Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Orphans of the Storm (Griffith, 1921)


Okay, now I have officially seen every considerable work by the Father of Contemporary Cinema, D.W. Griffith. Orphans of the Storm has become historically important because it is the last Griffith film that performed well at the box office. Everything about the movie fits the classic Griffith mold. The sets are large, extensive and lavish. The acting is melodramatic and the story intertwines actual history with not only a love story, but also a dramatic tale of two "sisters" named Henriette and Louise. And, for lack of a better phrase, a ton of stuff happens.

I call the two main characters sisters, but the story is actually a little bit more complicated than that. The movie takes place in 18th century France right before and then during the French Revolution. The action opens with Louise as a newborn baby. Her parents are a Noble aristocratic woman and the common man she loves. Because this type of mixed relationship was frowned upon at the time, Noblemen killed the man and took the baby from the mother in an attempt to hide the happenings from the public. A trembling, infant Louise is then left on the snow-covered steps of a cathedral in hopes that the church will raise the baby. Shortly after that happens, another man carries his baby to the same steps. The baby is named Henriette and her father believes that he must give her up to the church due to the economic times. But when the father sees the near freezing Louise on the steps he changes his mind and actually takes both babies home. From then on, they were raised as sisters.

Fast-forward a decent amount of years and the sisters' parents have been killed by the plague. The same disease has left Louise blind with only Henriette left to be her caretaker. Naturally this experience bonded the sisters, and Henriette promises to never marry unless Louise can see again to approve of her husband. They go off to Paris in search of a way to restore Louise's sight, and then things get really messy.

All of the dramatic, sisterly action takes place in the wake of a major Parisian revolution. Robespierre and Danton are revolutionists who believe that the monarchy has become tyrannical and that France should adopt a government like that in the United States. They have managed to get the police on the side of the common man and against the King - essentially kicking off the Revolution.

Okay, I need to wrap this part up. Long story short, Henriette is kidnapped by a rich man due to her virginal beauty leaving Louise blind and alone on the streets of Paris. Louise is then kidnapped and forced to beg in the streets for money. The Revolution begins. There's a love story and a bunch of other stuff happens in between. I'm not trying to make light of the plot, but at 151 minutes long, too much happens to explain it all. The sisters are played by real life sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish and neither of them were strangers to working with Griffith as director. Their acting is pretty much what you'd expect from a silent epic. Everything is exaggerated and animated.

Orphans of the Storms is a movie that has cemented a place in film history, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has aged well. The biggest problem with Griffith films is that none of them hold up through time. He may be a pioneer in feature films, but his movies sometimes get a little clunky and heavy-handed. Like previously stated, a WHOLE LOT happens in this movie, but very little of it is ever developed or introduced in an interesting way. It is well known that Griffith had a political agenda when making the film, but I think he may have focused too much on it. Don't misunderstand me, the scenery and overall spectacle in production is awe-inspiring. I just needed more from the story. Top that off with the dated acting styles of the Gish sisters and Orphans of the Storm suddenly becomes hard to sit through.

Did I enjoy watching Orphans of the Storm? Overall, kinda. But I do think it is the worst Griffith movie that I have seen so far. It is almost sad to watch his movies in order and seeing the quality steadily decline. Then again, I've pretty much exclusively read that D.W. Griffith was a jerk. Therefore, I am okay with saying that Orphans of the Storm was a major disappointment.

Orphans of the Storm: C-

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