THE WHITE SISTER (1923)

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This silent film directed by Henry King is handsomely made, with interesting location shooting in Italy where the turbulent melodrama is mostly set.

The film doesn’t have a lot of visual flair — there are only two or three memorable shots in the whole thing — but it does have Lillian Gish. Whatever she does — from standing still to walking across a room to doing a little gypsy dance to gently kissing her beloved — she electrifies the screen, makes cinema happen.

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Griffith liked to emphasize Gish’s girlish quality, but she could be very womanly under the direction of other filmmakers — never quite carnal but decidedly sexual, decidedly mature — and so she is here.

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The film would not add up to much without her — with her it has a miraculous dimension. She was a fine actress in her later years, in talkies and on the stage, but in silent films she was, quite simply, an artist of transcendent genius, who understood the demands and possibilities of the medium as well as any actor of the silent era, including Chaplin, Jannings and Garbo.

PROGRESS REPORT

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Today I realized who I needed to dedicate my short novel Circus to — a silent film star, whose image from an old movie poster graces the cover of the book, above.

He played a clown in two of my favorite silent movies, He Who Gets Slapped and Laugh, Clown, Laugh, and my book owes a lot to those movies — to their lurid, melodramatic, Grand Guignol excess.  The book was also partly inspired by some images in King Vidor’s The Big Parade, and by The Circus, my favorite Chaplin feature.

I’d like to think of the book as resembling the scenario of a lost silent film about the circus, like Murnau’s The Four Devils — strange and suggestive, as dreams can be.