Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Orphans of the Storm (1921) - Directed by D.W. Griffith

Orphans of the Storm is one of my favorite D.W. Griffith films. Sure, he made bigger/ more influential movies prior to this, but there’s something just so charming and beguiling about this magnificent and epic melodrama. Griffith was always at his best when he let the melodrama flow unheeded, like in Broken Blossoms (1919), another brilliant example from this era. Here the overt, unabashed emotion is propelled beyond self-consciousness into a near obsessive meditation on cliffhangers, impossibility and outrageousness. Perhaps also, it’s just the presence of Lillian and Dorothy Gish that makes this film sing for me. These two sisters are just so wonderful in this film and their star power makes this an essential example of talent sometimes being the reason for the lasting impact of a film. I’m not so sure this film is half as good without their presence.

Orphans of the Storm regards 2 orphans who are found and raised by a family in France around the time of the French revolution. They grow up together as caring and loving sisters. Louise (Dorothy Gish) goes blind at a young age and Henriette (Lillian Gish) decides to take great care of her. They are literally bound to each other. Louise doesn’t use a cane to get around and instead, in a deeply melodramatic touch, she uses her arms to feel about her, leading to some rather desperate moments later in the film. The two sisters are separated in Paris, when Henriette is kidnapped by some party-goers and Louise is left to fend for herself. Louise is picked up by a street gypsy who takes her back to her home and forces her into being a street beggar. Both sisters remain separated for some time. Henriette is thrown into the midst of French Revolution politics and scandal and winds up on the chopping block at the end of the film, through which comes an opportunity for the sisters to be reunited at the end in a great flourish of cliffhangers.

Griffith certainly could never be mistaken for an understated director. It’s quite clear that he has a keen eye for spectacle filmmaking and great setpieces. During the sequence in which Louise is kidnapped by the gypsy and thrown into the pit, we are not surprised by the fact that rats come crawling around her as she blindly feels about her surroundings, but it’s certainly a brilliantly devious dramatic effect. There’s a moment when Henriette in her house on the top floor above the street, hears someone singing on the street and thinks it’s Louise. She rushes to the balcony, and seeing her sister calls out to her and reaches her hands down below as they can almost taste the fact they will be reunited. But during the dramatic delay of calling out to each other, the gypsy woman appears and soldiers interrupt Henriette’s determination to get to the street. It’s purely agonizing to watch, but it’s a fantastically edited sequence which builds suspense. Of course the final third of the film contains many large battle and crowd sequences, something which Griffith was very adept at scaling to size. I also just love the way that Henriette, while being prepped for her beheading, is on the block for an interminable amount of time, suspense building while we’re most certainly anticipating the guillotine coming down.

What I love best about this film is Lillian and Dorothy Gish, whose chemistry and star power is absolutely what makes this film so watchable for me today. Dorothy Gish was a fine actress in her own right here with her long dark hair and rather childlike face. She's a bit unpolished when compared to Lillian, but she manages to pull-off her role. It’s Lillian Gish who is absolutely a knock-out here. She has a way of just BEING in front of the camera and giving you everything you need to know. There is a particular pose where she has this way of cocking her head to one side and looking so sad. In fact, when she cries on camera (which she does a lot in this film), she has a way of CRYING, as if it’s the primordial expression of feminine catharsis...... as if she is the beginning and the end of cinematic weeping. I don't even think Garbo was as good at crying on camera as Lillian Gish. Her expressive eyes, lips and angelic face keep me riveted to the screen. She is one of the essential silent film faces and her gift for acting is so glorious that it makes this film unforgettable. 


Sam Juliano said...

Yes Jon, it's the magic generated by Lillian Gish, one of the greatest actresses of all-time, who brings this exceptional Griffith film to pre-eminence, but as you also note, sister Dorothy is probably greater here than she's ever been in any other film. She's not in a league with her sister of course, but there was a chemistry in this particular film that even trumps Griffith's own artistry, and Henrick Sartov's ravishing photography. If not narratively, certainly in a visual sense this is one of Griffith's most accomplished works. Also as you persuasively note, the editing is exceptional too.

Beautiful review here Jon, of an essential silent work by a great master of the medium.

Jon said...

Hey thanks Sam. Yeah I think the sisters elevate this one surely. And I do think their chemistry is great. It is why I so love it and they just create magic here. Those moments where they are together on screen are quite riveting. Thanks for the comment Sam!!!

Madison said...

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Thanks and have a great day!

Jon said...

Hi Madison! If you want to email me you can reach me at

You could also post a link here so that I can check yours out. Thanks!