Orphans Of The Storm

US (1921) Dir. D.W Griffith

Set prior to the French Revolution of the late 18th century, orphans Henriette Girard (Lillian Gish) and her blind foundling “sister” Louise (Dorothy Gish) – a child born of nobility but dumped on the streets due to her mother’s marriage to a common man – take a trip to Paris upon learning of a possible cure for Louise’s blindness. Upon arrival they are separated when a pompous French aristocrat takes a shine to Henriette and has her abducted leaving Louise all alone. Fate deals an uneven hand for both sisters and they try to reunite – Henriette becomes embroiled in the combustible world of the aristocracy vs the common people when she falls in love with Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), a noble nobleman who sympathises with the poor much to the chagrin of his snobbish family and brethren; Louise is taken in by unscrupulous street beggar Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne) and exploited as a way to make more money. Meanwhile the peasants of Paris are planning to revolt against the tyranny of the nobility and King Louis XVI.

Based on the novel Two Orphans by Adolphe d’Ennery with a added element of factual historical events this 1921 adaptation was the last major commercial box office hit for the pioneering – and controversial – director D.W Griffith. It contains many of Griffith’s trademarks – the elaborate set pieces, sprawling but compelling storytelling, impressive acting and two hour plus running time while remaining surprisingly accessible, unlike some of his other more notable works. Griffith intended the film to be a swipe at the politics of the time, since this was shortly after the Russian Revolution, and expressed his concerns about the mob rules mentality of anarchists and Bolsheviks rising in the US.

The story takes many twists and turns not in the least the plight of the two sisters. Henriette finds her on the wrong side of the law at every turn due to her innocent relationship with de Vaudrey, whose aunt is the real mother of Louise, now the wife of the Count, a typical bullying aristocrat. However Henriette’s kindness to (real life characters) revolutionary Danton (Monte Blue) – himself being manipulated by duplicitous politician Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) – pays dividends when she finds herself literally at death’s door. Louise is stuck with the family from hell as Mother Frochard and her bullying son Jacques (Sheldon Lewis) with her only salvation being the equally bullied youngest son Pierre (Frank Puglia) who grows a set perhaps a little two late.

Even with the 2 ½ hour length there is never a dull moment and the story captivates from the onset as do the performances. Lillian Gish will always be the greatest actress to ever walk the earth but younger sister Dorothy is right there alongside her as blind step sister Louise. Two superb turns in one film.

Might be comical for some modern audiences but a masterclass of filmmaking for the rest of us.