An overstuffed but ultimately stirring saga of two sisters separated and reunited during the French Revolution, ORPHANS OF THE STORM was the last picture D.W. Griffith made with either Lillian or Dorothy Gish. In 1975, prominent feminist critic Molly Haskell included it on her list of the
all-time ten best films about women.
A commoner is slain by relatives of his aristocratic wife. Before the murderers seize her baby daughter, the widow secrets this note in the infant's locket: "Her name is Louise. Save her." An impoverished man finds the abandoned child in front of Notre Dame Cathedral and takes her home to raise
side by side with his own baby daughter, Henriette, in a northern province. He and his wife succumb to the plague and Louise is blinded.
Now in their teens, Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Louise (Dorothy Gish) travel to Paris in the hope of finding a cure for Louise's blindness. No sooner have they arrived than the lecherous Marquis de Praille (Morgan Wallace) has Henriette kidnapped and brought to a ball he is giving at his estate.
There, she is rescued from the Marquis's advances by the handsome young Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut). Meanwhile, Louise is abducted by a family of beggars who force her to sing for alms in the street.
Count de Linieres (Frank Losee) orders de Vaudrey, his nephew, to marry a noblewoman, but the young man, who has fallen in love with Henriette, refuses, and urges his aunt, Countess de Linieres (Catherine Emmett), to meet his beloved. While the Countess, who is in fact Louise's mother, is visiting
Henriette, the girl hears Louise's voice in the street below. Just as she is about to rush downstairs and join her lost "sister," she is arrested by de Linieres's men and thrown into prison. Determined to break up his nephew's romance with Henriette, the Count has de Vaudrey also arrested and
confined in a fortress far away from the city.
On the day the Bastille is stormed, revolutionaries free Henriette and her fellow inmates. Meanwhile, the young Chevalier escapes from his prison, disguises himself as a commoner, and returns to Henriette in Paris, where they are immediately re-arrested, this time by the new regime. A tribunal led
by Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) sentences the couple to death--her crime is sheltering an aristocrat; his crime is being one. As Henriette and de Vaudrey are being led to the guillotine by Danton (Monte Blue), an old friend pleads for their lives and the rabble, stirred by his oratorical powers,
grants them pardon. Danton speeds on horseback to the execution site and arrives just in time to save Henriette from the guillotine's blade.
Lillian Gish hesitated before advising Griffith not to film Faust. Two years earlier, she had tried to warn him off WAY DOWN EAST (1920), but the picture had proven to be a major success for both of them. Finally, she suggested as an alternate vehicle The Two Orphans, an old stage melodrama that
had played successfully in 40 languages. "You only want me to make the story because there's a part in it for Dorothy," he said, but eventually agreed to take on the project. After deciding to change the story's setting to late 18th century Paris, he began the construction of lavish replicas of
the Palais Royale, Notre Dame, Versailles, and the Bastille. Griffith's "tale of one city" was extremely popular with both the critics and the public, not counting a few young neo-royalists who rioted during a Paris screening of the film. Due, however, to the movie's large budget and to Griffith's
brother's reported mismanagement of the receipts, profits were not as high as they should have been.
ORPHANS OF THE STORM, which its director referred to as "great anti-Bolshevik propaganda," opens with one of Griffith's typically highfalutin' written prefaces, a lengthy sermon that concludes with the following anachronistic diatribe: "The lesson--The French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD
government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism." Lest anyone doubt where Griffith's sympathies lay, subsequent intertitles introduce Louis XVI as "representing the selfish
tyranny of the old feudal rights of Kingship and Aristocracy"; Danton as "The Abraham Lincoln of France"; and Robespierre as "the original pussy-footer."
For its first hour or so, ORPHANS repeats the mistakes of INTOLERANCE (1916) by delivering plenty of plot, sets (14 acres worth), characters (about a half-dozen too many), camera setups, extras, ornate period costumes, and pretty tableaus--but not much focus. Then, beginning with Henriette and de
Vaudrey's sweet love scene, followed by the famous scene in which Henriette hears and recognizes the voice of her missing sister coming through the window, the movie kicks into gear and provides its viewers with an action- and emotion-packed (if somewhat mindless) final hour. Lillian Gish, as
always, gives her all, and de Vaudrey's transition from foppish youth to sober manhood is sensitively handled by Joseph Schildkraut.
Because ORPHANS OF THE STORM, in addition to being the last film either of the Gish sisters made with Griffith, was also the last picture the Gishes appeared in together, it is retrospectively fitting that ORPHANS' final shot shows Lillian/Henriette embracing not her leading man but her sister,
Dorothy/Louise. (Violence, nudity.)
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- Review: An overstuffed but ultimately stirring saga of two sisters separated and reunited during the French Revolution, ORPHANS OF THE STORM was the last picture D.W. Griffith made with either Lillian or Dorothy Gish. In 1975, prominent feminist critic Molly Haske… (more)