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"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
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)chamber 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. (****)
I sometimes feel that people who are not sympathetic to the silent era and
its genre should not view or comment on them.
As a long-time maven of silent films, I have no problem placing myself in that era and enjoying these movies on their own terms. Much has changed since those days, and most folks simply cannot appreciate the simplicity AND complexity of photoplays without words.
This film is magnificent and entertaining. I am not a fan of most "period pieces", but this transcends the typical fare. Check it out.
Two ORPHANS OF THE STORM caused by the French Revolution desperately
search for each other in the violent chaos of Paris.
History's sweeping drama comes alive in this powerful epic film from legendary silent movie genius D. W. Griffith. Although much happens on a broad canvas, the director never loses sight of the intimate details of the heroines' pitiful plight. In denouncing tyranny, Griffith always manages to keep the viewer engrossed in how the State's insidious evil affects the individual.
Much of the film's success is due to the remarkable acting of the Gish Sisters, Lillian & Dorothy. Acclaimed for her comedic talents, Dorothy here gives an almost completely serious performance, portraying a blind girl cruelly separated from her beloved sister and forced to beg in the streets. Lillian, her classic face mirroring a myriad of emotions, plays the sibling persecuted by both lecherous aristocrats and rapacious revolutionaries. The scene in which Lillian, in an upper chamber, hears Dorothy singing in the alley below but is unable to reach her, is almost unbearable in its emotional intensity.
A young Joseph Schildkraut plays Lillian's blue-blooded suitor, giving the viewer an intimation of the very fine character actor he would become with the advent of talking pictures. Lucille LaVerne steals more than a few scenes as the filthy harridan who enslaves and terrorizes Dorothy. Frank Puglia makes a poignant mark as Miss LaVerne's pathetic, downtrodden son. Comic actor Creighton Hale gives a lively performance in a small role as a mischievous, periwiged servant.
A fascinating aspect of the film is its vivid rendering of two historical characters of great significance in the history of France. Georges Danton was probably not as noble as he is portrayed by Monte Blue, nor was Maximilien Robespierre necessarily as evil as Sidney Herbert depicts him. What is certain is that both men were responsible for the deaths of thousands of individuals during the Reign of Terror. Fittingly, each man had his own rendezvous with Madame Le Guillotine in 1794.
Movie mavens will recognize an unbilled Louis Wolheim as the executioner awaiting Miss Lillian on the scaffold.
Griffith handles the sequences involving surging masses of extras with admirable dexterity. He also freely borrows a few plot elements from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. In fact Miss LaVerne, with scarcely a costume change, would play the role of The Vengeance in MGM's 1935 version of that classic, violent novel.
D.W. Griffith loved epic stories full of dangerous situations and damsels in
distress. With the beautiful and talented Gish sisters, he got two damsels
for the price of one. "Orphans of the Storm" is probably the most beautiful
of all Griffith features. The lavish detailing of the sets is much better
than "Intolerance" or "Broken Blossoms" and the costumes are magnificent. By
this time in Griffith's career, his direction was already beginning to
become stale and his plots too old-fashioned, but somehow he makes "Orphans"
work to his advantage.
Lillian Gish is Henriette Girard and her sister Dorothy plays her "Sister" Louise. The amazing Joseph Schildkraut plays de Vaudrey, a nobleman who truly is noble. The "storm" in the title refers to the French Revolution, which is the background this story of family and romantic love plays itself upon.
As usual, Lillian Gish is wonderful in her role as the devoted sister Henriette; but it is Dorothy Gish as blind sister Louise who is truly the star of the film. Her performance drips with the pathos, pain, and longing that most people associate with her older sister. Schildkraut shines in this, his first Hollywood film role.
The frequent ridiculous scenes (Danton running to save Henriette from the executioner's blade?) and length of the film will turn most modern viewers off; but those who have a love of history, epic spectacle, and the timeless beauty of the Gish sisters will enjoy "Orphans of the Storm".
Adolphe D'Ennery's novel was one of those countless melodramatic
maudlin stories which were thriving in France of the 19th century. DW
Griffith decided to transpose the action just before and after French
revolution.The novel was rather reactionary and its historical
background was thin and vague.
