American Silent Film
By William K. Everson (1978)
New York, Oxford University Press – 1978
Griffith in the Twenties
(Orphans of the Storm)
The Twenties began with D. W. Griffith apparently firmly in command of his position as both master innovator and master showman. Broken Blossoms and Way Down East had both been highly profitable, and he had moved from Hollywood to the East Coast, where in his new Mamaroneck Studios he was presumed to have both artistic and economic freedom.
Mamaroneck – Sets for Orphans of the Storm
Unfortunately, Griffith made his move—an expensive one—at a time when the film industry was undergoing radical changes and when audience demands were making a great shift because of the new sophistication of the post-war years. Griffith had no sympathy with this change. He doubtless felt that it was of a transient nature, and that audiences would swing back again to the kinds of films he had always made and intended to go on making. It was a major error in gauging audience taste—which made it an equally major business error. Griffith had never been a good businessman, nor had he any real interest in amassing profits—except to pour them back into making more films. Moreover, with some justification, he had a certain amount of vanity in his make-up. He knew what he had done for the movies; his name was always used in the advertisements as the major guarantee of quality and prestige. His optimism, based on faith in his own ability and the power of his name, caused him to continue operations and to pay for his new studio with a series of bank loans. By the early twenties, he was so heavily in debt to the banks that only an unbroken string of successes could have rescued him. The amount of indebtedness was so great that total ownership and control of his films virtually slipped through his fingers. If he defaulted on payments or failed to finish a film by a given time, the banks had the right to take over, and to change or finish the film in any way they saw fit in order to salvage their investments. The only positive aspect of all of these complicated financial dealings was that the negatives of the Griffith films became tangible physical assets and were protected far more carefully than they might have been had Griffith been in better financial health or working as a contract director for a major studio. Through the care given them for purely financial reasons, all but four of the Griffith films did survive.
It was against this background, and needing a solid commercial hit to sustain the success of Way Down East, that Griffith in 1921 launched Orphans of the Storm. Like Way Down East, it was based on an old barnstormer of a play The Two Orphans. Griffith liked the basic theme but thought it was too mild to stand unsupported. So he plunged it wholesale into a story of the French Revolution, weaving its fictional characters into actual events and bringing them into contact with Danton, Robespierre, and other historical figures. When the film opened with a grand-scale premiere at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Arthur James, editor-in-chief of The Moving Picture World, wrote an unprecedented full-page editorial rave (quite separate from the publication’s equally enthusiastic regular review), which was headed “Mr. Griffith Rises to a Dizzy Height” and said, in part:
It is a triumph for D. W. Griffith to eclipse his own great productions which led the screen into new and finer realms, but with this picture he has succeeded in doing it. No more gorgeous thing has ever been offered on the screen. It has motion within motion, action upon action, and it builds up to crashing climaxes with all that superb definition which makes Mr. Griffith first and always the showman. No man of the stage or screen understands so well the art of exquisite torture for his spectators. He takes their heartstrings, one by one, then stretches them out until they are about to snap, ties little bowknots in them, and finally seizes them by handfuls and twists them until they quiver in agony. Then he applies myrrh and aloes and sweet inguents and sends the spectators away happy in the memory of attractive sufferings that they can never forget. His detail is perfection, and its grandeur is the sum total of many perfections. Its massed scenes surpass the greater of the European spectacles thus far of record. The rest of the press responded with like enthusiasm. The Motion Picture News stated: “The standard bearer of the celluloid drama has again demonstrated that he has no superior as a painter of rich and panoramic canvasses,” while the Exhibitors Trade Review remarked, “A great work of art. It has the sweep of The Birth of a Nation, the remarkable tragic drive of Broken Blossoms, the terrific melodramatic appeal of Way Down East, and a warning written in fire and spoken in thunder for all Americans to heed.”
