Orphans of the Storm (1921) Review

Orphans of the Storm (1921) Director: D.W. Griffith

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★★★☆☆

Drawing inspiration from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, 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 I found myself drawn more to the incredible backdrops and sets rather than the plot itself. 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 (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). This is the last of Griffith’s films to feature the famous Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy. As a lifelong Republican, Lillian Gish was thrilled to be invited to the White House by Warren G. Harding after the film was released.

Based on a French story which was adapted 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 blindness. Upon arrival, they are caught up in a series of events which highlight the class distinctions between aristocracy and plebeian. Griffith initially intended for the film to be interpreted a commentary on growing political issues, primarily the rise of Bolshevism, and some critics have seen the film as a defense of aristocracy. It is a two and a half hour epic filled with unique visual effects, such as color tinting in monochromatic scenes and also the implementation of large constructed sets of revolutionary Paris. 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.

Way Down East (1920) Review

8/16/14

Way Down East (1920) Director: D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)

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★★★★☆

D.W. Griffith was apparently drawn to more sentimental film-making in his later years with films like Way Down East and Broken Blossoms. Once again, Griffith’s leading star Lillian Gish delivers a tender performance as an outcasted young woman who has fallen on hard times. However, in my view, Way Down East lacks the magic of Griffith’s earlier films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East is a pitiable little melodrama, with an all-too-perfect ending, which strains credulity when viewed in a certain light. There were actually four movies made from the original play of the same name by Lottie Blair Parker. This was actually the third silent film based on the story, and it was later followed by a 1935 “talkie” starring Henry Fonda. Way Down East was one of Griffith’s most commercially successful films, and it was also even more expensive than The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was subtitled: “A Simple Story of Plain People.”

As with other Griffith films, Way Down East stars Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) and Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett) who also played Cheng Huan in Broken Blossoms (1919). He was later nominated for the first Oscar for Best Actor.

The opening title reads:

“Since the beginning of time man has been polygamous – even the saints of Biblical history – but the Son of Man gave a new thought, and the world is growing nearer the true ideal. He gave of One Man for One Woman. Not by laws – our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws – but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy. Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any other point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached this high standard – except perhaps in theory.”

Anna and her mother are impoverished and in need of money so Anna travels to the city in search of money from her wealthy cousin. Her cousin and sisters reject Anna at a ball, until their obscure extremely wealthy aunt offers Anna some nice clothes. However, at the ball Anna catches the eye of Lennox Sanderson, a known womanizer. Lennox lures Anna to his house saying that his relative will meet them there, but when she arrives only two of them remain alone in the house. Lennox tries to grab Anna but she grows angry until he says he wants to marry her. She is immediately smitten and accepts. They are then married in a sham wedding staged by Lennox with some friends acting as false religious figures (he has paid them to pose as clergy). Soon, the couple begin their honeymoon during which Anna gets pregnant, and later Lennox admits that the wedding was a sham, leaving Anna sad, lonely, and with a child.

Meanwhile, near the Sanderson family estate is Bartlett Village, a country farm owned by Squire Butler and his attractive, well-spoken son named David.

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After Anna’s mother dies, she wanders away to hide her shame and she gives birth to her baby, who then gets sick and dies. She then goes to find work and winds up on Bartlett’s farm where David quickly falls in love with her. Soon rumors circulate that Anna has delivered an illegitimate child and Bartlett, in a rage, banishes Anna, sending her out into a snowstorm. This all occurs during an awkward dinner in which Lennox is visiting and making passes at another girl at the house, Kate, to whom David was initially betrothed from a young age. David follows Anna out into the storm and rescues her from a floating piece of ice before she can tumble down a waterfall (these were highly dangerous scenes which left Lillian Gish’s hand damaged from the freezing waters, though the floating ice she rested upon was actually made of wood). In the final scenes, Lennox apologizes to Anna and offers to marry her, but Anna rejects him over David. Together Anna and David get married, along with two other couples from the film. It concludes with a blissful fairy-tale ending.