But Griffith's vision of the French Revolution is naive,to put it mildly.He was not apparently aware that the 1789 events were mainly a bourgeois move,and the poor were only a tool.The dichotomy Good Danton/Wicked Robespierre should make people who are looking for a sort of historical accuracy have a look at Wajda"s "Danton"(with G.Depardieu,in the eighties).
Forget history and you have a two-hour and a half silent movie with never a dull moment.Griffith is a wonderful storyteller,who had a great respect for his audience.Some sequences are still impressive today:the aristocratic orgy,when the Poor are starving at the gates of the palace is far from D'Ennery's timid depiction of the scene in the book;Lillian Gish,a wonderful actress who 'd been part of the cinema till the eighties,is so powerful in her part of the abducted maiden Henriette we can almost hear her when she screams out of despair:"is there a man of honor among you?Louise and the shrew who got her under her thumb begging in front of the cathedral as the snow is falling is a splendid picture,recalling a painter's work;even if Danton's coming to the rescue of a soon-to-be guillotined Henriette is thoroughly implausible,we cannot help but admire the director's maestria.
Few silent movies have stood the test of time as well as this one.
First of all, I find it desperately necessary to remind the viewer of
movies of the danger of analyzing these pieces under the lens of the
cinemagoer. The aesthetic values of silent cinema are incommensurable
the values of modern cinema. Aside from the obvious difference that one
relies purely on image while the other has the benefit of sound, we must
also not forget that the cinema of the silent era is cinema in its
in a constant state of the most early self-discovery (which is not to say
that cinema has necessarily "grown up" or "progressed" into our modern
our cinema today is only different than the cinema of the silent era,
neither better nor worse.) Basically, we should check ourselves before we
ridicule these films on the basis of irising, masking, et cetera and
ESPECIALLY the exaggerated emotion and overblown gesturing of the actors.
The conventions of the art of acting have, of course, their basis in that
the theatre, which preceded film, and where emphatic gesturing and
emotion was conventional in conveying story even to those seated in the
All editorializing aside, Griffith's _Orphans of the Storm_ is a shining example of the director's masterful grasp of narrative cinema. The story is almost Dickensian in its feel, from its very beginning alternating between no less than five separate subplots, all of which become inextricably intertwined before the backdrop of the larger plot of the impending revolution in France. The acting performances are not, in fact, excessively overplayed, but are actually quite subtle and touching, especially those of the two orphans, the Gish sisters.
The visuals are stunning: the costumes and decor are lush and the recreation of late 18th century Paris is excellent. Most impressive to me is Griffith's expert command of montage, primarily through intercutting, in creating a engrossing story that, while complex in structure, is easily grasped. The film starts out on wobbly legs, but soon breaks into a steady gallop, raging through the glorious revolution to an admittedly predictable, yet satisfying conclusion. A grand achievement for one of the titans of early cinema: I give it a 9/10.
ORPHANS OF THE STORM is quite an impressive looking silent film from
D.W. Griffith, who was obviously the Cecil B. DeMille of his day. He
has an instinct for showing surging crowd scenes involving all the
unrest during the French Revolution and these scenes are highly
detailed and very arresting visually. All the sets and costumes look as
though a lavish budget was spent on this story of two sisters who
survive the French Revolution after many melodramatic twists and turns
of their fortune.
DOROTHY GISH and LILLIAN GISH are the sisters, with Dorothy as the blind waif who is separated from her sister when an overly amorous nobleman orders Lillian to be brought to his orgy. From there on, the Dickensian plot becomes thicker and thicker as the girls suffer one indignity after another in order to survive.
LUCILLE LaVERNE is the old hag (she later was the model for Disney's Wicked Witch in "Snow White"), a harridan who makes Dorothy a beggar in the streets. "You'll shiver better without a shawl," is one of her immortal lines.
Joseph SCHILDKRAUT is very impressive in an early American screen role, demonstrating charm and skill of the kind that would land him important parts in future costume films like "Marie Antoinette." MONTE BLUE is Danton, a man who meets LILLIAN GISH early in the story and later becomes the defender who saves her and Schildkraut from the guillotine.
It's all very melodramatic, the acting ranging from overdone to wildly overdone. Griffith was never subtle in asking his performers to give it their all. Excessive wringing of hands, eye-rolling to show anguish, fierce looks to show hatred, etc. may cause unintended chuckles when viewed by today's audiences, but there is never any letdown in the telling of a compelling story using the French Revolution as rich background material for a tale of villainy and heroism.