While time and perspective must convince us that Orphans of the Storm is a lesser film than The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, the reviews at the time were quite genuine in feeling that it was Griffith’s finest work. The lay press was equally enthusiastic, and the above reviews from the trade press are cited only because they definitely represent trade opinion. Exhibitors looked to Griffith for certain profits; producers regarded him as a prestigious figure-head for their industry; directors either learned from him or stole from him. Within just a few years, however, the trade would reverse these accolades, and their criticism of Griffith would be equally unrestrained. Griffith appeared at the premiere and spoke at some length to the audience. Stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, seated in a proscenium box, also greeted the audience, and Lillian made a speech following the screening. It was a gala affair, but a good deal of its thunder was stolen by Universal’s ballyhoo for Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. This film had received so much exploitation during the preceding months, and had already earned a great deal of word-of-mouth notoriety even before the preview, so that it was very much the film event of January 1922. Its premiere, attended by scores of notables, was set for a week after that of Orphans of the Storm, and it stole most of the limelight. Coincident with Griffith’s premiere. First National suddenly released an Italian version of The Two Orphans. With brazen effrontery, they pointed out to exhibitors that audiences were clamoring for this kind of film, and they even billed it as “The production with a million dollars’ worth of publicity behind it.”
While it did well, Orphans of the Storm was not the box-office blockbuster that Griffith expected, and needed badly. Because it was neither a financial landmark nor an aesthetic advance over his previous films, it is usually dismissed far too casually by most historians ( even the few responsible ones) as representing “Griffith in decline”—a most unfair and inaccurate generalization. The “decline” of Griffith has been dated from any number of periods, depending on the “historian,” his knowledge of film, and most influential of all, his dislike of Griffith. Some historians would even have us believe that the decline began with A Corner in Wheat ( 1909). Decline inevitably occurred, but much later, and not necessarily for the reasons usually cited. Of course, all film-makers tend to decline in their later years. Even Charles Chaplin and Carl Dreyer, who were never forced to surrender their freedom and adapt to studio contractual requirements (as Griffith was), were unable to keep their later films from representing a decline from their creative peaks. At worst, Orphans of the Storm can be said to represent Griffith the artist-showman rather than Griffith the artist-innovator. Here the old maestro was out primarily to make a good picture that was also a “money” picture. To this end, he studied audience reaction carefully in its initial New York run and made several changes—deleting some of the more physically harrowing scenes (close-ups of rats crawling over Dorothy Gish, detail shots in the execution scenes), reviving Frank Puglia from an apparent death scene to take part in an happy ending tableau, and, more ill-advisedly, building up the comedy footage of Creighton Hale.
However, such commercial considerations in Orphans of the Storm were backed by all the technical mastery that Griffith had achieved in the preceding years. If there were no new innovations, the old ones were re-employed, polished, and developed. The detail shots in the battle scenes (troops moving into formation, close-ups of pistols being loaded and fired ) gave them a documentary quality which made them explicable as well as exciting. The notable lack of such shots (or even of many close-ups ) in the similar battle scenes in Rex Ingram’s Scaramouche a year later was one of the major factors contributing to the surprising dullness of those otherwise spectacular scenes. Griffith’s frequent habit of “pulling back” from the action—to view a battle as framed through the draperies of a window—literally made the audience a spectator through a window on history. The fast, rhythmic editing in the bacchanal sequence, as the prisoners were released from the Bastille, smoothly intercutting brief and increasingly large shots with moving camera shots that always cut oflf just before one had time to absorb them fully, was one of the finest episodes ever created by Griffith.
It was a tremendously exciting sequence, quite superior to the more famous machine-gun sequence in Eisenstein’s much-later October—a dazzling sequence certainly, but a mechanical and contrived one. Its fast cutting was functionally creative in that it intensified the emotions of the spectator, but it was dramatically far less honest than the cutting of Griffith’s bachannal. And if the climatic mob scenes and the race of Danton’s troops through the streets seem to be a repetition of the climax of The Birth of a Nation, what wonderful repetition it is—especially since it had to be shot entirely in the studio at Mamaroneck, with a greater stress on low-angled shots and a tighter cutting pattern to create the illusion of a mad dash through all of Paris instead of past the relatively few street sets that Griffith had constructed. Next to Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm is Griffith’s biggest spectacle, though its large sets are not always generously served by the fickle sunshine.
