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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>
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.
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