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Broken Blossoms (1919) Review

8/7/14

Broken Blossoms (1919) Director: D. W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)

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★★★★★

Full of innocence and simplicity, Broken Blossoms is a charming picture. It is meticulously crafted with striking cinematography. Broken Blossoms is by far my favorite of D.W. Griffith’s films, though it is unfortunately often overlooked in favor of his much larger and more controversial films. There is surely room to criticize Broken Blossoms for its use of racial stereotypes in helping to fan the flames of the early 20th century “yellow peril,” but I think there are still some redeeming qualities worth exploring.

Entitled Broken Blossoms: The Yellow Man and The Girl, the film is an impassioned tragedy and a masterpiece of the silent era. It stands in contrast to Griffith’s other massive epics, such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Intolerance (1916). Broken Blossoms is a gentler and more sensitive picture, even sentimental and melancholic. The story was adopted from Thomas Burke’s short story entitled “The Chink and the Child” taken from his book, Limehouse Nights. The movie was filmed almost entirely on two small indoor sets in order to capture the delicate and intimate nature of the film, as instructed by Henrick Sartov, Griffith’s cinematographer. In total, Broken Blossoms was shot in less than three weeks, but despite its quick filming schedule, the film was a box office success for United Artists.

The film stars Lillian Gish (as Lucy, or the Girl), Richard Barthelmess (The Yellow Man) who controversially played the character in “yellow face,” and Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows) who also played General Ulysses S. Grant in The Birth of a Nation and also previously worked as an assistant to D.W. Griffith for many years before becoming a film director on his own.

The film opens with the tinted blue image of a ship arriving in a harbor and the title reads:

“It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears.

We may believe there are no Battling Burrows, striking the helpless with brutal whip – but do we not ourselves use the whip of unkind words and deeds? So, perhaps, Battling may even carry a message of warning.”

It begins in a port town in China where a young Chinese man (The Yellow Man) is contemplating a journey while receiving advice from a Buddhist priest. He witnesses several Western sailors fighting outside and decides he will go to England to be a Buddhist missionary, to “take a glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.” There are two scenes of a Buddhist monk ringing a bell –we can almost hear the bell despite the film’s silence. He boards a ship for the Limehouse district of London, a foggy slum of the city. He lives there for years working at the Cheng Huan shop selling Chinese trinkets. He spends his years smoking opium at the “scarlet house of sin” after becoming disillusioned with his idealistic cause. The next title reads: “In this scarlet house of sin, does he ever hear the temple bells? There are no more scenes of the bell ringing.

We meet the illegitimate daughter of Battling Burrows, Lucy, who is badly beaten after Battling Burrows’s manager grows angry at him for drinking. She receives advice from a group of some ‘women of the street’ who tell her not to get married but to sell her body instead. After her father beats her, she pitifully moves her fingers over her mouth to force a smile, as per his requests.

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Later, the Yellow Man meets two men, both Anglican clergymen, and one is preparing to travel to China to “Convert the heathen.” They hand the Yellow Man a book entitled “Hell.” Lucy goes out shopping and the Yellow Man spots her and notes her beauty. She is also followed by a man called “Evil Eye”. She tries to purchase a single flower in exchange for tin foil from a shop keeper, but she is denied. She grows concerned as she is cornered by Evil Eye, but the Yellow Man rescues her.

Lucy returns home but her angry father beats her again until she passes out. When she awakens, she wanders down to the dock and collapses onto the floor of the Yellow Man’s shop. He carries her upstairs and lavishly takes care of her and allows her to sleep (this extended scene lasts for the bulk of the film). Meanwhile, Burrows is fighting in the ring. One of his associates at the ring visits the Yellow Man’s shop and the Yellow Man must leave to fill his request, but the associate overhears something break upstairs, a jar of flowers dropped by Lucy. So he quietly goes upstairs as the Spying One, and spots her. Laughing, he leaves to inform Battling Burrows. Burrows comes to the shop and ruins the whole room in a fury while the Yellow Man is away picking up flowers for Lucy.

