Orphans of the Storm (1921)

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  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Lucille La Verne, Monte Blue, Sidney Herbert
  • Peasant girls raised as sisters, Henriette and Louise, get separated and caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution.

More than 500 films and a handful of truly great ones made up D.W. Griffith’s decade and change up until 1921’s Orphans of the Storm, a film that marked the final critical and commercial high point for the director before a very sharp decline. Nothing ever came easy business-wise throughout his career and yet, despite the odds of facing enormous production costs and presiding over grand and complex sets, he did put together a string of successful later films with Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.

Based on the 1872 play The Two Orphans by Adolphe D’Ennery and Eugene Cormon, the film features subject matter that falls into familiar territory for the director—a place where historical events, while large and flashy and somewhat accurately depicted, are reduced to mere delivery systems for his world view. The country and culture heading into the meat of the 1920s was about to zoom past him, however, so it was his inability to get out of his own way and read the road signs that also contributed to his growing out-of-touchness with audiences. He does get a lot right in Orphans. The resentment between the classes was palpable, the celebrations and battles were appropriately kinetic and chaotic, and the sets and cast of extras were of course enormous, but, as with all of his films, his inability to see much of anything outside of himself, this time in the form of an overly preachy opening title card, does nothing but overshadow what was, despite a lagging middle section, a great intertwining of fictional melodrama and dynamic retelling of history.

The opening is a message of caution to Americans, drawing parallels between what we see on the screen, France in the 1790’s, and that which greatly distressed Griffith about his current world, Russia’s October Revolution and the creeping fog of modern Communism. Griffith details the upcoming plot and describes the seeds of the Revolution before getting to his bottom line in the film’s first minute: “The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism.”

It’s a bold statement, worthy of applause or scorn depending on your views, but this here is a film blog and not a history blog, so I’ll instead just briefly mention the film’s two greatest assets, because frankly it was a long and overwhelming film and on one viewing there’s no way for me to dive into the little bits of Griffith ideology strewn throughout. The performances by the Gish sisters and the pure spectacle that is the film’s final third (from the balcony singing scene through the end) are two things that make Orphans wholly recommended watching. Other than that there are some things done right, such as the scale, design, and costumes, and others a bit off the mark. He makes an effort to depict the facts, in one way by folding into his story some of the key players of the French Revolution, including Georges Danton, Robespierre, and Louis XVI, but then twists and exaggerates their intentions and personalities beyond recognition to fit the melodrama. It’s fascinating to see what he chose to stick to the book on and with what he took plenty of liberties to change completely.

As dominant as the director was throughout his career, I still have to give a lot of credit to the performances of Lillian Gish who had the ability to turn the very worst of Griffith, the pompous and the preachy, into material both accessible and affecting. It might have been money that led to the professional split between actress and director or it could have been jealousy on his part for the frequent overshadowing, but this was their 40th and final film together and it’s interesting to see that his directorial career remained, until his death, fruitless without her. As such, this will be Griffith’s final appearance in my journey through film.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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