A fascinating silent film with an appropriate film score added to give the story even more force and flavor.
Summing up: Overlong drama, but compelling from the start to the feverishly melodramatic end.
Exquisite close-ups of Lillian Gish are touching and lend poignant charm to her performance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I love Lillian Gish and I enjoy silent pictures, but this movie is just plain silly. It's two stories in one and each manages to cancel out the other. I'm a sucker for a good weepy, sentimental potboiler. This one starts off good but it takes forever to come to its inevitable sappy ending because the French Revolution keeps butting in and spoiling everything. The effect is quite comical. It seems criminal to go to such lengths to re-create a great event in history only to burlesque it in the service of a contrived melodrama. (The same crime was repeated by the makers of TITANIC many decades later.) The last minute race to the gallows is more of the same hokum that cheapened INTOLERANCE. The movie leaves you with the feeling that the entire Revolution just sort of blew over and the cleansing spirit of DEMOCRACY made everyone live happily ever after. What about Napoleon?
DW Griffith's fall from grace during the 1920s wasn't just because his
technique began to look old fashioned. It was that his stories got
worse. His narrative structures were inspired by great works of
literature, particularly that of Charles Dickens, but his plots were
often sourced from obscure novels or trashy stage melodramas. These
stories were often implausible and simplistic, shortcomings he could
only make up for with his sensitive cinematic technique and the
reliability of his actors.
Orphans of the Storm is rather lazily-written, full of one-dimensional characters, predictable situations, and sudden coincidences leaping over gaps in the plot, as two sisters, one of them blind, lose each other, find each other, then lose each other again amid the chaos of the French Revolution. However, it's (just about) possible to overlook a bad story so long as it's well told. Unfortunately, Griffith appears to be following the trend of having more and longer title cards, explaining every point and feeding us superficial lines of dialogue, where the action alone should tell us what is going on. In some scenes, such as those where Dorothy Gish's blindness is brought up, we get the worst of both worlds, having not only the point-labouring title cards, but also exaggerated pantomiming, with characters pointing emphatically at both eyes.
Griffith should have known that all his best moments were wordless and understated. Thankfully, he has not forgotten how to direct a good love scene, and those between Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish are particularly effective, framed plainly in a series of close-ups, barely moving their faces but conveying a world of emotion. This was Schildkraut's first American picture, and he is one of the most pleasingly natural and convincing lead men Griffith had worked with thus far. With his fine, sharp features he was also appropriately handsome, although a few films later he would play Judas in King of Kings, and subsequently became a bit typecast. As for Gish, she is far more satisfying here in one of her serene and sensible roles, as opposed to the hysterical girly parts she was increasingly given. The other standout in this cast is Monte Blue as Danton, whipping a crowd into a frenzy without once resorting to hamminess.
It was a long-established rule that every major Griffith picture had to feature a battle somewhere in the middle, and end with a climactic ride-to-the-rescue. By 1921 these action sequences were becoming a trifle uninspired. The battle between revolutionaries and soldiers has a great build-up, but then resorts to bland god-shots, making the moment suddenly seem very cold. The finale is one of Griffith's least engaging, I think because while the ride itself is excitingly shot and edited, the business at the guillotine is just a lot of faffing around, a far cry from Bobby Haron's haunting walk to the scaffold in Intolerance.
In spite of all this, Orphans of the Storm like every Griffith feature I have seen does have its absolutely divine moments. There's a very dynamic sense of rhythm to the scene at the ball and the later celebration of the victorious revolutionaries. The reunion of Schildkraut and Lillian Gish is both powerful and sensitive. Griffith may have been beginning to slip, but at least he was failing beautifully.
A true classic. This silent era movie (1921) is not only a film historians dream, but is enjoyable for all generations of film fans. D.W Griffith was known for his bold faced way at voicing his opinions through films. I have never seen such a great show of emotions than with the Gish Sisters. I don't think anyone has ever been able to match Lillian's facial expressions and the way she uses the absence of sound to her advantage. A tremendous story unfolds before the viewer that leads to a riveting conclusion that will etch this film into your mind and heart forever. Also appearing in this film is the great actor Monte Blue, who was a great leading man in many films. .
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