Battling Burrows and Lucy return home and he begins to beat her but she escapes into the closet for the famously violent scene, which even stunned Griffith during the filming. The Yellow Man races to her house but he is too late as Burrows has axed his way into the closet and beats her to death. The Yellow Man finds Lucy lying dead on the bed and Burrows emerges as they stare each other down until Burrows tries to grab his axe but The Yellow Man shoots him several times and takes the body of Lucy back to a room in his shop. In Burk’s short story, Cheng Huan (The Yellow Man) actually puts a poisonous snake in Burrows bed to kill him.

The film closes as the Yellow Man lights a candle and says a Buddhist prayer before a small alter. He rings a small bell once, bidding farewell to his White Blossom, and then he dramatically stabs himself beside the dead body of Lucy just before the police show up to arrest him. Two scenes of the Buddhist bell ringing and the ship entering the harbor are shown, just as in the beginning of the film.

Lillian Gish later claimed theatres that premiered the film in New York were all decorated with ornate draperies, flowers, moon lanterns, and beautiful Chinese artwork. However, on a darker note, the scenes of child abuse in the film naturally disgusted many critics, including Griffith during the filming, and it ultimately drew many away from the film. Broken Blossoms was released during a period of great antagonism toward Chinese immigrants, known as the “Yellow Peril” and it has since been met with much criticism for its portrayal of Asians. Similar prejudicial themes can be found in another early classic, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915).

Intolerance (1916) Review

7/30/14

Intolerance (1916) Director: D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)

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★★★★☆

While Intolerance is a remarkably grandiose achievement in the history of cinema, it is a dizzyingly long and complex film that runs the risk of rapidly losing its audience. The concept and scope of the film is incredible, yet the delivery is somewhat difficult for me to stomach. The four separate parallel, intertwined plots take place in distinct historical epochs and are challenging to keep up with. Without running the risk of too close a comparison, Intolerance is akin to a symphony with far too many notes. With that being said, this is a masterful achievement in the history of early cinema, even if it did financially ruin D.W. Griffith. In total, it cost about $2 million to make –an exorbitant amount of money for the time– and at least a third of this cost was used for the Babylonian sequences (the massive Babylonian Gate was demolished after the film but later, about a mile away, the large Hollywood shopping mall partially reconstructed the massive gate for its entrance. It is located at Hollywood and & Highland Complex). Nevertheless, Intolerance was a huge commercial flop, in part, because of the huge cost to hire a full orchestra to accompany the film’s release. The flop ultimately sunk the Triangle Film Corporation, though Intolerance was curiously a minor hit in the Soviet Union.

Originally entitled “Motherhood and the Law,” Intolerance is sometimes viewed as Griffith’s response to the public outcry against The Birth of a Nation which was released the prior year, even though the part of Intolerance (the modern parts) were developed before the commercial successes of The Birth of a Nation. Inspiration for the film came to Griffith after watching Cabiria (1914), the great Italian epic. Subtitles for Intolerance have included: “A Sun-Play of the Ages” and “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.”

The film weaves together four separate but parallel plot-lines each exposing the persistence of “hatred and intolerance throughout the ages” which have “battled against love and charity.” Interwoven between each is a scene of a mother (the character of “Eternal Motherhood” played by Lillian Gish) rocking a small cradle alongside the phrase: “out of the cradle endlessly rocking.” There are over 50 different transitions between the different narratives throughout the film and each historical epoch is tinted with a different color.

Intolerance stars: Lillian Gish (Eternal Motherhood), and Mae Marsh (The Dear One) who both previously starred in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). At this time, epic films were predominantly emerging from France and Italy rather than the United States, so this was quite a risky endeavor for Griffith. Previously, Griffith had attempted to produce an epic, Judith of Bethulia (1913), but it was greatly overshadowed by its Italian counterpart Cabiria (1914).

The first story in Intolerance is the Modern Story, taking place circa 1914. It follows three women, later called “Uplifters” who are hoping to sponsor a social reform movement, and they look to the wealthy Marie T. Jenkins for money. Miss Jenkins, the unmarried sister of an industrial “overlord,” is hosting a ball but is distraught due to all the young men who pursue younger and prettier women while she gets older. Meanwhile a young girl (Mae Marsh), also called “the little Dear One,” keeps house while her father works for $2.75 per day at the Jenkins mill. Separately “The Boy” goes to work at the same mill with his father. The section concludes with the Uplifter reformers approaching Miss Jenkins for money. The Jenkins Factory was intended to resemble John D. Rockefeller, and the massacre at the outset was intended to mirror the Ludlow Massacre (1914).

