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D.W. Griffith’s ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)

ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) is one of D.W. Griffith’s most perfectly conceptualized films.  It is a compendium of all the techniques and ideas about filmmaking he helped develop in the very early years of the twentieth century.  The frame masking, the color tinting, the adroit staging of crowd scenes, the travelling camera and of course, the editing of action, are all represented here in pristine fashion.  Coming as it did, on the heels of DREAM STREET (1921), ORPHANS is all the more enthralling.  DREAM STREET was one of Griffith’s intimate dramas in the manner of BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) but it failed miserably in its attempt to capture the artistic and commercial success of that film.  ORPHANS, on the other hand, was an exhilarating epic adventure, if not an overwhelming financial blessing for its producer. 

Based on a 19th century play by Adolph Ennery, the film thrusts us into the world of two sisters as the rumblings of the French revolution stir in the distance.  Louise (Dorothy Gish), blind and vulnerable, and Henriette (Lillian Gish), all determination  and grit, but a little vulnerable herself, are separated when the former is whisked away by thieves.  To make matters worse (Griffith is always looking for ways to intensify the melodrama), Henriette is exploited by lustful aristocrats with evil on their minds.  One member of the elite class, Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), is pure of heart, and the two young people fall in love.  Romance, however, will have to wait as Henriette begins a search that culminates in her being sentenced to the guillotine.

The quest for the lost sister is accentuated by skillful use of color tinting to manipulate the audience.  Cold, forbidding night scene exteriors are tinted blue, while interiors are enhanced with warm sepia tones.  Moments set in a frightening women’s prison are imbued with an eerie green, heightening the “snake pit” atmosphere.  The storming of the Bastille is bathed in an appropriate gorey red hue. 

The impact of the various set pieces is further amplified by Griffith’s use of masking devices placed over the camera lense. (Remember, this is nearly a decade before the invention of the optical printer, and such effects had to be made in the camera).  The most startling use of these masks is in the films extreme close-ups.  We see a series of tight shots of faces, cruel and unwashed, intensified by blocking out the portions of the faces above the eyes and below the lips.  The eyes penetrate us. The curled lips seem ready to drip saliva. 

There are many storms throughout the film: The rainstorm when Henriette thinks she spies Louise under an umbrella.  The storming of the Bastille by the enraged peasants, and the frenzied dance of the same peasants, newly liberated from aristocratic tyranny.  And most impressive of all, the final storm of horses as Georges Danton (Monte Blue) leads his men on a wild ride to prevent Henriette from losing her head. 

The “People’s Tribunal”, established to punish the aristocrats who had oppressed the citizens of France, sentences Henriette and de Vaudrey to the guillotine, in part because of their relationship.  After they are taken to the place of their intended doom, Danton, the great orator of the revolution gives an electrifying, if over the top speech in their defense.  He wins their freedom, but is it too late?  Along with a dozen or so followers, he races on horseback to stop the executions on the outskirts of town, just as the Ku Klux Klan races to prevent a forced interracial marriage at the climax of THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915).  The camera angles, the travelling shots taken from the back of a truck, and the frantic cross cutting serve as an instant reminder of that infamous film, but there is one more important parallel: Griffith apparently saw the KKK and Danton as the voices of reason after the excesses of both post civil war reconstruction and the French revolution.  Perhaps D.W. Griffith, master filmmaker, was also in many ways, a madman.  Not so hard to believe, after all, when we think of the nuttiness of the Hollywood community.  But it is a different kind of crazy today.  As a result, the name of one of the giants of early filmmaking was removed from the Director’s Guild Of America award given annually in honor of “Outstanding achievement in directing”.  Griffith, it appears, was just a bit too crazy.

QUESTION: Do you think Griffith’s name should have been purged from the Director’s Guild Award?  Leave a comment.

CREDITS: Directed and written by D.W. Griffith.  Based on the play by Adolph Ennery.  Photography by Henrick Sartov.  With Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Monte Blue, Lucille La Verne, Frank Puglia, Morgan Wallace and Creighton Hale.

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July 13, 2010 Posted by | American Film, D.W.Griffith, Dorothy Gish, film directors, French Revolution, Georges Danton, Josepf Schildkraut, Lillian Gish | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment