Orphans of the Storm (1921)


(director: D.W. Griffith; screenwriters: Eugène Cormon/from play by Adolphe d’ Ennery “The Two Orphans”; cinematographers: Hendrik Sartov/Paul Allen/Billy Bitzer; editors: James and Rose Smith; cast: Dorothy Gish (Louise Girard ), Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard), Joseph Schildkraut (Chevalier de Vaudrey), Monte Blue (Danton), Leslie King (Jacques-Forget-Not), Sidney Herbert (Robespierre), Creighton Hale (Picard), Lucille La Verne (Mother Frochard), Sheldon Lewis (Jacques Frochard), Frank Puglia (Pierre Frochard), Morgan Wallace (Marquis de Praille), Lee Kohlmar (King Louis XVI ), Katherine Emmet (Countess de Linieres ), Frank Losee (Count de Linieres), Adolphe Lestina (Doctor); Runtime: 143; D.W. Griffith; 1921-silent)
“D.W. Griffith, always the showman, set out to make an epic from a story about sisters in trouble.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

D.W. Griffith, always the showman, set out to make an epic from a story about sisters in trouble. He changed the story based on Adolphe d’ Ennery’s 19th century play “The Two Orphans” by adding on the historical events of the French Revolution and making that a major part of the story, while keeping the gist of the original story intact. He cast for this melodrama, his favorite actress, Lillian Gish, and had her sister Dorothy play the other sister. This was the last feature Lillian would work with the director, having become such a big box office star he urged her to take the money the big studios could afford to pay her, which he couldn’t. Lillian worked until she was 88, in her last film co-starring in The Whales Of August (87). “Orphans” was also Dorothy’s last role with the director, and like her sister she signed with Henry King’s Inspiration Pictures — even working in the same film again with her sister in Romola (1925).

Charles Dickens’ influence is evident on Griffith’s work, as the complications to this simple plot keeps getting more involved in the political trials of the Revolutionary times. It also gave the director a chance to pontificate against the more current Bolshevic Revolution of 1917. At one point in the film he states: “The tyranny of kings and nobles is hard to bear, but the tyranny of the maddened mob under blood-lusting rulers is intolerable.”

Interestingly enough, it was filmed in the studio located on 14 acres at Mamaroneck, New York.

The popularity of the play inspired at least one French and three American film adaptations. It’s not a film without major faults, which include stilted acting, clumsy characterizations, an implausible tale, and laughable melodrama. But somehow the well-intentioned sincerity of the story plows its way through the mess and the film is interesting as both a museum curio and for the raw emotions expressed by the suffering sisters. It is also noted for its rough characterization of Robespierre, its beautiful costumes and authentic looking mob scenes, and capturing the chaos of the times. But it still should prove to be of interest mainly to film buffs rather than the general public.

Itis the story of a baby from a wealthy family, named Louise (Dorothy Gish), who is left on the doorstep of a poor couple. They also have a daughter named Henriette (Lillian Gish). The two girls become deeply attached to one another and become so close, they think of each other as real sisters. Their parents die in the plague and Louise later on becomes blind. Henriette swears she will take care of her sister and be her eyes. They decide to leave their country place and come to Paris by coach in the hopes of seeing a doctor to cure Louise’s blindness.

They tragically get separated as a lascivious aristocrat (Wallace) separates the sisters by kidnapping Henriette; he is lustfully attracted to her because of her virgin looks. He brings her to his formal ball and plans to have an orgy with her, figuring he won’t get punished because of his noble rank and her common one. At the ball, Chevalier de Vaudrey (Schildkraut), a young nobleman of one of France’s most distinguished families, comes to her rescue and fights a duel with the malevolent aristocrat to free the girl.

When Henriette returns with Chevalier to the spot of the kidnapping, her sister is not there. Louise was taken into a family of cruel thieves and forced to work for them as a beggar. Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne) and her two sons, the cowardly Pierre (Frank Puglia) and the wicked Jacques (Sheldon Lewis), force her out in the snow to beg. A doctor sees her begging and tells the one he takes to be her mother, Frochard, that he can cure her, but she refuses to tell this to Louise so that she can continue begging. One day when Louise is forced to beg she meets her sister, who sees her from the balcony of her apartment. But Henriette is being arrested by the police on a complaint by Chevalier’s father. He does not approve of his son’s plans to marry this commoner, especially when the King has chosen a suitable noble lady for him to marry. As a result, Henriette is placed in a prison for fallen women.

On the day the Bastille falls, as the revolution begins, Henriette is freed and returns to her apartment. Chevalier who was exiled to the country by his father, to keep him away from the commoner, returns to her disguised as a commoner but is recognized by someone who is now a judge for the Reign of Terror and who seeks vengeance against the nobleman’s family because of how they tortured his father, Jacques-Forget-Not (Leslie King).

The couple is sentenced to die by the guillotine only to have Danton (Blue), one of the leaders of the revolution, a great orator, a friend of the masses, whom Henriette befriended in a time of need for him, come to the tribunal and plead for mercy for the two. It also shows Robespierre (Herbert) as a cowardly leader (he is called a pussy-footer), who was bloodthirsty to purge France of all vice. He was someone who believed that if you didn’t think like him, you were evil. Tearfully the sisters meet at the trial as Louise is rescued by Pierre, who has a knife fight with his brother to free her. There is a glorious last minute rescue of the couple, a tearful reuniting of the sisters, and a happy ending as Louise gets her eyesight back after her operation.

The excessively melodramatic story is one that tugs at the heartstrings, but makes up for so much goo by conveying Griffith’s history lesson: that the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, but unfortunately allowed dictatorial mob rule to take over. He said it was similar to what happened when the Communists came to power in Russia after their 1917 revolution. How the film works for you, depends on what you can overlook about it that is creaky and what you can accept about it that is grandiose. It has not aged well, but I found it worth seeing for its historical value and its chilling suspense. For whatever the director’s faults were he, at least, always considered his art above all else. It is filmed in a pleasant to look at tinted B/W.