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Orphans of the Storm
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by Jay Seaver

"Gishes, Griffith, and a reign of terror."
5 stars

Filmmakers sometimes make weird decisions. Some are objectively odd but basically harmless, such as casting real-life sisters in a movie whose plot involves one of their sibling characters being adopted. Folks probably wouldn't do that today, but it works out rather well for "Orphans of the Storm", a gem of the silent era.

The siblings in question are Henriette Giraud (Lillian Gish) and her sister Louise (Dorothy Gish); about twenty years ago the newborn Louise was placed on the steps of Notre Dame cathedral to save her high-born but unwed mother scandal, and while Henriette's poor father was about to do the same thing for different reasons, he not only could not go through with it, but returned home with two babies. Though Louise's mother left money for whoever found her daughter, their lives are still potentially tragic - the fever that took Girauds mère et père left Louise blind, and just as they arrive in Paris to seek a cure, Henriette is kidnapped by a smitten aristocrat. She is rescued by the far nicer Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), but by the time they return to the carriage station, Louise is gone, with a family of con artists looking to put her to work panhandling. And, as if things were not dire enough, it is the eve of the Revolution!

Griffith isn't going to stop there, of course - he's relating a melodrama, so there's a whopper of a coincidence to tie things together and a string of dramatic cliffhangers. He inserts Revolutionary figures like Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) and Georges Danton (Monte Blue) into the narrative to give it greater scale, and does a fair amount of rabble-rousing, whether against long-deceased French aristocrats - this atrocity, a caption declares, is true! - or by having the introductory text draw a direct parallel to his day's "anarchists and Bolsheviks". Griffith was not a very subtle man, and both the action and the titles bellow. It's not surprising that a key portion of the climax hinges on the oratory of Danton (declared "the Abraham Lincoln of France" in one intertitle) despite this being a silent picture; Griffith loved this sort of thunder.

Taking that into account, it may come as something of a shock to hear that Orphans of the Storm is not always, or even mostly, a particularly heavy movie. Griffith may absolutely have points he wants to make, but he also sons to entertain his audience, and does so by grounding it in both the enjoyably light romance between Henriette and le Chevalier and the unshakable sisterly affection of Henriette and Louise. Today, it is more common for the cynical and downcast things to ground the cheerful ones, but no matter how guileless the orphans may seem while other characters are similarly good for no particular reason compared to others' selfishness there is something propulsive to how human goodness is presented as just as powerful a force as those opposed to it.

Plus, it allows Lillian Gish to at least seem to be having a little fun in the midst of all that's going on. There's a plucky determination to Henriette that is often overstated but which works here; it becomes a baseline we can easily see her returning to even after scenes of distress. The movie puts lines in her mouth that could make the character something of a joke, but that doesn't happen even if she is emoting enough to make her point in a silent movie. It's the basis of an enjoyable chemistry with Joseph Schildkraut, who captures the Chevalier's decency and make him funny in odd situations without paying the fool. He and Gish (and Griffith et al) do enough with held glances, little smiles, and implied witticisms to convey romance better than any chest-beating. And while I may have a little laugh at Lillian and Dorothy Gish playing adopted sisters, it does communicate their connection to the audience immediately, and while Dorothy was generally not known for playing the tragic heroine the way her sister was - the pair are cast somewhat against type (and Lillian's original suggestion) here - she suffers nobly here, with far less ham than one might expect for the period.

(Modern-day audiences may cringe at how Louise is often described as "helpless" and needing to be assisted "like a child", though, no matter how unaccommodating 1789 may have been to the sightless.)

Griffith keeps things moving at a good clip, at least in the version screened at the Somerville Theatre (an untinted print that ran closer to two hours than the nearly-three generally listed). It's a nice balance between keeping the story focused and giving the director room to play with bigger issues, although the end does seem a little stretched at points, with Danton's heroic oratory seeking to take much longer than what it would stave off, and not quite as exciting as a similar scene in Griffith's Intolerance. That film looms over this one a bit, though some of the scenes of the Revolution or the jail for "fallen women" are impressive spectacle, and the whole thing looks great.

In fact, though I saw "Intolerance" later that day (and, yes, that is a lot of silent cinema at once!), I preferred this. Griffith had a point to make here as he often did, but he certainly made an entertaining movie this time around. Almost a hundred years later, filmmakers often stumble making stories that use history as a backdrop, but this early example does an excellent job of not diminishing either side of the coin.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27508&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/17/14 21:25:23
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User Comments

7/17/14 @MsLillianGish Sometimes I do think Dotty was adopted. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  28-Dec-1921 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Dec-2002

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  D.W. Griffith

Written by
  D.W. Griffith

Cast
  Lillian Gish
  Dorothy Gish
  Joseph Schildkraut
  Frank Losee
  Katherine Emmet



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