I don’t know about anyone else, but D.W. Griffith isn’t my fave. From what I’ve found out about him, I think he’s overhyped. Some believe he invented the epic (he didn’t), the close-up (nope–that may have been George Albert Smith), and the use of big crowds (no, that probably wasn’t him, either). In Birth of A Nation he not only plays fast and loose with history, but abandons it altogether in the second half of the film. It’s only epic because of its bombastic audacity.
However, there’s one movie of Griffith’s I do like, and that is 1921’s Orphans of the Storm. I first saw it in a film studies class at Sierra College and found it captivating. Set before and during the French Revolution, it’s the tale of two sisters who try to navigate the chaos that was Paris so that one of them can regain her sight. Starring Dorothy and Lillian Gish in the title roles, it was Griffith giving an epic spin on a relatively small story.
Louise is left on the Foundling Step at Notre Dame because her aristocratic family can’t stand that her mother married a commoner. She’s found by a poor man, Girard, who’s out to leave his own little daughter, Henriette on the step. He takes pity on Louise and carries her home with Henriette, where he and his wife find a fancy locket with a note that says, “Her name is Louise. Save her.” Girard and his wife are overjoyed to discover a whole lot of gold in Louise’s blanket.
Years pass, and Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Louise (Dorothy Gish) thrive, growing up as sisters and best friends. Unfortunately, their parents are both taken by the plague. Louise gets sick too, but she survives, although her sight doesn’t. Henriette finds out there’s someone in Paris who can cure Louise, so she makes plans to take her there. Literally right as they’re about to get in the coach, Louise gets cold feet, because she’s afraid Henriette will meet someone in Paris and get married, leaving her alone. Henriette reassures her that she won’t marry until Louise can see and approve.
Henriette and Louise are bound for a city in turmoil. The prices are sky high, the poor are failing to keep their heads above financial water, and the rich and titled don’t give two fleas. They live in opulence and have their every whim catered to, caring nothing for the unwashed masses. Hatred and bloodlust are coming to a boil, aided and abetted by the Duke of Orleans, who encourages rebellion against the King. Only the Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut) takes pity on the people and buys them as much bread as he can.
At a stop along the way, the sisters are spotted by the crafty Marquis de Paille (Morgan Wallace), who takes one look at them and suspects they’re green as grass. He wheedles Henriette into telling him what their business is about and promises to help them, even offering them a ride in his coach.
Yeah, the little snake helps them all right. He sends his toadie, La Fleur (Creighton Hale) to tail the Girard sisters, ordering him to bring Henriette to his garden party. La Fleur tells the Girard sisters’ family friend, Martin, who they’re going to be staying with that the coach is late and lures him away to a tavern. After a few pints, Martin passes out and La Fleur heads back to the spot where the coach has dropped the sisters off. There he has a couple of hired goons throw a blanket over Henriette and carry her off to the fête while poor Louise is left stranded.
Louise is soon found by Pierre Frochard (Frank Puglia), a beggarly but good man whose mother (Lucille La Verne) and brother, Jacques (Sheldon Lewis) have hideously ugly dispositions. Mother Frochard forces Louise to beg on the street, and in a little twist of irony, Louise meets a doctor who looks at her eyes and pronounces her curable. Mother Frochard will have none of it, though.
Henriette, meanwhile, has been spirited away to the garden party, where that lecherous Marquis tries to maul her. She implores the crowd for help in getting back to Louise, but no one’s biting. It just so happens that Vaudrey is in attendance, and at first he thinks Henriette is a paid actress, but as he watches her he realizes she’s legit worried about her sister. Vaudrey gets Henriette out of the fête and into a nice little room in a respectable boarding house. He also steals a kiss, which, like a proper gentleman, is apologetic over. It’s pretty obvious where these two will end up, and let’s not forget that oath Henriette made to Louise.
There are plenty of gotcha moments in the film. Obstacles bar Henriette and Louise’s reunion, and then when it seems like they’ve found each other, the French Revolution gets in the way. I’m not going to ruin anything, but suffice it to say, there’s a moment when one of the characters makes such an anguished face he looks as if he’s flying at Mach Three, and Madame Guillotine might be a thing.
No matter what, Griffith didn’t want anyone to forget that Orphans of the Storm is Massive and Epic, and Lillian Gish in particular was happy to oblige. It’s her film more than anyone’s, as she’s in most of the scenes. In fact, it was her idea that Griffith make the film in the first place, and they decided to pull out all the stops. The cast in the film is top-notch. Gish is ably matched by Joseph Schildkraut, who was every bit as epic as she was, seeing as the film made him a major sex symbol. Dorothy Gish beautifully plays Louise with a more limpid intensity than her sister. She and Lillian didn’t make any movies together after Orphans, as Dorothy retired and married.
Griffith being Griffith, he didn’t leave the film as just a sprawling love story. According to TCM, he took the opportunity to make not-so-subtle commentary to Americans about how we don’t want to follow in France’s footsteps, with everyone at each other’s throats and the ruling class looking down their noses at the regular people.
Of course, Orphans of the Storm wasn’t entirely historically accurate. Griffith loved taking liberties with the facts, and this time around is no different. For one thing, the costumes have been pointed out as being a mixture of twentieth-century and eighteenth, with some odd prints here and there. It’s also got a wee bit of nudity and women cavorting in fountains of wine, because France and rich people.
An even more glaring error is how the end of the Revolution is presented. A few well-known personages make cameos in the film, such as Robespierre, who sentences people to death by a slight slashing motion, which he always ends by brushing his lace jabot. Another is the famously moderate Georges Danton, who meets Henriette when she helps him hide from an angry mob. Later on, he stands up for Henriette and Vaudrey by playing the all-you-need-is-love card, a move which quickly turns France into a sunshiny paradise where aristocrats and the common man live together in harmony. In reality, the Revolution was a much messier business, with ever-shifting alliances and bloody retribution.
In spite of these technicalities, Orphans of the Storm is a gripping film that’s easy to get caught up in, and it’s fun to see the Gish sisters and Joseph Schildkraut at the height of their fame.
All righty, the Second Annual Marathon Stars Blogathon is coming up next. Thanks for reading, all and I hope you’ll check back tomorrow…
Orphans of the Storm is available on DVD from Amazon.