Thursday, September 4, 2008

Review – Orphans of the Storm

September 4, 2008

Orphans of the Storm – U.S., 1921

Perhaps no one - with the possible exception of John Ford – has had the ability to capture conflict and confrontation on such a grand scale as D.W. Griffith. From the epic battles in his troubling masterpiece The Birth of a Nation to the personal family strife in his heartbreaking tale of forbidden love Broken Blossoms, Griffith has an amazing ability to show individual stories while simultaneously depicting both events of great importance and times of immense change. His 1921 film Orphans of the Storm is no exception. Two scenes illustrate this perfectly. The first involves a party of such extravagance, lack of restraint, and waste that the audience is left speechless. Nude women swim in fountains filled with wine, masked aristocrats run away flirting with and kissing any woman they come in contact with, and uneaten food is discarded by careless guests as if no one in their country were starving outside their guarded compound. As night falls and the festival reaches its chaotic peak, two men enter carrying an unconscious woman who earlier we saw be kidnapped. It is clear that she is to be part of the festivities, whether she wants to or not. The second scene involved the eruption of the French Revolution. Griffith shows the start of the revolution, as the people receive the signal to storm the Bastille. What follows is a battle that is intense, emotional, and a bit unnerving, as it is clear that the aristocrats are gone and that those replacing them may not be much of an improvement.

The fight for the soul of France is the backdrop for a somewhat simpler story. Beginning well before the revolution, Orphans of the Storm tells the story of two women raised as sisters. First, there’s Louise Gidard (Dorothy Gish), the daughter of French royalty, a woman who as a baby was abandoned because her mother had married a commoner. The second is Henriette Gidard (the always impressive Lilian Gish), who becomes her sister’s sole caretaker after Louise loses her eyesight due to a plague. It is their quest for a cure to Louise’s blindness that leads them to leave their comfortable country surroundings and make their way to Paris, a city of gross inequality. Louise and Henriette’s journey will put them in great peril, first from the Marquis de Praille, who takes an instant liking to Henriette. Perhaps I should say an instant “lusting,” as he is only attracted to what the intertitles refer to as Henriette’s “virginal beauty.” On the plus side, Henriette is also introduced to the Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), a young aristocrat who empathizes with the poor and comes to Henriette’s defense after she is kidnapped by the Marquis. The kidnapping of Henriette puts Louise in great peril as well, as she soon finds herself at the mercy of a moral-less woman named Mrs. Frochard and her son Jacques, who is just as tempted to have his way with Louise as the Marquis is with Henriette. And just as Henriette has the Chevalier, Louise has Pierre Frochard. If only he can summon the strength to stand up to his abusive mother and brother and save her.

It is not hard to predict Orphans of the Storm, as there are only a few avenues for a movie like this is take, and given audiences desire to see happy endings, the movies’ options are fairly limited in that department. Louise will likely get her sight back, and weddings bells will surely ring by the ending credits. However, what’s fascinating about Orphans of the Storm is the characters, both fictional and non-fictional, that they meet along the way. First, there’s Jasques Forget-Not (well played by Leslie King), a man whose family suffered at the hand of aristocrats, for which he harbors a resentment that time cannot heal. Then there's Danton (Donte Blue), the conscience of the rebellion, a man who seeks democracy and equality and is later appalled by the corruption and vengefulness he witness after the fall of the King. We also meet Robospeirre (powerfully played by Sidney Herbert), a man who cowers during armed conflict but rises to take undeserved power, Count de Linieres (Frank Losee), a man who would rather send his wife’s nephew to jail than see him marry a commoner, and Mrs. Frochard (exceptionally played by Lucielle La Verne), who, in an act of utter disregard for a person’s well-being and safety, takes the scarf Louise is wearing to protect herself from the snow. Mrs. Frochard reasons that people will give Louise more money if she is freezing, regardless of the toll such an action will take on Louise herself.

There is another aspect of Orphans of the Storm that fascinated me. This is not a film that depicts the French Revolution as achieving its goal and bringing happiness to its people. Indeed, the Paris that exists immediately after the fall of the aristocracy is lawless. Lines of crazed people parade through streets in a manner that is unnerving to say the least, oblivious or unfazed by the chaos they are contributing to. The government that rises up is far from the democratic one across the Atlantic that Danton so admires. Watching the film, I felt as if Griffith were warning Americans of the dangers of revolution. Coming just three years after the end of the First World War, during which Americans’ civil liberties were curtailed and many minority groups felt unfairly persecuted, and one year into President Harding's term, it is as if Griffith senses the storm that is about to hit the United States and is pleading for people to consider their actions carefully. It is a message worth revisiting. (on DVD from Kino)

3 and a half stars

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