We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. We’ll be covering a new film on the list every week. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, I am pleased to announce a most momentous occasion in the history of the We Live 1001 column. As of this week, there are officially no more DW Griffith films on the list. You’ve undoubtedly grown tired of me complaining about him by this point, but the man has had his day in the sun, and from here on out, he will no longer darken our doorstep. Now to delve into his final film on the list, Orphans of the Storm. And let’s be honest: it’s not one of his best. It certainly wasn’t one of his most successful at the time, a three-hour opus about the French Revolution that failed to connect with contemporary audiences. But even looking back, when we’re perhaps more able to acknowledge merits that went unnoticed at the time, Orphans of the Storm is a bit of a mess.
The story revolves around a pair of adopted sisters, Henriette and Louise, played by real-life sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Henriette is the daughter of a pair of peasants who take in Louise as a newborn when an aristocratic lady is forced to give her up. After a plague kills their parents and causes Louise to go blind, the two sisters set out for Paris in a bid to find a doctor who can restore her sight. But they are separated amidst the earliest rumblings of the French Revolution: Henriette kidnapped by a lascivious aristocrat, then rescued by an honorable one, while Louise is tricked by a cruel family that holds her captive and forces her to beg on the streets for a living. Henriette is determined to find her sister before agreeing to marry the kind and handsome Chevalier de Vaudrey, but violence and chaos escalate in the city; they’re all living on borrowed time.
What’s immediately frustrating about Orphans of the Storm is that by far the best things it has going for it are the warm, loving relationship between the Gish sisters, and the chemistry between Lillian Gist and her romantic interest Chevalier de Vaudrey, played by Joseph Schildkraut (who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful character actors, eventually winning an Oscar for his performance as Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.) But the problem is, both pairs are separated for large swathes of the film, leaving them to flounder and the story to creep to a standstill as it introduces even more subplots and secondary characters.
Griffith seems to want Orphans of the Storm to be both an intimate relationship drama and a sprawling period epic. The practical result is that any sense of nuance is lost, and it’s difficult for the audience to establish an emotional connection with the characters. In his quest to capture the grandiosity of pre-revolutionary France, Griffith neglects his leading lady. He barely even includes close-ups of Lillian Gish, which, given her reputation for facial expressiveness, is unforgivable. The Gish sisters are utterly lost in the frenzy of Griffith’s epic vision. And to make matters worse, he’s massively overcomplicated the plot.
It likely would have been enough to tell a story about two sisters in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, trying to find a doctor who can restore the blind sister’s sight. Lillian Gish’s character still meets the kindly aristocrat, and their relationship is complicated by class differences, her promise not to marry until her sister can see again, and of course, the impending revolution that will put Chevalier de Vaudrey in dire straits. That’s enough of a story. But instead, there are multiple kidnapping plotlines, Henriette’s acquaintanceship with Georges Danton, a full trial, and half a dozen other extraneous plotlines.
Griffith needs Orphans of the Storm to have a grand political statement, as evidenced by the repeated reference to Bolshevism (a radical political movement which was, of course, not established until nearly a hundred and fifty years after the events of Orphans of the Storm) when his title cards comment on the French Revolution. This film was released just a few short years after the Russian Revolution, which Griffith must have felt compelled to address. It’s this stubborn insistence on making a political film, to wax poetically on class and rebellion and how movements can turn into mobs, that ultimately hurts Orphans of the Storm.