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Orphans of the Storm Movie Review

griffith henriette louise gish

1921 – D.W. Griffith –

In Intolerance, D.W. Griffiths’ lofty ambitions to intercut stories from four historical periods defeated his attempts to balance spectacle with a compelling personal element. But with Orphans of the Storm he returned to the form of the intimate epic that he created in The Birth of a Nation. Set against the background of pre-revolution France, the film follows the fortunes of two girls who grow up as sisters. One is a foundling discovered on the steps of Notre Dame and brought home by the father of the other, Henriette (Lillian Gish). A plague leaves the parents dead and young Louise (Dorothy Gish) blind. The two girls travel to Paris in the hope of finding a doctor to restore Louise's sight, but they are separated when Henriette is abducted by a dissolute nobleman (Morgan Wallace). In the other plot, Louise's blindness is exploited by a cruel peasant family who torture her until she agrees to beg for them. After many complications that encumber some of the chances for character development, the two sisters finally reunite just as the revolution starts. The final third of the movie shows the peasants to be as cruel as the aristocracy and concludes with an exciting sequence of Danton's (Monte Blue) ride to the rescue of Henriette on the guillotine.

Griffith's eye for detail is keenly alert. He establishes the gulf between rich and poor by contrasting shots of aristocratic women whose ornate hats barely fit inside their carriage windows with those of starving peasants begging for bread. The bacchanal where Henriette is abducted includes women bathing in fountains of wine and a fop who drinks champagne from a glass held between the feet of a woman perched on a balcony. As usual, Griffith's title cards vary between the preachy and the dramatic. One of the most effective appears after a grisly scene in which the nobleman's coach drives over a peasant child. (There is no cutaway to the faces of onlookers to spare the audience.) The commoners surround the Marquis de Praille, waving their fists, and he calmly scatters a few coins in their direction and the title card reads: “Dead? Sorry—this is for the mother. Are the horses hurt?”—“An historical incident.”

Working with less sprawling material likely led to the coherent structure, greater suspense, and more affecting human element in Orphans (though its scenes of spectacle fall below the level of the majestic Intolerance). Griffith also tinkers a bit with frame size. In two of the shots of the people storming the Bastille, he masks the image with a rectangular iris, creating a letterbox frame perfectly matching the swarm of people. It is a widescreen effect anticipating both Able Gance's Polyvision in Napoleon and Hollywood's widescreen aspect ratios in the 1950s.

Cast: Lillian Gish (Henriette), Dorothy Gish (Louise), Joseph Schildkraut (Chevalier de Vaudrey), Frank Losee (Count de Linieres), Katherine Emmett (Countess de Linieres), Morgan Wallace (Marquis de Praille), Lucille La Verne (Mother Frochard), Sheldon Lewis (Jacques Frochard), Monte Blue (Danton), Creighton Hale (Picard), Leslie King (Jacques-Forget-Not), Sidney Herbert (Robespierre), Lee Kohlmar (King Louis XVI), Kate Bruce (Sister Genevieve), Louis Wolfheim (Executioner), Herbert Sutch (Meat Carver at the Fete) Screenwriter: D.W. Griffith (as Gaston de Tolignac) Cinematographer: Billy Bitzer, Hendrik Sartov Composer: William F. Peters Producer: D.W. Griffith Format: VHS, LV Budget: $950,000 Box Office: Griffith's biographer Richard Schickel reports that the film lost $112,854.

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