in The Night of the Hunter (1955) because of her powerful performance and for me, it was a change to see her as this protective and strong woman whereas the characters I saw Gish perform in her silents were of girls and women who were helpless. While her character, Angela, isn’t completely helpless, she has a weariness to her that seems similar to Gish’s most famous silent film roles.

Overall, I think that this film is worth a watch for Lillian Gish fans but it wouldn’t be a movie that I would personally watch again during my free time.

IMDb Link: The White Sister

12 Responses to “The White Sister ; 1923”

  1. Fritzi says:

    Hi there! Thanks so much for the great post on The White Sister. I have to say that the film leaves me a bit cold as well. Lillian was splendid (I am a huge fan, obviously) but it just didn’t do it for me.
    Many thanks for your blogathon participation!

    • S says:

      Thank you for hosting such a wonderful blogathon!

      I am a bit relieved to hear that a huge Lillian fan also found the movie to be a bit of a let down.

  2. Joe Thompson says:

    That was a good presentation of your feelings about the movies. Try to watch more of Lillian Gish’s movies and you’ll adore her the way you did in Night of the Hunter. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Vicki says:

    I was hoping someone would review this as I watched Romola for the first time for the blogathon and was interested to see how it compared to The White Sister (which I haven’t seen!) I agree with many of your sentiments about Lillian Gish in TWS, and I think they extend to Romola. In that film it felt a little like she was playing a different character, but it was impossible to separate it from all the ones she had played before. I think I’ll give The White Sister a go as I’m intrigued by your comment about the costumes!
    Thanks for a really insightful post

    • S says:

      I read your Romola entry and enjoyed your post immensely. I left a comment but it didn’t show up — I hope that you received it and if not, I will comment again! I wasn’t sure if it was held in the moderation queue.

      I hope that you will enjoy The White Sister if you do watch it. I really loved the sets and there is this dress that Gish wears in the beginning that I absolutely LOVE. I wonder if I would feel the same with Romola as you did and if my feelings about Romola would be similar to how I felt with The White Sister. Only time will tell!

  4. Judy says:

    I haven’t seen this one as yet, but was very interested to read about it, even though you had some reservations – will hope to see it in the future.

    • S says:

      I hope that you will be able to see it as well. I was glad to find out that it was available through Warner Archives, since I have been wanting to watch this ever since I saw a promotional picture for it.

  5. Le says:

    Thanks for the tip and for your opinion. When I watch it, I’ll pay attention to their chemistry, since I’m a big fan of both the performers, but have never seen a Ronald Colman silent.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    • S says:

      Funny you mention that because I watched my first Ronald Colman talkie two days ago! I enjoy his performances so I am sure that you would love him in The White Sister since you are a fan :D

  6. Joe Thompson says:

    Sorry it took me a while to get back here. You asked if I had any Gish film recommendations. I could truthfully say anything with Lillian Gish, or Dorothy Gish, is worth watching. As you have read in the blogathon, Birth of a Nation can be difficult to deal with, but it is rewarding, and Lillian is even more wonderful than usual. Watch for the scene where she is standing in the hall in the hospital and a soldier standing guard is looking longingly at her. Her reaction is perfect. Broken Blossoms can also be difficult, but it is a great movie. The scene where Lillian is in a closet trying to avoid her drunken brute father is almost impossible to watch, but is a great piece of acting. Orphans of the Storm is huge, but the two sisters work beautifully together and apart. I haven’t seen The White Sister or Romola, but I’m looking. La Boheme, The Scarlet Letter and especially the Wind are all worth watching. She was wonderful in every talkie I have seen her in. Look for Robert Altman’s A Wedding. The movie is a bit of a mess, but Lillian Gish is radiant. If you can find Dorothy’s Gretchen the Greenhorn, it is a hoot. These are just a few that came to mind ;0) I look forward to reading about them in your blog.

  7. R.A. Kerr says:

    Admittedly, I haven’t seen too many Lillian Gish films but she shines in everything I’ve seen. I know you had reservations about this film, but your review is so thoughtful it makes a person want to see the movie anyway. :)

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