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August 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Henry King

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from left to right: Frank Lloyd, Henry King, John Ford and Frank Borzage

For the better part of September, I plan on writing about some of the films of Henry King. Why this director and why now? September marks thirty-five years since Henry King was honored at the Telluride Film Festival. Prior to being a Cinema Studies student, I had seen Carousel, still for me the best of the films made from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and quite liked A Bell for Adono on television. Then I read Andrew Sarris's assessment of King in "The American Cinema", which dictated my opinions regarding film directors for a while. I started to reassess my attitude when I got into a long conversation with Noel Black, the director of Pretty Poison. Black, who had interviewed some veteran directors for the Directors Guild of America's magazine, was a fan of Henry King. Weirdly enough, almost half a year later, I managed to see Carousel again, playing with Black's second film, Cover Me Babe, at New York City's most disreputable grind house, Variety Photoplays, only because I happened to walk by the theater that never advertised their constantly changing double features.

Sometime after that, I saw my first silent film by Henry King, The White Sister, at the Museum of Modern Art. In that film, Lillian Gish plays a young woman in love with Ronald Colman. Colman goes off to fight in World War I, and is later reported as killed in battle. A distraught Gish gives herself to the Church and becomes a nun. The report of Colman's death was an error, and Colman returns home in hopes of reuniting with Gish. For much of the audience I sat with, it was an easy choice, and there were expressions of disbelief that Gish would not want to live happily ever after with Colman. And to me, The White Sister is one of several films Henry King has made about the idea of commitment to an ideal, or an act of faith or belief. One of the themes of King's films is about dedication towards a possibly abstract idea at the cost of personal comfort, or even one's life.

As I have written about previously, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Henry King in Telluride. The location was away from the main festival stomping grounds, outside, near a small stream. I don't remember much of what was discussed except that we barely got into his career in the 1920s when we ran out of time. What I do remember was telling him about the experience of watching The White Sister at MoMA. King had told me he had become a Catholic at about this time. Unlike some filmmakers where the concept of faith is a given, King's film are about people in conflict not only with outside influences, but their own very valid self-doubts. A very civil dialogue between self declared atheist James Stewart with priest Jean Hersholt in King's version of Seventh Heaven is for me an example of King's generosity of spirit towards both his characters and his audience.

I will probably refer to the only book on King, Henry King: Director - From Silents to 'Scope, published by the Directors Guild of America, culled from several interviews. In the years since 1975, I have been able to see a theatrical presentation of Romona, one of the first westerns shot in the then new Technicolor process, and a few more films on television, VHS and DVD. I'm not getting any younger myself, so I can't put off this promise I made to myself, to see more of Henry King's films. If anyone else gets inspired, interested or intrigued by any of my postings or by something about King or his films, so much the better.

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Simone Simon in Seventh Heaven (1937)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 31, 2010 06:24 AM