Some of the biggest scenes of the film’s climax were shot on a weekend, the only time when Griffith could enlist all the locals as extras. On those occasions the sun resolutely refused to shine, resulting in a downcast atmosphere from which it was impossible to extract the brightly-lit clarity that Griffith wanted. An MGM unit would merely have scrapped the day’s work and reassembled the unit when the sun was shining. Griffith, however, without outside backing and faced with the enormous upkeep of his studio, could not afford such a luxury. In any case, the excitement of these climactic episodes is such that nature’s uncooperative attitude was probably not even that apparent.
Having made the decision to fuse the old Italian stage (and screen) perennial with the new blood of the French Revolution, Griffith as usual went whole hog, re-creating many actual events and characters, and utilizing his beloved “historical facsimilies” based on old paintings or engravings. Authorities in both this country and France were called upon for advice, and the works of such noted historians as Paine, Guizot, and Abbott were consulted. Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution was, however, the Bible of the whole venture. Lillian Gish has remarked that every leading member of the cast had a copy of it and read it from cover to cover until they were thoroughly imbued with the proper sense of period. Another book that Griffith turned to often was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Several reviews of the time added an erroneous credit by listing the film as being “based on the novel by Dickens.” Dickens was a great personal friend of Carlyle and drew most of his research material from him, including the incident of the Marquis’ carriage killing the child and his inquiry after the welfare of the horses. This incident, used both by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities and by Griffith in his film, was later picked up by MGM in their sound version of A Tale of Two Cities and was obviously modeled on Griffith’s staging of it. Dickens’ peculiarly cinematic style, with parallel plots and a form of cross-cutting, and a rich bravura that excused the excesses of coincidence, had always fascinated Griffith, who admitted Dickens’ influence quite openly. This influence affected not only the dramatic structure of Griffith’s films but also the content. It may have been the strong flavor of Dickens in so many of the Griffith films that caused him to be widely dismissed as Victorian and old fashioned.
It may, admittedly, make moments of Orphans of the Storm seem a little quaint. For example, Griffith seems less worried about Lillian Gish’s being unjustly thrown into prison on a trumped-up charge by the aristocrats than he is by “the greater injustice” that has her sent to the prison for fallen women. There is a delightful moment later in the film when Robespierre reminds her of this prison sentence; as Sartov catches her in a lovely and innocent close-up, Lillian admits it and says, in title, “Yes, monsieur—but I was not guilty.” However, there is a major difference between injecting a Victorian flavor (which Griffith did well ) and propagating Victorian morality ( which he decidedly did not). It’s odd that Orphans of the Storm should often be called “old-fashioned,” while such accusations were never leveled against Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Henry King’s Romola. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a good if stilted and over-measured film, while Romola was visually superb but dramatically mediocre. Both had Dickensian plots, and structures that would have delighted Griffith—parallel plots, class conflicts, dramatic separations, and personal stories set against turbulent historical backgrounds. What both films lacked, in addition to keeping these diverse elements closely woven, was sweep, passion, the surge of history, and (Chaney’s performance excepted in the Hunchback) life-size emotion. Griffith could have worked wonders with both films; Romola, especially, needed him badly.
