Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and Orphans of the Storm (1921)
Orphans of the Storm (1921) was the last movie that Lillian made with D. W. Griffith, and following its completion she left his production company. This was not the first time she had left Griffith — after Way Down East (1920) wrapped, Griffith urged her to go because she commanded too high a salary for his uncertain finances. Her box office power was such that now, after an almost ten-year partnership, she was a bigger draw for audiences than Griffith was. Orphans of the Storm would be the last critical triumph for Griffith, and the fact that it was also his last collaboration with Lillian punctuates this point rather well.
Since delving a bit more into Lillian’s work with Griffith, I find that something just turns me off about Griffith’s epic films. Way Down East struck me the same way when I saw it several months ago, but I thought it was probably just the film itself. Now with Birth of a Nation and Orphans under my belt as well, I see that it is probably just Griffith’s grandiose ventures in general. I got the sense that something needed to be reined in; the sort of pastoral settings that Griffith uses in his films to denote gentility and a certain feminine ideal seem to be slathered on like too much makeup. I can’t fault him too much, however — Griffith’s creativity was molded in the style of turn-of-the-century melodrama, as well as that of Lillian Gish. Much of the story for this film came from the play The Two Orphans by Adolphe D’Ennery an Eugene Cormon, a critical success in the repertoire of theatrical melodrama.
Orphans of the Storm concerns two sisters in Pre-Revolutionary France — Henriette (Lillian), the daughter of a poor farmer, and Louise (Dorothy Gish), the daughter of a French noblewoman who married a commoner. Henriette and Louise are not blood sisters (Henriette’s father finds the abandoned baby Louise on the steps of a cathedral), but their bond is as close as any family and Griffith shows their utter devotion from girlhood to maturity. Louise is a victim of the Plague, bu loses her sight when she recovers. Henriette resolves to take her on a trip to Paris in order to seek a cure. While there, Henriette catches the eye of a wanton nobleman who kidnaps her shortly thereafter and brings her to a party (that actually borders on orgy). Louise, alone and without the eyes of her sister, is taken in by a ragtag family of beggars. The matriarch, Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne), is an old hag who will do anything for money and orders Louise to sing and beg with them. La Verne’s performance is actually one of the highlights of the film. Her ruthlessness is tempered somewhat by her oafish drive to get more money, family be damned. Rather than playing to the menacing aspects of such a character, La Verne seems to play for laughs as she is so ugly and so exaggerated as to be somewhat unbelieveable.
Poor Henriette is rescued from this orgiastic depravity, of course, by the handsome Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), and agrees to help her search for Louise. As luck would have it, de Vaudrey is also the nephew of Louise’s mother, who is now the Countess de Linieres (Katherine Emmet). Lillian’s best and most touching scene occurs when she meets with the Countess. Sitting near an open window, she hears the sweet strains of Louise’s voice in song down in the street below. Henriette hears her, but mistakes the sound for her imagintion. She tries to put it out of her mind, but the singing persists. Unable to stand it anymore, she springs from her chair to survey the scene on the street. It is Louise! She calls desperately to her sister and makes haste to hurry downstairs. In a cruel twist of fate she is seized at the door by the police for harboring a revolutionary, Danton (Monte Blue). Lillian’s performance in this scene displays a wrenching delicacy that simultaneously restrains her emotions and gives them a breathtaking vibrancy, as if they were fit to burst from her fine features.
Griffith condenses the revolution, showing the storming of the Bastille and immediately following it with Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) and the Terror. Henriette is forced to sit before a revolutionary tribunal because of her association with a nobleman (de Vaudrey), and is sentenced to death by the guillotine. After a few hair-raising moments under the gleaming blade, Henriette is saved at the last minute (one of Griffith’s favorite plot devices) by Danton, who hears of her sentence and rushes to save her because of the kindness she previouly showed him. All ends on a note of tranquility — Louise recovers her eyesight, and Henriette (upon the approval of Louise) agrees to marry de Vaudrey.
While Orphans enjoyed considerable critical success — many believed that it was Griffith’s return to the top of his form — the premium prices placed on tickets did not assist Griffith recoup the enormous expense he lavished on the film. This, in addition to the considerable salary that Lillian was now able to command, was too much for his precarious finances (a situation that Griffith faced on several occasions in varying degrees with past films). While Griffith certainly had his faults, his tireless (if not financially sound) enthusiasm for the medium of cinema is truly remarkable. His creative visions bordered on the boundless, and I can’t help but feel that it was unfortunate that they also proved to be his financial ruin.