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Henriette and Louise, a foundling, are raised together as sisters. When Louise goes blind, Henriette swears to take care of her forever. They go to Paris to see if Louise's blindness can be cured, but are separated when an aristocrat lusts after Henriette and abducts her. Only Chevalier de Vaudrey is kind to her, and they fall in love. The French Revolution replaces the corrupt Aristocracy with the equally corrupt Robespierre. De Vaudrey, who has always been good to peasants, is condemned to death for being an aristocrat, and Henriette for harboring him. Will revolutionary hero Danton, the only voice for mercy in the new regime, be able to save them from the guillotine? Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
"Orphans of the Storm" (United Artists, 1921), directed by D.W. Griffith, is a grand scale silent melodrama, by 1920s standards anyway, with the central characters being two young sisters (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) in a story that is divided into two parts. The first half, set prior to the French Revolution, is taken from the old play, "The Two Orphans" by Adolphe Dennery. The second half, lifted from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," takes place during the French Revolution, given the added excitement to a suspenseful climax in the Griffith tradition.
Part I of the story opens with the killing of a commoner. The slain man's wife is revealed to be the daughter of an aristocratic family who feel she was injudiciously married. They decide to take the infant child from her and leave it on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral in the dead of winter where she might get picked up and adopted by some kind-hearted soul, with a note attached that reads, "Her name is Louise. Save Her." Later, as the snow continues to fall, a poverty-stricken father named Jean Girard, arrives to leave his own baby, Henriette, to the cathedral steps. After noticing the shivering infant Louise, Girard realizes that he cannot bring himself to do the same for his own child, so he decides to bring home both babies. After returning home to his wife with the babies, Girard encounters a purse full of money left with Louise. With this money, the Girard's rise above their poverty-stricken background and raise the two girls happily in a northern providence. Years pass. A plague comes, killing both parents, and blinding Louise (Dorothy Gish). Henriette (Lillian Gish), her sister and guide, accompanies her blind sister to Paris in the hope of locating a famous doctor who may be able to restore her sight. On their way, they attract the attention of Marquis de Praille (Morgan Wallace), a nobleman, who becomes so interested in Henriette that he arranges to have her kidnapped upon the arrival in Paris and brought to a lavish party given that night at his great estate, thus, leaving the blind Louise to roam the streets of Paris alone, until she is taken in by Pierre (Frank Puglia). But as fate would have it, Pierre has an old hag of a mother, Frochard (Lucille LaVerne), who decides to use the blind girl by having her sing and beg in the streets for money. At first Louise refuses, but after being left alone in a room surrounded by rats, she agrees to do her bidding. As for Henriette, she escapes the estate of De Praille with the aide of Chevalier de Vaudrey (Josef Schildkraut), an aristocrat who not only pities her, but agrees to help her search for Louise. During the search, Henriette falls in love with Chevalier, who, in turn, happens to be the nephew of Louise's birth mother (Catherine Emmett), still mourning for the loss of her child of long ago, now the wife of the famous count, who is unaware of his wife's secret past. PART II of the story continues to focus on Henriette's search for Louise and her encounter with Chevalier. After learning of Louise's whereabouts and being victim of the evil Mother Frochard, she locates the old hag who tells her that her sister has "died." But as Henriette gets closer to learning the truth and finding Louise, something always intervenes to prevent their reunion, especially the riot and outbreak of the French Revolution, having the aristocrats arrested, sentenced and executed by the one and only guillotine, with the innocent Henriette taken in to become one of those tortured victims.
"Orphans of the Storm" ranks one of the best of the DW Griffith silents, and one that should still hold interest throughout, particularly its story that plays liked a chaptered serial. Of all the supporting players, which range from Monte Blue, Sheldon Lewis, Creighton Hale, Louis Wolheim and Kate Bruce, Lucille LaVerne as the mean old hag named Mother Frochard, old clothes, uncombed hair and some missing front teeth, is the most memorable because of her natural meanness. One scene comes to mind is the one when, after forcing the blind Louise to beg on the streets as the snow falls around her, Mother Frochard decides to take the shawl away from her, feeling that the more she shivers, the more money she will collect. LaVerne would play a similar character in appearance in the 1935 MGM version of "A Tale of Two Cities" starring Ronald Colman. LaVerne leaves a lasting legacy playing old hags, especially during French Revolutionary times. Another memorable performance given in this production is by Leslie King (who sometimes resembles Boris Karloff), playing a character named Jacques Forget-Not, an unforgiving sort who avenges those aristocrats who tortured his poor father by sending them to their execution.
In spite of some flaws, and there are several, particularly a couple of unrelated scenes and unnecessary added comedy relief that distract from a viewer's attention, whose main focal point is on the two orphans, there are memorable scenes along with lavish background scenery and costumes that are an added bonus in capturing the flavor of 18th century Paris.
"Orphans of the Storm" was one of 13 silent features shown on public television's 1971 presentation of THE SILENT YEARS, as hosted by Orson Welles, with an original and excellent piano score accompanied by William Perry, the print that was formerly used in the BLACKHAWK VIDEO collection back in the 1980s, and the one currently seen when aired on Turner Classic Movie's SILENT Sunday NIGHTS. A new copy, available by KINO video, features a new (but very unsatisfying) music score, clearer picture and a longer length of 150 minutes. In spite of which version to see, "Orphans of the Storm" still ranks one of the best silents produced by the Griffith company shortly before the great director's decline. (****)
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