Griffith’s detractors who assail Orphans of the Storm for being out of date are baffled when confronted with the film’s political content and usually choose to ignore it completely. Griffith had never made any secret of his opposition to “kingly tyrannies,” and Orphans of the Storm not only afforded him the luxury of dramatizing his views but also gave him the chance to attack something he felt even more strongly about—Bolshevism. His original synopsis for the film read, in part:
. . . scenes are shown of the exaggerated luxury of those last days of the tottering omnipotence of the monarchy. The orgies and tyrannies of a section of the old French aristocracy is shown as it affects the common people. . . . Then comes the rolling of the ‘Ca Ira,’ the crashing of the Marseillaise, and the madness which we now call Bolshevism. Orphans of the Storm shows more vividly than any book of history can tell that the tyranny of kings and nobles is hard to bear, but that the tyranny of the mob under blood-lusting rulers is intolerable. The opening titles of Orphans of the Storm were climaxed by this still very timely line: “We in the United States with a democratic government should beware lest we mistake traitors and fanatics for patriots, and replace law and order with anarchy and bolshevism.” Later in 1922, Griffith, referring to Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, stated: “Robespierre uses it as a weapon for destroying all who do not think as he does. This condition was not unlike that in Russia today. Some may see in it a lesson for our own people. . . .
As with all of Griffith’s historical epics, in Orphan of the Storm, every effort was made to document the facts and episodes presented. Thus, any errors were usually deliberate errors of omission, committed in the name of showmanship or dramatic license. For instance, one gets the impression at the end of the film that the French Revolution is all but over, and since Danton is one of the heroes of the film, no mention is made of his own subsequent execution. When Lillian Gish is rescued from the guillotine, the scores of other poor aristocrats denied a last minute rescue are conveniently irised-out, and the fact that the Reign of Terror is still very much in progress is somehow lost. But for the most part, the film remains remarkably factual, even to details. During the carmagnole orgy scene, the original musical score for the film featured “Ca Ira,” the frenzied tune sung by the Paris hoodlums of the time. ( The score was arranged by Albert Pesce. ) Griffith also made a point of stressing Robespierre’s effeminate, mincing walk. (Griffith’s titles term him “the original pussy-footer!” ) Like all of the big Griffith films, Orphans of the Storm was shot without any scenario, but was rehearsed carefully in advance. Lillian Gish has mentioned that most of the rehearsals took place in the New York theater still housing the successful run of Way Down East—and that the only written word referred to was Carlyle’s history. Much of the dialogue that was improvised in the course of these rehearsals was remembered, and later incorporated into the titles of the film.
Way Down East, made in 1920, had been a fife-saver for Griffith—and still was. The overhead of the new Mamaroneck studios was enormous, especially for an individual producer-director making as few films as Griffith. The popular Richard Barthelmess had been on salary for a long time after his last completed film for Griffith, and finally left to form his own company. Dream Street, a very pretentious pseudo-Broken Blossoms, was doing poorly, and receipts were negligible.
( Strangely, despite its “arty” flavor, it was well-liked by exhibitors—but not by audiences. ) The receipts from Way Down East had to support Griffith, maintain his studio, pay his salaries, and help pay for Orphans of the Storm too. Because of this, and because it was such a popular film, Griffith raised the rental rates on Way Down East, thereby losing good will among exhibitors, which, in turn, at least, partially accounted for the disappointing returns on Orphans of the Storm.
Other factors were involved, too. Audiences of the early 1920’s were turning cynical and jaded; they were getting caught up in the jazzy and increasingly superficial tempo of the times. And they wanted films that reflected those times. Films like Orphans of the Storm, which dramatized what are loosely termed “the old values,” were considered far more out-of-date then than they would be even today. By 1922 this attitude was only beginning to develop. But by 1924 it was in full bloom, and thus audiences had no time for Griffith’s sincere patriotism in America, which dealt with the Revolutionary War. They turned instead to the slick, jazz-oriented films of the day—the kinds of films that Griffith himself had no interest in, but was finally compelled to make, merely to keep active—but not before one last grand, disastrous, and wonderful essay in real film-making: Isn’t Life Wonderful?
