Edith's Review of Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm(1921)
Okay, I get that D. W. Griffith was a man of his time. He was afraid that something like the French Revolution would come to the US. Or, really, like the Russian Revolution. And Griffith had started out moderately well off, before his father died and left the family in poverty. He knew the whole of the economic spectrum in his era, and he was much happier at the top. However, I think he's working so hard in this to warn against the potential dangers of the Russian Revolution that he doesn't seem to have noticed the historical failings in his presentation of the French one. The most notable problem, of course, is with the title cards that preach piously about the dangers of anarchy and Bolshevism. I mean, anarchy is a fair complaint; despite the theoretical government, it is safe to say that the system was anarchic. So okay. But Bolshevism? I mean, leave aside that it kind of isn't even a real thing. It certainly didn't exist in Revolutionary France!
Henriette and Louise Girard (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) are adopted sisters. Both were to have been abandoned as babies at Notre-Dame, but the man planning to abandon Henriette sees Louise already there and takes pity on her, bringing both babies home again. They grow up as devoted sisters; they lose their parents in the fever that takes Louise's eyesight. Henriette swears she will marry no man of whom Louise does not approve. She falls in love with the handsome young Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut). The girls are separated. Henriette is sent to a prison for "fallen women." This leaves the blind Louise to wander the streets as a beggar. The French Revolution begins; Louise, still among the disreputable people for whom she had begged, is safe, but Henriette once aided Danton (Monte Blue) and so is despised by Robespierre (Sidney Herbert). And, of course, she is in love with an aristo, and that seldom ended well.
Because Danton left little in the way of his own writing, it's really hard to say if the film's portrayal of him as a compassionate man interested in ending the excesses of the Tribunal is fair and accurate. Similarly, Robespierre was a much more complicated--and younger!--figure than the sinister old man portrayed here. Griffith was never enormously interested in subtleties, and if you needed a historical hero and villain in Revolutionary France, you worked with what you had. Heaven knows there was enough villainy in the Terror to go around, and it's certainly true that Robespierre did not believe in mercy, which he seems to have believed would weaken the state. I can't much see Danton pleading for an aristocrat's life just because a woman who had saved [i]his[/i] life once happened to be in love with said aristo. Still, we've got to have our happy ending somehow, and while Griffith used [i]A Tale of Two Cities[/i] as a source, he didn't use [i]The Scarlet Pimpernel[/i].
I found much of the plot to this bewildering, and I'm still not entirely sure why Louise is abandoned at the beginning. I [i]think[/i] her mother had an unwise affair with a commoner and got pregnant, or possibly an unwise first marriage with a commoner, but I'm not sure. I get that the Chevalier's family considers a relationship with Henriette to be unwise, but I don't get why they locked her up instead of just sending him off somewhere or making him join the military or something. The whole sequence of events leading up to her arrest was more than a little confusing. Possibly if I had been paying a little more attention, it would have been less confusing, but the main reason I wasn't paying attention was that I was having a hard time keeping track of what was going on. I didn't like most of the characters, or else I didn't care enough about them to like or dislike them. The girls were your standard Griffith heroines--either frail and in need of protection or else plucky and determined.
Griffith certainly had a lot of nerve preaching about how we needed to respect the basic equality of all men. I've watched a couple of the movies thought of as apologies for [i]Birth of a Nation[/i]--as well as [i]Birth of a Nation[/i] itself--and he still never quite got it. Oh, of course there are no minorities in this movie; it's Revolutionary France, for heaven's sake. The most you could have is the odd African slave. They'd be extremely out of place in this story, too. However, even when Griffith thought he was being respectful of people who weren't exactly like him, he was still extremely patronizing. It isn't just that they're all either evil or saintly; that's true of almost everyone in Griffith films. As I said, he wasn't best known for subtlety. It's that they aren't ever really people, and no matter how hardworking they are, the white men are still needed to save the day. Even here, the women can't rescue themselves, and they only needed to be rescued in the first place because of the men around them.