The second story is the Judean Story, A.D. 27. Here, we are brought to ancient Jerusalem “near the Jaffa gate.” In a crowded street, a hypocritical Pharisee praises himself loudly saying, “Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am better than other men. Amen.”

The third story is the French Story, circa 1572 during the reign of Catherine de Medici and Charles IX chronicling the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the French Protestants. Charles IX receives his younger brother at his lavish court, Monsieur La France, Duc D’Anjou. The King arrogantly eats sweets, while Catherine maintains the true power of the monarchy, and Monsiuer La France is heir to the throne even though he is effeminate, preferring to play with toys and pets. Catherine, a fierce Catholic, is opposed to the Huguenot party (French Protestants) led by Admiral Coligny (Joseph Henabery) who is favored by the King which only increases Catherine’s ire. Next, we see a large celebration of the marriage of Marguerite of Valois, the King’s sister, and Henry of Navarre a royal Huguenot. Two other Huguenot lovers are introduced, “Brown Eyes” and “Prosper Latour.”

We then return to the Modern Story, where Miss Jenkins has aligned herself with the morally self-righteous modern Pharisees, or the Uplifter reformers and her brother gives her a check for the cause. Mr. Jenkins goes to visit the dance that his factory workers are attending and notices that its ten o’clock and that the workers should be in bed for work the following morning.

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Finally, we are introduced to the Babylonian Story, which details the fall of Babylon to the Persians. Amid massive crowds gathered outside the walls of Imgur Bel, the great gate of Babylon, we meet a “Mountain Girl,” and a “Rhapsode” who is a poet of the high priest of Bel. High above, the priest of Bel-Marduk jealously watches the entrance of Ishtar, a rival god, into the city. Below, the Rhapsode makes advances on the Mountain Girl who scorns him. The Prince Belshazzar is called an “apostle of tolerance and religious freedom” (the replica of the wall of Babylon was created 300 feet high with the capacity to right a chariot over). And the Mountain Girl’s brother drags her to court where the Code of Hammurabi says she must be sent to the marriage market to find a good husband.

We return to the Modern Story wherein the Jenkins mill is failing because of all the demands for increasing demands for money from the charity. Mr. Jenkins orders a 10% pay cut and the workers strike. The militia is called in and opens fire on the strikers and the “loom of Fate weaves death for the Boy’s father.” This causes many to leave the town for the city and The Boy turns to a life of petty theft to get by and a girl called “The Friendless One” turns to the “Musketeer of the Slums” –a gang leader.

Back to the Babylon Story, the Mountain Girl is not popular at the marriage market and the procession with the prince comes through. He gives her a royal seal stating that she can either marry or not marry as she pleases to do. Later, she is arrested for assaulting the Priest of Bel after he spoke ill of Melshazzar. She pleads her case before Belshazzar and he grants the Mountain Girl her freedom.

In the Modern Story, the Dear One watches women outside and longs to act like them, the Friendless One has become the mistress of the “Musketeer of the Streets”, and the Boy is a thief for the Musketeer. Later, he spots the Dear One practicing walking like the other ladies and kisses her but her father comes to the rescue. Her father dies shortly thereafter. In the Judean story, at the wedding, Jesus performs the miracle of turning water into wine. In the French Story, Brown Eyes and Prosper continue their love, unaware of the danger around them.

In the Modern Story, the Reformers are directly compared with the Pharisees of the Judean Story. They have become the most powerful group under the Mary T. Jenkins Fund. The Boy and the Dear One get married and the Boy quits his life of thievery but is framed as the gangsters beat him up and frame him with a gun and wallet. He is then arrested and imprisoned.

In the Babylonian Story the High Priest of Bel decides to betray Belshazzar and side with the invading Persian, Cyrus, to regain his political power.

In the Modern Story, the Uplifters pass new ordinances regarding unfit mothers of children. They check in on the Dear One who is sick with a cold and is using whisky as a home remedy. They are shocked to find she has a criminal husband and is using whisky. They confiscate her baby. She goes to visit the Foundation hoping that negligent mothers who are hired are not there.

