Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – Orphans of the Storm (1921)
The early 1920s in the U.S.A. was a time of
changing tastes and fashions, when society was trying to bounce back in the
aftermath of World War I and focus on enjoying life to the fullest. Flapper
culture was starting to make waves and young people were enjoying the freedom
and excitement brought by the automobile. Moviegoing was nearly at its peak,
with tens of millions of Americans flocking to the theaters every week.
In the midst of this transitional period, director D.W. Griffith was trying to deal with a transition of his own. Having moved his studio from Los Angeles to Mamaroneck, New York, he was facing increasing debts and needed to keep churning out hits to stay in business. This probably seemed doable at the time. He still employed some of the industry’s most talented actors and was still riding high on his reputation for ambitious epics like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), although his earnest moralizing was starting to appear old-fashioned. He had received accolades for the artistic Broken Blossoms (1919) and in 1920 had triumphed with the rural-themed blockbuster Way Down East. Perhaps a new historic epic was in order, one that would take a cue from Way Down East and elevate a cliched old melodrama to something operatic.
After mulling over his options and listening to the advice of his star player Lillian Gish, Griffith hit upon making an adaptation of The Two Orphans (Les deux orphelines), an 1874 French play by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon. It told the story of two sisters, Henriette and Louise, who travel to Paris to find a cure for Louise’s blindness. Henriette is kidnapped by a loutish marquis, leaving Louise to wander the streets alone until a family of beggars take her in to sing in the streets for coins. A huge success, The Two Orphans would be one of the most popular plays of the 19th century. To “sophisticated” audiences in 1921, it was certainly a prime example of an old-fashioned “melodrammer.”
Wanting to give this relatively simple story an epic gloss, Griffith decided to set it right in the thick of the French Revolution, which also gave him an opportunity to bring to life historical figures like Robespierre and Georges Danton (who would be rather hyperbolically described as the “Abraham Lincoln of France”). The roles of Henriette and Louise would be played by Lillian and her sister Dorothy, a popular star who was mainly in light comedies at the time. Supporting actors would include Joseph Schildkraut in the role of the Chevalier de Vaudrey, who rescues Henriette (Dorothy would joke that his powdered wigs and satin costumes made him look prettier than she was). The wild-eyed Lucille La Verne played the beggar matriarch Mother Frochard. Audiences today might know her as the voice (and model) for the wicked queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Under the guidance of art director Edward Scholl, the Mamaroneck studio went to work building giant sets representing Versaillies, the Bastille, Notre Dame, and other famous locations befitting a historical spectacle. Old photos of Paris streets were consulted by the head carpenter “Huck” Wortman, and costumes and props were carefully researched. French director Abel Gance apparently visited Mamaroneck during the American premiere of his film J’Accuse. The inspiration from seeing Griffith’s sets would result in his mighty feature Napoleon (1927).
To get in the proper frame of mind, the main
cast studied A Tale of Two Cities by
Charles Dickens and History of the French
Revolution by Thomas Carlyle. Their acting would be a bit more stylized in
the film, with characters having more exaggerated postures and attitudes (such
as the pigtailed Creighton Hale serving as comic relief). This was a nod to the
gesturing in the 19th century stage play of yore, and perhaps was also inspired
by old illustrations. Huge crowds of extras were hired to play the wild mobs in
the revolution scenes. The guillotine scene in particular was filmed on a
Sunday so as many locals as possible could join in for $1.25 and a picnic
Having so many large-scale features under his
belt by then, Griffith kept the filming running smoothly, even as its expenses
increased (his main bank even refused to give him any more loans). As a whole, Orphans of the Storm became a tidy
amalgamation of everything he did best: capturing the epic scale of the
settings, reveling in historic details, adding little heart-tugging moments,
and of course, choreographing several highly dramatic scenes, especially the
ones tailored to the Gish sisters’ talents. The dramatic finale, where
Henriette is taken to the guillotine, uses his famous cross-cutting techniques
familiar from similar sequences in his 1910s epics.
While we might be tempted to think of Orphans of the Storm as a well-made but
quaint drama today, it might surprise us to know that Griffith intended it to
serve as modern political commentary. He was disturbed by the rise of
bolshevism following the 1917 Russian Revolution, seeing explicit parallels
with the violent crowds of the French Revolution. No fan of aristocratic
tyranny, he was equally critical of mob rule, and made this clear when he wrote
his film’s synopsis: “Orphans of the
Storm shows more vividly than any book of history can tell that the tyranny
of kings and nobles is hard to bear, but that the tyranny of the mob under
blood-lusting rulers is intolerable.” He made his point with all the subtlety
of a sledgehammer in several title cards, including mocking Robespierre by
deeming him “the original pussy-footer!”
At the time, critics hailed Orphans of the Storm as Griffith’s
finest work to date. But while it did reasonably well at the box-office, it
wasn’t quite the blockbuster that Way
Down East was. Following 1921, Griffith’s style of film would seem less and
less fashionable to 1920s audiences. His Revolutionary War epic America (1924) would be a flop and his
financial troubles would continue to mount. Today, Orphans is considered a lesser Griffith film than Broken Blossoms or Intolerance. But perhaps it’s best to view it with fresh eyes and
an appreciation for how earnestly it tried to capture not just the look, but
the feel of the drama of this historical period.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.