Orphans of the Storm (1921) Director: D.W. Griffith
Orphans of the Storm is often regarded as the last of D.W. Griffith’s great films. In my view it is a worthy film indeed, though its main redeeming qualities consist of its impressively large sets and compelling cinematography rather than its plot or themes. Otherwise, the acting is not particularly dazzling and the film falls far short of its lofty ambitions, or at least of the kind achieved in other Griffith’s earlier films, such as Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms. Orphans of the Storm is a decent film, though not Griffith’s best by any stretch of the imagination. It is the last film to feature the famous Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy.
Based on a French story adopted for the American stage, Orphans of the Storm tells the story of two lower-class sisters during the French Revolution who venture to Paris in order to cure one of the sisters of her blindness. Upon arrival, they are caught up in a series of events that highlight the class distinctions between the aristocracy and the impoverished. Griffith intended for the film to be a commentary on contemporary political issues, primarily Bolshevism, and some critics have seen the film as a defense of aristocracy. It is a two and a half hour epic film filled with unique visual effects, such as color tinting in monochromatic scenes and also the implementation of large constructed sets to show Paris during the revolution. Additional inspiration came from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, as similar characters to Danton and Robespierre appear. In the end, an aristocrat is saved and he falls in love with Henriette (Lillian Gish) while her sister’s blindness is cured and she is prevented from living the life of a poor blind woman.
An extra was accidentally killed on set while leaning on a rifle that suddenly fired even though it was apparently unloaded at the time (the impact from a barrel’s release can still be lethal at point blank range). As a lifelong Republican, Lillian Gish was thrilled to be invited to the White House by Warren G. Harding after the film was released.