Thursday, 5 July 2012

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

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“Orphans of the Storm” is a quintessential Hollywood production. It is big, really big, in almost every way. The set is awesome, the costumes magnificent and detailed, the story epic, the acting performed with big gestures and even the running time is big at 2½ hours.

This is the last of the D.W. Griffith movies on the list and he finishes with a bang. At the core of it however it is not so different from his other movies. It is still melodrama, it is still painted with the big brush, it is the same moralizing tone, which is D.W. Griffith trademark. In this movie the wrapping is just a lot more elaborate.

And the wrapping is really nice.

The reconstruction of 18th century France is fully up to the standards seen in modern movies. The expenses thrown into this are frightening to think of. Many times throughout the movie I would forgive the movies shortcoming for its elaborate sets.

Some of the stuff inside the wrapping is also nice. D.W. Griffith was very fond of using Lillian Gish and throughout his movies she has be the highlight of them. Here she is playing together with her sister Dorothy. They are the sweet girls caught in the storm, which is the French revolution. They are portrayed so sweet and innocent to maximize the drama when disaster hit them. And the entire movie is constructed to throw one disaster after the other after these incapable girls.

The two girls are not sisters, one was a foundling, but they grew up as such. A plague killed their parents and made Louise blind and so they leave their privileged, yet common, life and go to Paris in the hope of getting Louise’s eyes fixed. A decadent aristocrat sets his greedy eye on Henriette and abducts her to become the showcase of his Dionysian party leaving blind Louise to fend for herself. While Henriette is saved by a noble aristocrat, de Vaudrey and installed in a nice apartment as his lover and fiancée Louise is caught by an old hag who must be the ugliest character ever created for a film. She has more moustache than most men who actually try to get one. Louise is forced to become a beggar and no matter how much Henriette searches for Louise she cannot find her. This causes her some distress.

De Vaudrey’s father is much against his son’s relationship to a commoner and arranges to send his son far away and arrest Henriette, just as the Countess discovers that Louise is her long lost daughter and Henriette finally finds Louise. Maximum melodramatic effect.

Then the French revolution happens and the sisters are whirled up into this storm big time. Louise gets free of the hag and Henriette is first set free from imprisonment, then convicted to the guillotine for sheltering de Vaudrey in his attempt to return to Paris to find her. Only the effort of the great Orator Danton can save them now.

I know that silents force the director and actors to be more expressive than they would otherwise be but here it has really taken a ridiculous extreme. The Gish sisters look as if they are going through spastic convulsions, everybody dying does so with flaying arms and Danton’s great speech look more like a flamenco performance. The only one who seems to act without looking like a bad case of ADHD is Robespierre.

D.W. Griffith tries so hard to maximize the melodrama and spell it out so clear to us that the movies suffers from it. It is just too much.

So, as is usually the case with Mr. Griffith I am torn between admiring the movie technically and deriding it for the perfomance.    


  1. This was the first silent film I ever saw, so it does have a special place for me. Yes, it is very over the top, but it entertained me and, most importantly, didn't scare me away from other silents. Perhaps I'm more fond of it than I should be, but it was a really big deal, seeing my first silent film.

  2. Additionally, it's probably the least painful Griffiths on The List. The others are long, filled with racism, silly, or a combination of those three things.

  3. I think if "Orphans of the Storm" had been the first Griffith movie I had seen I would have been more positive toward it. In order to write my commentary I watched it again and I was less negative this time around. The story is better, the problems more real and the set is really well made. My problem is that Griffith is shouting his message into my face. It is too much. If you read my comments on "Angels with dirty faces" it is the same problem. An otherwise good movie sabotaged by a preaching director.

  4. This is one of the best examples of overacting in the silent age. But, as you mention, the pure scale of the production makes you want to watch. One of my areas of expertise in grad school was the French Revolution, so I get a little nit-picky with Griffith's historical leaps, though.

    1. I doubt Griffith felt any particular need to be historically correct. The revolution is just a backdrop that allows for a nice scenery.