By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?
Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.
Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.
Much like Way Down East, The Two Orphans had been a tear-jerker of a melodrama and featured not one, but two innocent young maidens in peril. Originally a French play called Les Deux Orphelines, it premiered in January 1874 and was so successful that an English translation was playing on British and American stages by that autumn. It told the tale of two orphaned girls (not biological sisters but raised together), Henriette and the blind Louise, who go to Paris and fall into bad hands. Louise is abducted by the odious woman La Frochard, who makes Louise beg in the streets, while Henriette is preyed upon by the amoral nobleman the Marquis de Presles. Fortunately the handsome Chevalier de Vaudrey comes to Henriette’s rescue, and she tries to reunite with Louise.
Three scenes in particular were very famous: Louise begging in the snow outside the Church of Saint-Sulpice and almost meeting her biological mother; Marianne, the mistress of La Frochard’s son Jacques, saving Henriette from going to prison by going in her place; and La Frochard’s two sons engaging in an intense knife fight over Louise. (Several silent film adaptations were made of The Two Orphans in the 1900s and 1910s, some only recreating the well-known knife fight.) Griffith would nix the Marianne character and focus more on Henriette and Louise, shrewdly giving his stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish plenty of screen time. The French Revolution setting allowed him to recreate famous historical events (one of Griffith’s favorite things) and pull in historical figures like Robespierre and George Danton. And happily, he could indulge in a climactic cross-cutting sequence to end all climactic cross-cutting sequences when Henriette is threatened by–what else?–death by guillotine.
Always eager to help edify the public, Griffith was particularly keen on a French Revolution film because of the United States’ current fascination with–and fear of–bolshevism. In 1917 the revolutionary Bolsheviks, lead by Vladimir Lenin, had shocked the world when they violently overthrew the Tsar. One of their inspirations had actually been the French Revolution. By the time Griffith was making Orphans of the Storm, the Red Terror had been in full swing in Russia for several years and the U.S. was anxious about the possible rise of far-left “Bolshevism” in the labor movements at home. Griffith wanted to weave in a strong anti-red message, even beginning the film with the title card: “We in the United States with a democratic government should beware lest we mistake traitors and fanatics for patriots, and replace law and order with anarchy and bolshevism.” He saw Robespierre as a particularly malicious “reformer” figure (akin to the “reformers” in Intolerance) who “stamped out with the guillotine all who opposed [him]”…”The people seem to win, but a fraction of fanatics defeats their will to govern.”
With entertainment and lofty goals in mind, Orphans was clearly designed to be a superproduction, with lavish sets recreating Versaille, Notre Dame and other famed locations. Lillian remembered the excitement among the cast as the Revolution was slowly brought to life–every leading player carried around a copy of Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Griffith’s main inspiration. (His other inspiration was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities–which, don’t you know it, also used Carlyle as a source.) At times Griffith was a little too eager to draw parallels between past and present, calling the famed orator Danton “the Abraham Lincoln of France.” No one had come up with that one before.
As a whole, Orphans seems to hit every note: winsome heroines, a handsome (if somewhat generic) hero, detailed costumes, oodles of drama, giant sets, skilled character actors, a heart-pounding climax–but do those notes combine into a skilled symphony? Not quite, and not just because of Creighton Hale’s painfully “comic” scenes (poor Creighton, he always does his best). Coming on the heels of all those other Griffith epics, it seems rather formulaic. (Fair warning: spoilers in the rest of this paragraph.) It looks beautiful and there’s some neatly-edited dramatic sequences, such as Henriette hearing Louise singing outside in the street, but we’re always aware the sisters are destined to be imperiled and equally destined to be saved. The guillotine sequence is nicely nail-baiting, but do we ever believe Henriette’s head will actually roll–especially when she’s played by Lillian Gish? And gee, do ya think Louise’s blindness will ever be cured?
But perhaps this isn’t the film’s fault, really. If we examine Orphans by itself, and not as another D.W. Griffith epic on the heels of Intolerance and Broken Blossoms, it’s certainly a strong–and entertaining–period film, especially with its wonderful cast (special props to Lucille La Verne, the actress who inspired the wicked queen in Disney’s Snow White, playing La Frochard). Innovative shots, like the one of a drumroll being performed in the foreground by someone whose body is just off camera, are easier to appreciate instead of being compared to Griffith’s more famous shots. Perhaps if it were made by an up-and-coming director who was finally proving himself, Orphans might be more highly regarded today.
So what draws me to this film? The sweeping historic setting and fine performances by the talented Gish sisters are high on the list, but there’s something else too. Orphans of the Storm is one of those silents that make me realize how cultured people were back in the day. Or at least more knowledgeable about certain historical events–after all, this was an era where Napoleon costumes were popular for parties. We might faintly know about Robespierre today, but George Danton? The film assumes we of course know all about him. And how many people today have heard of the carmagnole, the wild song mocking the overthrown king and queen, which certain scenes revolve around? Other aspects of the film seem to echo old illustrations (the way the lame Pierre Frochard carries himself, Creighton Hale’s comical pigtail), or perhaps deliberately echo forgotten stage scenes audiences might’ve remembered. Much of it is like a puzzle that only a good history course could fully solve.
I’m not alone in noticing the high amount of culture in early 20th century entertainment. Imogene Sara Smith’s excellent book Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, beautifully analyzed the richness of the arts back in the day, especially in regards to silent comedies:
The first half of the twentieth century was a golden age–perhaps the golden age–of popular art. Seeds were sown in the later nineteenth century, as newfound leisure time and the spread of education turned the working classes into avid consumers of entertainment, and as new technologies captured and disseminated the best cultural products cheaply and widely…
The “lively arts” (the phrase Gilbert Seldes coined for film comedy, vaudeville, cartoons, popular music and dance) blossomed, producing the American songbook, the Broadway musical, brilliant comic strips like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo in Slumberland, public art like the W.P.A.-sponsored populist murals, and “Hollywood classics.” Pining in the twenty-first century, we wonder how these commercial products could be so damned good…
One reason they were so good is that art and entertainment, highbrow and lowbrow, used to meet and mingle (if not always amiably) instead of drinking from separate water fountains. Artists and intellectuals were fascinated by vernacular forms, while the masses yearned to better themselves, worshipping paragons of “class” like Fred Astaire, who was really a former vaudevillian from Omaha. In the twenties Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo barnstormed around America performing for audiences who had never seen ballet before. In the thirties Benny Goodman played in Carnegie Hall…This invigorating exchange of influences has grown scarce in an age when silent comedies are mostly seen in museums and film classes.
It’s likely that Orphans of the Storm is passed over in those film classes in favor of more famous works. But whether it’s a “lesser” film or no, here’s one modern viewer who thinks it’s just plain satisfying, perfect for quiet evenings when she can lose herself in the long-ago events of the French Revolution–or in contemplation of the rich world of early 20th century entertainment.
Mayer, David. “The Two Orphans/Orphans of the Storm: Melodrama, Stage and Screen.” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Volume 47 issue: 2, page(s): 100-131. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1748372720942737
Fisher, James. Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings. New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Smith, Imogen Sara. Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy. Gambit Publishing, 2008.