In the French Story, out in the streets Huguenots are riding horses and Catherine convinces her compatriots that they must fight back against the Protestants. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…”

In the Babylonian story, Cyrus invades and The Mountain Girl’s brother suits with armor. Refusing to be left behind, she suits up to fight as well. The battle scenes are immense in their scale with towers and flaming arrows. The battle turns ugly as the Babylonians knock down Persian towers and soldiers cut off the heads of one another, but ultimately Babylon wins the day and they celebrate.

End of Act I. The script reads:

A Sun-play of the Ages
INTOLERANCE
A drama of Comparisons

Act II:

The events portrayed of Babylon are according to “recently excavated cylindars of Nibonious and Cyrus” which portray the betrayal of the Priests of Bel, one of the greatest in history and the loss of the cuneiform language.

In the Modern Story, the Musketeer vows to recover the baby for the Dear One.

Back to the Babylon Story, and the most famous scene of the film, the camera slowly moves into the lavish streets of Babylon as hundreds of people are dancing and moving in celebration. Soldiers and citizens celebrate and feast. The High Priest looks down at the city he will betray.

The scenes begin transitioning rapidly now between one another.

In the Babylonian Story, the Mountain girl chases the priests as they defect to the Persians while the unsuspecting Babylonians celebrate. The priests leave the gate open and the Persians pour into the city while the Mountain Girl tries to warn King Belshazzar. It is too late and the king tries to defend the city with 12 guards but is eventually forced to kill himself with his queen and her entourage. The Mountain girl is then shot with an arrow and dies as 2 doves come on screen.

In the Judean Story, Christ is led to cross and is crucified (Howard Gaye, who played Jesus, was involved in a sex scandal with a 14 year old girl around the time of the film’s release and was sent back to England uncredited in the film).

In the French Story, Queen Catherine spearheads the massacre of the Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Brown Eyes is killed. Her killer is then shot to death in the doorway and bodies are strewn throughout Paris.

In the Modern Story, the Dear One’s lover is led to the gallows after being falsely accused of murder. The Dear One reaches the governor on a train to receive a pardon with the help, finally, of one of the Uplifters. The Boy is rescued just in time and they kiss and embrace as all the people move offscreen it is the only happy ending of the four stories.

The screen reads: “when cannon and prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance -” will no longer prevail. Storm clouds move above a modern battlefield scene, where guns are fired, lines of battle between soldiers are enjoined, and flashes of lightning spark. Hand-to-hand fighting between two men is centered in an iris and mortar fire blasts from giant guns. A military tank moves behind the battle lines. Prisoners in striped uniforms in a long corridor shake their fists up toward a prison wall. In the cloudy sky above the modern-day battlefield, white robed, pacifistic, angelic figurines appear, as one of the hand-to-hand combatants holds his rifle in mid-air before bayoneting his fallen opponent. “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.” All the soldiers on the battlefield look up and drop their rifles.

“Instead of prison walls — Bloom flowery fields.” Brilliant light descends from above toward the exterior of a prison. The prisoners who are gesturing toward the wall suddenly move through it (again, a superimposed trick photography) – the prison walls disappear. The exterior of the prison dissolves into an open country scene with a flowering field in the foreground, and mountains in the background. The field is filled with black workers. The soldiers on the battlefield extend their arms to the sky as clouds (with the angelic figurines) descend toward them. In a May Day celebration, people happily dance on a grassy field, and two children sit on an unused cannon which has sprouted weeds and flowers. Two other children, a little boy and girl, are in the foreground playing happily together – he puts flowers in her hair, she blows him a kiss, and they both hug each other. From the battlefield, the soldiers look up and cheer toward the angelic figurines. A brilliant white cross appears over the scene. There is a final medium-close shot of the woman rocking the cradle.

Because of its extreme unpopularity the film was cut in two and released separately as “The Fall of Babylon” and “The Mother and the Law.” However, these two separate films still never garnered much popularity and to his dying day, Griffith would still be paying his debts on this film.