In the autumn of 1922, the director Henry King and his star, Lillian Gish, were about to begin production on The White Sister (1923). They were looking for a new leading man, one who would not cost them the $7,000 a week that Rudolph Valentino now commanded after The Sheik (1921) made him a sensation. In that film, the exotic, athletic, seductive actor entranced audiences as the daring Arab (actually a Byronic Englishman in disguise) who abducts the headstrong Lady Diana Mayo, intending to ravish her. But the sheik is redeemed and restored to the status of a gentleman by her love.

The film was to be shot on location in Naples and Rome. Gish would play the heroine, Angela Chiaromonte, whose sister has schemed to deprive her of their father’s inheritance. The White Sister’s plot perfectly encapsulates the sensibilities of the era: Angela falls in love with Captain Giovanni Severini, who is called away on campaign. He promises to marry her when he returns but is presumed to be killed in action. This provokes Angela to become a nun, a bride of Christ. Later Captain Severini reappears and attempts to renew his love for Angela, who refuses to forsake her vow to the Church.

To play Captain Severini, King and Gish sought a darkly handsome, sensitive, and stalwart male hero to complement the actress’s ethereal, delicate, yet resolute quality. They found him on a Broadway stage in La Tendresse, a romantic melodrama, and invited him to test for the role. By all accounts, the diffident Ronald Colman, a modest success on stage and (by his own reckoning) a failure in a few films, wanted a second chance at stardom even as he doubted he could deliver the performance King and Gish expected. But The White Sister made him a star and the epitome of the gentleman hero, a figure already under stress in the aftermath of the First World War and amid the rise of fascist Italy and other forces that would declare the West decadent and doomed to defeat. Heroes seemed hard to find. At the height of his career in the 1920s and 1930s, Colman offered audiences a chance to believe in their existence.

One of the first things one notices about the heroes of this era is that they hold themselves to an almost knightly, and deeply Christian, code of conduct. This proves to be their redemption and that of others. In several affecting scenes in The White Sister, a frustrated Colman, whose character is strongly attracted to Gish’s, avoids touching her while she is in her habit. Yet when he turns away, her urge to touch him almost overpowers her. After she is offered the key to unlock the door of the room in which Severini has secluded her, she lingers in a devotional pose reminiscent of Bernini’s St. Teresa, in an ecstasy that seems as physical as it is spiritual. Ultimately, Severini dies heroically while trying to deal with the destruction caused by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The film ends with the town celebrating his sacrifice. The denouement is a deft reconciliation of the spirit and the flesh, honoring both human and divine love.

Reviewers and audiences hailed Colman’s performance, comparing his dark, handsome looks to those of Rudolph Valentino. Colman, more sensitive and understated than Valentino, heralded the revival of the Christian hero, and the perfect rival to other rugged stars such as John Gilbert. The White Sister had created the paradigmatic Colman leading man, who sets himself and society right.

The White Sister had created the paradigmatic Colman leading man, who sets himself and society right.

Colman’s heroes have their origins in the eighteenth century, if not in the Age of Chivalry. Samuel Richardson, one of the first novelists to place a Christian hero in a corrupt secular society, has his nobleman in The History of Sir Charles Grandison declare: “I am not apt to run into grave declamations against the times: And yet, by what I have seen abroad, and now lately since my arrival, at home, and have heard from men of greater observation, and who have lived longer in the world, than I have, I cannot but think, that Englishmen are not what they were.” Yet the state of the gentleman or knight has always been in peril. Colman’s films show just how much the very idea of the gentleman, or the gentleman himself, has been in need of repair, restoration, and reformation. But the arc of his career shows that revival was not to be.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Colman remained the steadfast hero-player, infinitely adaptable to roles in adventure stories, costume dramas, domestic comedies, crime dramas, and even a Western. In The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), he is a New York City engineer who scorns Western hicks but is enchanted by the title character’s beauty and grace—a heroine of the West who will win him over as he rides to the rescue before a dam breaks to engulf his beloved’s town. In Night of Love (1927), as Montero, a gypsy chieftain and soldier of fortune, Colman is a gentleman in the rough who kidnaps Princess Marie, the bride of the corrupt and rabid Duke de la Garda. Montero renounces his revenge against the Duke for raping Montero’s own bride, however, and puts the princess under his protection. In Condemned (1929), Colman is a professional thief on Devil’s Island who redeems himself by saving Madame Vidal from her degrading marriage to a crass prison warden. In Raffles (1930), he is a jewel thief who strives to be worthy of his lady love by forsaking a thrilling life of crime. In The Devil to Pay! (1930), as the wayward son of a wealthy father, he goes straight and rescues the ingenue from marriage to a pompous prince who is only interested in her money. In The Unholy Garden (1931), he is another career criminal who liberates Camille de Jonghe from the Saharan den of thieves to which her father has brought her.

The culmination of Colman’s roles as the hero redeemed is his turn as Sydney Carton in a 1935 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. In the film, which follows the book faithfully, the played-out Carton has the manners of a gentleman but drinks himself into a stupor of self-loathing. He has spoiled his promise. He is unhappy with himself, which is the sign of a gentleman who measures himself by the highest standards and finds himself wanting. He echoes the words of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, who exclaims: “I am unequal to myself. I cannot forgive myself.”

