Orphans of the Storm (1921)
Five years after “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith released this epic film about sisters in revolutionary Paris, filled with romance, intrigue, suspense, and, yes, spectacle. Griffith had a huge reputation to live up to, and struggled to maintain his critical success with each new picture. How does this movie hold up after 100 years?
The movie begins with the usual Griffith intertitles expostulating on the past and current affairs. In this case, he evokes the history of the Reign of Terror to warn against America’s possible descent into “Anarchy and Bolshevism,” putting you on notice as to where he stands. Then more intertitles introduce our backstory, which establishes the classic orphaned child of the nobility being left at the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral to freeze, but rescued by a peasant who had intended to do the same with his own baby daughter. These two grow up together in provincial poverty, never knowing their roots, and become real-life sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, playing Louise and Henriette Girard, respectively.
It so happens that Louise is afflicted and goes blind, but her sister has heard of a doctor who can cure her in Paris. Henriette promises Louise that she will not marry until her sister can see and approve her future husband. So, the two pack up their possessions and head to the great city from the provinces, only to found out that they are woefully unprepared for the harshness of life under the Old Regime. An aristocrat called de Praille (Morgan Wallace) sees Henriette when their carriages meet on the road and forms a plan to abduct her, leaving Louise lost and alone, blind in a strange city. She is taken in by Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne), who believes she can profit by having a sympathetic attractive young blind girl to beg in the streets for her. Henriette is rescued from her fate by a decent aristocrat, the Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), but even with his help has no idea where to look for Louise.
Meanwhile, we’ve been seeing intermittent stories of the lawyer Danton (Monte Blue), who Griffith calls “The Abraham Lincoln of France” and his political work with Robespierre (Sidney Herbert). They both want to see the aristocracy brought down – Danton expresses admiration for the American Congress, while Robespierre simply sneers at aristocrats for their moral weakness. Danton takes shelter from pursuing Royalists at Henriette’s apartment, but Robespierre decides that they must be lovers and becomes jealous. Henriette really loves de Vaudry, but because of her promise, she can’t marry him. Their romance earns the ire of the evil aristocrats, who plot to separate them, managing to forestall a near reunion of the sisters by condemning Henriette to prison while the Chevalier is out of town.
Now larger-scale events intervene, with Henriette in prison and Louise in the clutches of Mother Frochard, as the French Revolution breaks out and frees all prisoners of “tyranny” (which means Henriette as a prisoner of the aristocracy, but not Louise as a prisoner of a poor woman). De Vaudry returns to Paris to find Henriette, but now the situation is reversed and as an aristocrat he is in need of rescuing. When she hides him, however, the Committee of Public Safety learns of it and condemns her for harboring an aristocrat. During her trial, she spots Louise in the audience at last, but of course Henriette is sentenced to the guillotine and dragged away from her sister. Danton manages to obtain a pardon for Henriette and de Vaudry, and a classic Griffith intercut “race to the rescue” ensues, with Henriette and de Vaudry taken to the place of execution and even placed into the guillotine while Danton charges through the streets of Paris on a horse. Of course, he is able to save them and reunite the orphans at last. Louise’s sight is restored, as is her wealth as the daughter of an aristocrat, and she approves the marriage of her sister at last, as the Terror ends and a better government begins in France.
This movie was the last time that D.W. Griffith would work with Lillian Gish, who had been in his movies since the early days at Biograph, and I believe it’s only the second movie we’ve seen for this project where she appears with her sister Dorothy (the other being “An Unseen Enemy”). Gish, who had starred in his runaway success “Way Down East” talked Griffith into abandoning the project he had been working on with Richard Barthelmess, (which turned out to be “Tol’Able David,” one of the most renowned silent movies, completed under another director) and getting the rights to this story for her and her sister. This despite the fact that Griffith was already involved with Carol Dempster and had largely abandoned whatever relationship he had with Gish – perhaps he felt guilty, but more likely he really saw the potential for a classic Griffiths-style spectacle in this project.
Considered as a spectacle, this movie succeeds almost to the extent of “Intolerance.” Griffith, never a penny-pinching producer, spared no expense in his reproduction of 18th-Century Paris, building huge sets to represent Notre Dame, the Bastille, the Palace of Mirrors, and Paris city streets, peopling them with dozens and sometimes seemingly hundreds of extras in period costume. Tracking shots are frequently used in a style that mirrors “Intolerance,” pulling backward so that the audience can appreciate the scale of the scene as it appears. This sort of camera movement was still relatively rare in 1922, although Abel Gance, who visited the set of “Orphans of the Storm” during production would later rely on a moving camera heavily in his own “Napoleon.” If there’s anything to complain about here, it is that the spectacle becomes so immersive that sometimes you forget just how hard it was to recreate Revolutionary-era France in the United States at a time before CGI or most optical effects made “faking” it possible.
Considered as a story, however, this film (like “Intolerance” before it) doesn’t hold up so well. Griffith began with a convoluted and coincidence-riddled story of the separation and reunion of adopted sisters, then decided to graft the French Revolution on top of it. That’s right, the Revolution isn’t even in the original play, which takes place some years earlier. I actually do think that Griffith succeeded to some extent in getting history “right” this time – not to say that there are no interpretive biases here (Danton as “the Abraham Lincoln of France!”), but he is at pains to get the timing of the fall of the Bastille, the rise of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre, and the sans-culottes to be believable. But this only makes the storytelling that much clunkier. Dorothy Gish finally proves her own limitations on the screen when paired with her now-masterly sister; of course it’s hard for a sighted person to “act blind,” but she plays so obviously for sympathy that one keeps looking to Lillian for a sense of grounding. Once the two are separated, there’s nothing to do but endure until the story shifts back to Henriette for a while. Apart from Lillian Gish, the only interesting performance here is Sidney Herbert as the grasping, hypocritical Robespierre – both heroes and villains are basically ciphers in the storm of Griffith’s overwhelming events.
This was more or less the last movie Griffith made that was acclaimed as a “success” on a large scale, in part because it barely broke even. Not because it didn’t play well. It did, especially in the USA, but the out-of-control budget, along with certain distribution decisions kept it from being a profitable venture. After this, Griffith would be struggling to keep going, always at the whim of producers and investors, not in real control of his own work. As his biographer, Richard Schickel has it, “he remained strapped to the wheel of his debts and the picture [“Orphans of the Storm”] marks the moment when Griffith’s claims to leadership in his art and his industry lost their validity. From here on, he would be a follower, and often a rather desperate one at that.”
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Hendrik Sartov, Billy Bitzer, Paul H. Allen
Starring: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Morgan Wallace, Lucille La Verne, Monte Blue, Sidney Herbert, Creighton Hale, Kate Bruce
Run Time: 2 Hours, 30 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).