Everything has a beginning, and film is no different. Yes, it is true that film was “invented” by many, over a course of a few years, but the invention of filmmaking (at least in the sense of the word today) can be attributed to D.W. Griffith and his innovative, pioneering ways. Any opportunity to see one of Griffith’s 500 plus full length or short films is probably time well spent, but there are five films; five masterful works of art that should be sought out and seen, quite simply because they are (possibly) five of the best 10 or 15 films of the silent era. These films are “Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (1916), “Broken Blossoms” (1919), “Way Down East” (1921), and his final masterpiece, “Orphans of the Storm” (1921).
Based on the 1874 French play “Les Deux Orphalines” by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugene Cormon, “Orphans of the Storm” is a melodrama surrounding two adopted sisters, just before and during the French Revolution. In the opening minutes we see a duchess who is forced to give up her baby daughter (Louise), and the child is left in the snow-covered steps of Notre Dame with a handful of money and a note begging for someone to take care of her. Moments later, a man without enough money to feed himself or his wife, brings his own infant daughter (Henriette) to the same steps, in hopes of finding someone else to feed and care for her. At the sight of Louise, the man is overcome by the severity of his actions and he takes both children home with him.
Jumping forward, Louise (Dorothy Gish) and Henriette (Lillian Gish) have grown up to be loving sisters, who want nothing more than to be together. Both parents are dead, and Louise has been left blind by an illness. Together they travel to Paris to see if they can have her eyesight restored, but as soon as they arrive, Henriette is kidnapped by a lustful aristocrat, leaving Louise to wander the streets aimlessly.
The remainder of this epic is split into two stories of the sisters trying to find each other, once again all in the midst of the impending French Revolution. Henriette gets involved romantically with a good-natured aristocrat (Joseph Schildkraut), and Louise finds herself imprisoned by a street beggar (the great, frightening, and sadly forgotten Lucille La Verne), who uses her blindness as a way to gain sympathy from rich aristocrats passing by.
There are times during the first half of this epic that things seem to be moving slowly. That’s a mistake, however, it just seems that way. It’s all setting the stage for the second half that almost has too much drama to be contained on the screen. Griffith’s great films are so elaborate- so large that one can’t help but be wowed by how much he was able to do. He knew how he wanted everything to look, and impossible was not a word in his vision. “Orphans of the Storm”, although not as large as “Intolerance”, is an enormous undertaking, with extensive sets and costumes at every turn.
Both Dorothy and Lillian Gish give amazingly poetic and intense performances. There is enough drama and pain in their eyes to fill two movies. They pour everything into their characters, making acting the highlight in a picture full of highlights. Any time you see either Lillian or Dorothy in a Griffith film, you can be sure to be effected in a way you won’t soon forget. There is a reason that their performances are still applauded almost one hundred years later, and if you don’t understand the reason, just give “Orphans of the Storm” a chance to prove it to you.