Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Before I Die # 547: Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Great poster. I wish I could say the same
for the movie itself.
This is the 547th of the 1,160 films on the "Before You Die" list which I am gradually working my way through.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Judgment of this kind of movie is all about context and perspective. If I were a viewer or critic between the film's release in 1921 and any of the decades immediately after, Orphans of the Storm is a masterpiece. If I'm a historian of film technique and evolution, it's a masterpiece. If, however, I'm a viewer in 2015 looking for pure entertainment, then this 94-year old movie isn't going to do much for me.

Director D.W. Griffith was already a titan of film in 1921. It's no surprise that the man who directed the massive epic films Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Way Down East would bring us a film set to the backdrop of the French Revolution. It is also no surprise that he cast Lilian Gish and her sister, Dorothy, as adopted siblings who are buffeted about by the "storm" that is the overthrow of the French aristocracy. Stories on such a tremendous scale, including the grand sets, costumes, and enormous casts, were the bread and butter of Griffith, and they created a lush setting in which his fictional human dramas could unfold.

The story follows Henriette and her adopted sister, Louise, who in infancy was taken from her aristocrat mother and abandoned by her mother's peers. Louise eventually is stricken blind, and her sister Henriette pledges to never marry until they find a cure. When the two become young women, they decide to travel to Paris to find a doctor who may be able to cure Henriette. However, the two sisters are soon set upon and separated, with Henriette ultimately taken prisoner by a scheming old vagabond and her henchman son. Louise attempts to navigate the ever-treacherous waters that become the French Revolution, when the peasantry staged a violent overthrow of the aristocracy. The fear, mistrust, and blood lust which pervaded the era are just a few of the hazards which Henriette and Louise must avoid in their quests to reunite.

Griffith never minded playing the heavy sentimentality card,
as evidenced by the use of the blind Henriette in this film.
Charlie Chaplin must have taken notice, as he followed suit
in his 1925 film
City Lights.
When compared to films of the same era, Orphans of the Storm clearly stands out in scale and technique. By this time, Griffith had completely mastered framing, editing, and set design, so that this film was undoubtedly an amazing spectacle to viewers in the 1920s. I'm sure the same was true for the emotional story of Louise and Henriette. Moviegoers at that time were apparently completely enchanted by the plight of the innocent and dedicated young women. These 94 years later, though, the film's merits in terms of entertainment have completely vanished, as I see it. Only the most imaginative and artistic films from the twenties, such as Metropolis, continue to stoke any aesthetic interest. In terms of narrative, the story of Louise and Henriette is now laughably sentimental. The two are both one-dimensional, fairy tale virgins who evoke little comparison with any actual living person. The same can be said for every character in the movie.

I wouldn't be as harsh on this movie if not for several films that were made around the same time. Movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Within Our Gates, The Phantom Carriage, and even Dr. Mabuse showed that other filmmakers were already creating on-screen characters with true depth and far more genuine, complex emotions. Either these, or they were employing more visual artistry than simply creating replicas of historical scenes. In this context, Orphans of the Storm falls short of its peers. I'm honestly quite glad that it is the last of D.W. Griffith's films that I have set out for myself to watch. I think I can now say that I have seen everything that he had to offer movies. He was clearly a revolutionary in terms of scale and pageantry, but his revolutions have been surpassed so far as to render his films very difficult for a discriminating viewer in the 21st century to enjoy.

That's 547 films down. Only 613 to go before I can die...