After a couple of restrained films, the old D. W. Griffith is back – this time with double the Gish!
Orphans Of The Storm is an epic melodrama set at the onset of the French Revolution, with Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy as sisters Henriette and Louise, lasses from the French country who have come to Paris in search of a cure for Louise’s blindness. But almost immediately after their arrival, they are separated when Henriette is kidnapped by a lascivious marquis, leaving vulnerable Louise alone to fall into the clutches of a Fagin-esque family of beggars.
The film follows their separate paths. Henriette has an overall easier time of it – she is quickly rescued from the marquis’ clutches after he drags her to a party, clearly expecting some erotic hijinks, when a young nobleman fights him for her honor and spirits her away, footing the bill for her at a boarding house so she can search for Louise. By coincidence, it’s the same boarding house where the French revolutionary Danton lives (Griffith’s title card helpfully describes Danton as “The French Abraham Lincoln” at one point). She comes to the rescue one day after discovering the unconscious and wounded Danton in the hallway one day shortly after he has escaped an attack from Royalist soldiers; Henriette brings him to her room to tend his wounds and hide him from police. Danton is profoundly grateful, but it’s the young chevalier who’s really captured Henriette’s heart, and she gleefully accepts his proposal of marriage – but insists she has to find her sister first.
Meanwhile Louise is being forced to beg on the streets, turning all her money over to Mother Frouchard, the matriarch of a panhandling family. She keeps Louise in a root cellar in the basement, giving all the family’s earnings to one of her two sons while the other meekly pines after Louise.
The chevalier’s mother pays Henriette a visit, hoping to dissuade her from “Marrying up”. However, the Countess then learns of Henriette’s search for Louise. She was an orphan, Henriette says; a baby her father found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame, with only a little locket in her possession. And what are the chances – that baby was the Countesses’ own daughter, who had been cruelly ripped from her own arms!
And in an even bigger coincidence – at that very moment, Mother Frouchard has sent Louise to wander the streets, singing as she begs, and to Henriette’s great surprise, Louise passes right under her window! She joyously cries out to Louise and starts running out to her – only to be stopped by a team of Royalist soldiers, come to arrest her for helping Danton. But – by even bigger coincidence – Henriette is thrown into the Bastille, and is liberated the next day! Only – she is captured yet again by French revolutionaries after her and the chevalier!
Lillian Gish definitely has more to do; Henriette’s story has the most twists and turns, concluding in a hair-raising rescue from the guillotine. Dorothy, meanwhile, only has to contend with the pathos of being trapped in a cellar until Mother Frouchard’s milquetoast son stands up to her and takes off, Louise in tow. He is at her side thenceforth, in the gallery at Henriette’s trial, comforting her after she tenderly bids Henriette farewell at the guillotine, and looking on joyously at the end when the newly-cured Louise meets her birth mother. …Only to have Henriette then steal the thunder by introducing her to her beau, the Chevalier.
I realize I don’t sound very impressed. This wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt…formulaic, with some familiar D. W. Griffith tropes – an overly-preachy introduction, lots of soft-focus beauty shots of Lillian Gish, last-minute rescues and escapes, and a happy ending at all costs (I have just now realized that at the end, Henriette and Louise were cavorting through the Countess’ pleasure gardens – but since it was during the Revolution, why was the Countess still there?).
I was amused to see a flash of the excessive, grandiose Griffith in a scene set in Versailles; when the King makes his entrance, Griffith has the camera set high in a corner, revealing a vast room full of extra there to welcome him, and can’t resist a quick pan across the artwork at the ceiling to show off its opulence.
The sequence at the marquis’ party also has several random shots of the opulence – shots of groaning boards and banquet tables and women cavorting in fountains of wine, contrasted with shots of hungry peasants crowding around the gates smelling the food and title cards tut-tutting over the waste.
Another lengthy sequence looks like a comic relief bit at first blush; after her release from the Bastille, Henriette tries to find her way back to the boarding house, but the revolutionaries are in “riot mode”, which in this case translates to wild conga dancing and women lasciviously winking at the camera. It’s amusing – especially when the chevalier’s valet gets caught up in things and is ridden like a horsey by one peasant – but it’s kind of out of place. That is, until you remember that Griffith was using the whole story to preach about the dangers of Bolshevism. The old order was corrupt, by all means – but the peasants weren’t immediately getting around to responsible democratic government yet and putting the past behind them. Naughty peasants!
This was Griffith’s last big picture, and his last one with Lillian Gish. Reviews were mixed, with critics welcoming the old splendor back but pointing out that the plot twists were getting kind of tired. Griffith’s films after this all seem to have been a series of flops, and he faded back into producing for a while. In 1946, he paid a spontaneous visit to the set of the film Duel In The Sun, starring his old muse Lillian Gish; she was uneasy with him watching her work, and he hid behind scenery during a few scenes for her sake before leaving. He died just a couple years later.
This is the last of Griffith’s films to make the list of Films To Watch Before You Die, and so we bid D. W. Griffith a lavishly-shot, controversially-scripted, be-Gished farewell.