Carton has a brilliant legal mind but has stooped to practicing the ploys of a duplicitous solicitor. He scoffs at idealists, at romantic love, and at the very notion of principles. Then he meets the endearing Lucie Manette, daughter of Dr. Alexandre Manette, released after eighteen years in the Bastille, the victim of the cruel Marquis St. Evremonde. Carton, despite his cynicism, is transfixed by Lucie’s sweetness, her gentle refusal to accept his low opinion of himself, and her belief that it is never too late for him to recover himself. He becomes devoted to their friendship and to her service. Although he never says so, he has fallen in love with her. Watch Colman’s face the moment she announces she is going to marry Charles Darnay, who has renounced his noble title as an Evremonde and repudiated his uncle the Marquis’s terrible abuse of the starving poor. Carton’s stunned expression of disappointment is transformed into the only other way he can declare his love: he tells Lucie that he would give up his life to save her, and that he wishes that she would never forget his willingness—one might almost call it a desire—to sacrifice himself should that ever be required.

Carton devises a successful plan to substitute himself for the falsely imprisoned Darnay, who is about to be guillotined. Colman’s understated performance mutes the melodrama of his execution. He wants his life to stand for something beyond himself as he declares off screen, his words ascending to the sky: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” Colman’s famous voice and sublime manner never waver, resonating an unsurpassable warmth of human kindness.

Reviewers and audiences hailed Colman’s performance as the best of his career, and the film was a box office success. He remained throughout the decade near the top of movie-star rankings with films such as Clive of India (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), where he played identical gentleman heroes who redeem not only themselves but a corrupted world.

The decade that marked the apogee of Colman’s career as gentleman hero ended with the beginning of World War II and the advent of film noir, in which the dissolute detective, epitomized by Humphrey Bogart, dominated the screen. In the midst of postwar cynicism and the advent of the Cold War, Colman’s kind of hero had no place to go—except for one role that seemed to play against his type but that nonetheless marked the height of his heroic screen persona, for which he received his first and only Academy Award. And its very plot foreshadowed the fate of leading men like him.

In A Double Life (1947), Anthony “Tony” John–a gentleman of the theater playing in a light comedy, A Gentleman’s Gentleman–has misgivings about reprising his successful Othello, which a producer is keen to revive. Tony looks at a bust of himself in the theater and does not seem impressed. Comments about him suggest he is merely the effigy of a gentleman. He seems wary, perhaps even frightened, of the torment that playing a tragedy might arouse as he broods over his failed marriage to his ex-wife Brita, whom he still loves and who will play Desdemona, even though she wishes he would reject a role that she knows will depress and agitate him.

Tony meets a waitress, Pat Kroll, who is smitten with his gentlemanly manners but is also put out by his impenetrability. She keeps asking him his name, and he replies that he has several–just which one is really his he cannot say. He is the quintessential actor leading a double life to such an extreme that his true identity, apart from his roles, is hard for him to understand. Yet it troubles him that his portrait and bust seem like just another representation of Tony John, a facsimile that has no original.

The gentleman’s veneer in virtually all of Colman’s films cracks in A Double Life. Brita predicts that doing Othello again “would be the end.” She is not speaking of Tony’s death, but she might as well be, as he begins to confuse Othello’s jealousy for his own. He senses that the press agent Bill Friend is in love with Brita. Then Tony confuses Pat Kroll with Desdemona and strangles her, nearly killing her as he displaces his rage against his ex-wife for the drama he is playing out with Pat in her dark apartment. Soon he murders Pat, and her death serves as a prelude to the darkened stage of his death scene in Othello, in which Tony, like the character he plays, takes his life. Tony succumbs to his delusions and to his doomed Shakespearian role.

A Double Life has been described as an early film noir. The shadowy lighting, the femme fatale—at least in Tony’s mind—accord with the darkened atmosphere and the conflicted minds of characters in this genre. Tony imagines treachery and infidelity and the corruption of the noble ambition that had once made him, with Brita’s encouragement, better than he thought was possible. The urge to cherish Brita becomes something very different and more dangerous. As Oscar Wilde lamented: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

It is a haunting film and performance, penetrating a realm that no other Ronald Colman film ever enters, with a double vision of life and art much more tortured—and modern—than the worlds of his gentleman heroes. Yet it reveals the underlying reasons that his gentleman roles were so popular and powerful. Tony is the applauded leading man, a gentleman of the theater, who depends on entrances and exits and cues and lines. Even as he dies, he tries to get up and answer the curtain call, aware that he is late for his place on the stage. Colman’s last major film role shows how the concept of the gentleman sets a standard by which others can measure themselves and a focal point around which they can gather.

That focal point was disappearing—in film and in American culture more broadly. Although Colman was offered many more scripts, he rejected them because they no longer portrayed the gentlemen heroes he liked to play. Colman starred in one more film after A Double Life, Champagne for Caesar (1950), a satire on the world of consumer culture that no longer placed such a high value on gentleman heroes. In his later work on radio and in television, he often played gentlemen who no longer had the opportunity to be heroes. And the Colman hero’s long-held position in American culture was soon usurped by anti-heroes played by the likes of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. The industry had moved on to more conflicted leading men, and the world of the celebrated gentleman hero died on that stage with Tony John.