This review is obviously just my opinion. I'm sure some people love this film and find merits in it that I can't.
I first saw this years ago when I was in my teens and was on a Lillian Gish craze after seeing her in The Wind (a sad omission from the list) and The Night of the Hunter. I'm not the greatest fan of U.S. silent films because, like this one, I find a lot of the stories dull and the films themselves overlong. Oh, so long.
Orphans of the Storm is a remake of the lost Theda Bara film, The Two Orphans (1915). It's set during the French Revolution so in theory it shouldn't be dull at all. But it is.
The director, D.W. Griffith, uses the film to make a public service announcement of sorts. It's a sort of "Careful now! We don't want to end up like them, do we?" sort of thing. I do feel sorry for the punters of 1921 having to put up with heavy handed history lessons, warnings about the dangers of the class system and a link-up with the recent Russian Revolution when they probably just wanted a bit of escapism for a few hours. There is escapism however, if you can ignore the anvil of social morality bashing you repeatedly in the head.
A woman gives her baby (Louise) away because she's horrified at the indignity of having a baby out of wedlock AND being forced into marriage with a Count. I think. Mercy me. The baby ends up on the steps of Notre Dame in the snow. At the same time, a peasant decides to leave his child (Henriette) to the mercy of the Church as he is too poor for care for her. Finding Louise already half-frozen on the steps, he changes his mind and takes both infants back home with him. With Louise, he finds a locket and a bag containing a great deal of money. Years later, the girls are growing up and another peasant aptly named Jacques Forget-Not, comes to give the Count and Countess a basket of apples. They couldn't give a toss about the apples. Jacques tells them how hard it is for him because he can't pay the taxes or the rent, especially since his father was tortured by the "displeased" Count's father by having boiling lead poured into his veins. The Count and Countess couldn't give a shit about that either - he's making the place look untidy and looks like Bert from Sesame St. He really does.
Years later again and Louise (Dorothy Gish) has been blinded by the plague which also killed off their parents. Henriette (Lillian Gish) looks after her and they set off to Paris to try and find a cure. De Praille, an aristocrat who takes part in the "dissolute orgies" of the upper classes and is generally a very, very bad man, takes a fancy to Henriette and kidnaps her. She is rescued by the dashing and foppish, Chevalier de Vaudrey. Henriette, being eternally optimistic, believes that Louise has accidentally fallen into the river and drowned. In reality, Louise is being held against her will by a nasty old crone who thinks she can make some money out of having the blind girl beg on the streets.
De Vaudrey and Henriette fall in love and he proposes in double quick time. Henriette refuses for some reason, but he doesn't mind. She then cares for an injured revolutionary politician, Georges Danton, gets into a bit of a spat with Robespierre, finds her sister but loses her again when she is arrested and sent to the Bastille. (Insert some silly excuse so Griffith can put his lead character in the centre of the revolution and we can get some battle scenes.)
After being freed from the Bastille, Henriette and de Vaudrey are condemned to be executed by guillotine because de Vaudrey is an aristocrat and Henriette was harbouring him. Swings and roundabouts. They are saved by Danton. Louise's sight is restored and she is reunited with her sister and her biological mother, the Countess (who is also de Vaudrey's aunt. It's confusing). Everyone is happy and rich by the look of it, despite the Revolution. Everything grinds to a conclusion and I am a left unable to retrieve the 3 hours of my life I spent watching this film.
It's not that I hated the film; I just found it slow with a weak story. My copy didn't include a soundtrack which probably didn't help matters. I can find some good points though.
The sets are stunningly beautiful (filmed in Griffith's studio in Mamaroneck, New York), as are the costumes. This film has a plethora of set pieces - it has dances! It has children getting run over by coaches! Big wigs! Monocles! Duels! Heads on sticks! Fainting ladies! Naked ladies in fountains of wine! Oh, to be in France before the Revolution.
Unfortunately Griffith doesn't have the directorial originality of, say, Clarence Brown or Eisenstein (who was later influenced by Griffith, despite the anti-Bolshevik content of this film). The lighting is nice and I think the best parts of the film involved close-ups rather than the epic mob scenes and so on. I'm not a fan of Griffith's films as The Birth of a Nation is one of the most repulsive films I've ever seen, but Orphans of the Storm is ok. It owes a lot to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but with all the interesting parts taken out and hammy acting thrown in in its place. Even Henriette's journey to the guillotine was long-winded and held little suspense. I suppose it must be commended for the historic details. Griffiths obviously researched this period of history to death. It's impressive in terms of scale, but it's not half as deep and meaningful as it pretends to be. It's worth watching for the Gish sisters, if you like them as much as I do. Dorothy Gish's role is rather bland and Lillian Gish's isn't much better, but Lillian especially conveys emotion so wonderfully that I could watch her all day.
Screencaptures under the cut.