Another factor contributing to the disappointing performance of Orphans of the Storm was probably its lack of a strong, popular male star. Initially Griffith had planned to use Barthelmess, who, though unsuited to the role of the aristocratic Chevalier, would certainly have been valuable box-offce insurance. While Joseph Schildkraut was fine in his first American film role, he lacked the virility and sincerity that Barthelmess would have provided. Dorothy Gish, a shrewd and witty observer, pointed out that, especially with the French period make-up, Schildkraut bore an uncanny resemblance to Priscilla Dean throughout the film, “and in the love scenes with Lillian, looked prettier than she did!” However, if there is one serious criticism that can be leveled against the film, it is the obtrusive comedy of Creighton Hale. Griffith, who never regarded one of his films as finished, and continued to tamper with them for revival showings years thereafter, added much of the Hale foolishness after the film was premiered, in the belief that it was needed to lighten the tension. Unfortunately, it became more than a device to pause and relieve tension. It was comedy relief for its own sake, foolish and unfunny, and injected right where it was least needed—in the middle of the escape from the Bastille!
Orphans of the Storm had a pronounced influence on the European spectacles that followed it, notably the French and German, but also, to a lesser degree, the Russian cinema. The famous use of what Seymour Stern has termed “symbolic space” when Griffith, to show omnipotent power, shows the Committee of Public Safety (photographed from above) in the center of a huge, cold, otherwise empty room, was copied intact by Eisenstein in October to show Kerensky installing himself in the Winter Palace. ( This symbolic shot was actually first devised by Griffith for use in a similar context in Intolerance. ) Pudovkin, too, appears to have borrowed from Orphans of the Storm just as he had earlier borrowed from Way Down East.
It is a matter of some interest (and surprise) that Orphans of the Storm was the only Griffith historical spectacle without a villain. Robespierre, and the peasant-turned-judge, Jacques Forget-Not, fulfill all the functions of villainy, but because their transgressions have political and emotional rather than personal roots, Griffith tends to play down their melodramatics and lets them go unpunished at the end—save for a title referring to Robespierre’s own eventual execution. The lecherous Marquis, who, “inflamed by Henriette’s virginal beauty,” kidnaps her and thus separates her from the blind Louise, is a good heavy in the grand manner, but he acts mainly as a plot motivator and vanishes after the first third of the film. The same is true of Sheldon Lewis and the wonderful Lucille LaVerne, who give a couple of grand barnstorming performances, but whose unspeakable evil is unproductive of any real tragedy; they, too, escape without harm. If most of these comments have focused on the film rather than on its stars, it is because Orphans of the Storm is more notable as a Griffith than as a Gish film. This is not to minimize the lovely and sensitive performances of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, or the incredible compositions and lightings of cameraman Sartov, whose close-ups of Lillian have a radiance and beauty unsurpassed in any of her other films. As opposed to Way Down East and even Hearts of the World, acting opportunities in Orphans of the Storm are somewhat subordinated to the surge of melodrama.
Sheer “trouping,” the maintenance of astonishing physical stamina, and the ability to look both fragile and lovely at all times are the main requirement of the roles of the orphans. When a chance arises for sensitivity, or for high-powered acting, it is seized avidly by both sisters. Especially memorable are the gracefully played scenes of the orphans’ departure for Paris, a charming little episode with touching pantomime and some especially lovely close-ups; and the still-poignant scenes in the climactic episodes, when the girls meet again at Henriette’s trial and are separated on the way to the guillotine.
One bravura sequence is the mid-picture reunion that doesn’t come off, with Lillian—hearing her blind sister singing in the street below and being led away—and being arrested, despite her protestations of innocence, before she has a chance to effect a rescue. Griffith never milked a non-action sequence for suspense quite as much as he did this one; indeed, both of the Gishes were of the opinion that it was much overdone. In normal context, it certainly would have been. Since it came immediately before the intermission, however, it must have provided an overpoweringly effective climax to the first half of the film.
Considering the enthusiastic reviews that it had garnered, the disappointing box-office performance of Orphans of the Storm must have been especially galling to Griffith. Even though not the box-office blockbuster he’d hoped for – it was not a failure, however. Thus it became somewhat of a landmark: it was the last Griffith film to be successful both artistically and commercially.