One can say what they will about D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation but when looking at some of his other films, it seems as if there is a problem coming by in regards to their age (Intolerance on the other hand remains as timeless as ever especially in comparison to his other films). Regardless of how dated they can be, they still maintain a level of importance that to some extent can excuse the sort of content which they are presenting (unfortunately it cannot help with looking at The Birth of a Nation for all. One of these cases that comes to mind is Orphans of the Storm, which is especially admirable for its ambition but perhaps it certainly does show off far too much as maybe the simplicity could have made for a much less distracting story (with Intolerance though, it aids in getting the idea across on the screen).
Griffith’s film tells a story of two orphans named Henriette and Louise who are respectively played by both Lillian and Dorothy Gish who promise to care for one another. This sounds like a rather simple idea at first, but then it ends up growing bigger from the journey to Paris where Henriette is seeking a cure for the sudden blindness of her sister and in turn, she gets abducted by an aristocrat who lusted for her. If it could not get any bigger than that, the French Revolution comes in and carries away the corrupt aristocracy which first separated the sisters and suddenly they are brought much further apart from there. One can certainly admire the ambition that D. W. Griffith wishes to tackle and while I love what he has created, there was another level to which I found the narrative movement to be highly frustrating.
In spite of the somewhat frustrating shift from a small scale story to something heading out for much larger idea, there’s something admirable at least in terms of how Griffith handles this shift in scale. No matter what scene it may be, the set design is always impressive and if there is a specific aspect to any of Griffith’s classics that still warrants after all of these years, it would have to be how Griffith carries on with how he keeps the design impressive within each sudden shift, whether it come down from the costumes to the sets. It becomes frustrating, however, when the scale ends up overshadowing what the story could have been, and in turn creates a much more heavy-handed effect on the melodrama. Although a good chunk of the film still makes up for this especially within the smaller sequences which fully realize his characters, the focus on scale can be found tedious to some extent especially when multiple subplots come in.
As noted earlier, the way that Griffith works around his characters especially within the smaller scenes of Orphans of the Storm allow for masterfully crafted melodrama and thus, the performances which come out from both Lillian and Dorothy Gish are nothing more than heart-wrenching. It never cloys upon an overly sentimental nature, which is amongst the most admirable achievements that D. W. Griffith manages to reach with Orphans of the Storm. At least when Griffith focuses primarily upon the Gish sisters and the story which they have to tell, the strongest moments of Orphans of the Storm truly hit, but when he ends up getting distracted by what more he wishes to make the film into, there’s a level of cheesiness that becomes evident and soon the film begins to show its age.
What is undeniable about what Griffith creates within Orphans of the Storm is as always, the innovative pioneering which he presents in his best known films. On a technical level, there’s certainly no denying what Griffith managed to succeed at for his achievements in terms of narrative structure as well as the editing and cinematography for they still remain impressive today. One can say what they will about how D. W. Griffith handles his stories but to deny his ambition is a concept that comes off to myself as baffling. It’s especially admirable what he aims for in Orphans of the Storm for what he leaves behind is certainly a staple for the epic melodrama, but even with that said it also presents some of the issues that plague such visions (one of the best examples being Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind).
Though the message at least with the French Revolution and American democracy presented in here is most certainly dated, there’s no denying how masterfully Griffith has worked around melodrama. For his own time, D. W. Griffith was certainly one of the most ambitious of American filmmakers and Orphans of the Storm provides another example of what Griffith continues to achieve and set in stone for proper filmmaking. If one were to look at Orphans of the Storm as a film about sisterhood, it certainly could have been a masterful film about the subject, but there’s another level to which the scale grows too big for its own good and then it gets carried away. Thankfully, most of the film doesn’t suffer in this manner.
Watch a clip right here.
All images via United Artists.
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Screenplay by D. W. Griffith, from the play Les Deux Orphelines by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Starring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish
Release Year: 1921
Running Time: 150 minutes