D.W. Griffith has displayed his artistic competency with directorial masterpieces from Birth of a Nation (1914) to Way Down East (1920). Orphans of the Storm is the final appearance by Griffith on this list and it is perhaps the most indicative of classic Griffith, for better or worse. In this final story, Griffith presents two women, Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Louise (Dorothy Gish), orphaned sisters not by blood but by bond. The two travel to Paris in search of a doctor to cure Louise’s blindness as the revolution bubbles into a frenzy.
Griffith returns to the epics which made his name in the early days of cinema and the scope is quite breathtaking. Not only is the story grander, weaving true historical figures like Danton and Robespierre into the tapestry, but even sets are exceedingly lavish and the volume of extras revolting against the aristocrats is gargantuan. The true strength of this film is in the grand picture, the scenes in which all the great tensions and affections are displayed against a large canvas. The intimate moments between lovers or family is difficult to digest. This is largely due to the grandiose use of melodrama, far grander than any witnessed before in a Griffith piece. The acting is overbearing, transforming intimate or emotional scenes into comical or even embarrassing instances. It is a strange experience to follow Griffith’s career chronologically. This director created the syntax we read film by today and employs it as masterfully as in any other piece, but Griffith also liberated himself from grandeur, both spectrally and melodramatically after Intolerance and concentrated on human stories, ones displaying love as the spectacle. Sadly, Orphans of the Storm appears a regression.
Even Lillian Gish is pushed for every tear and scream her fragile frame is able to produce. Each moment of exaltation and loss is merely exhausting, completely diluting any sympathy or reliability of relationships or character. The great talent of this piece belongs to Dorothy Gish, perhaps her restriction to acting blind dampened the flailing expected of her sister, producing a rather touching performance in her hopeless weariness. For a moment, I think it necessary to point out how totally ridiculous a decision it was for Griffith to cast the Gish sisters as Henriette and Louise who are not at all related. A terrible and bizarre choice.
“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” This quote is from Robert McKee, (actually, its a quote by Robert McKee in the film Adaptation) but it quite succinctly encapsulates the storytelling and talent which Griffith embodies most evidently in Orphans of the Storm. This film has unbearable melodrama, odd casting and some strange and convenient sub-plots, but the third act climax is classic Griffith. The surging battle and race against time to save an innocent woman’s life with Griffith’s trademark crosscutting is as exciting as it is nail-biting.
Not perfect, and certainly not the strongest of Griffith’s career, but when such a career holds some of the early masterpieces of cinema, it is hardly an insult to say so.
Henriette is kidnapped by the lustful De Praille who is taken by her beauty. She is taken to a lavish party full of the wealthiest Paris has to offer. Griffith flows through the party, both enjoying the madness of the elite but also highlighting the disgusting excess. A spectacle with something more to say.