#9. Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Orphans of the Storm is a really well-made movie that I just couldn’t get into on account of (1) it’s a period piece, which I tend not to like, but also because (2) I have a weirdly intense aversion to depictions of chaos, in which this movie is well-supplied. Finally I had a hard time focusing on it because (3) I went to a friend’s house the night before and drank too much, embarrassed myself. Not because I said or did anything really bad (that I can remember). I was just goofy and loud –drunker than I usually get because I didn’t budget myself this year for that monthlong period between August and September where, for complicated bureaucratic reasons, I don’t get paid. In order to stretch dollars, I haven’t really been drinking. So when last night’s host handed me a bottle of gin and left me to it, I kinda sank. Woke up hating myself. The source of the dread and self-pity this time, what probably anchored me down through the bottle, is that the friends among whom I was drinking are all leading lives that I’m sure are inwardly as rife with doubt and strife as anybody else’s, but they’re also, at least outwardly, standup examples of what I think most adults would say is Where They Should Be. Lawyers and account managers, grad students, practitioners of various trades that are maybe not their ultimate passions but at which they’re nonetheless very adept. All of em slated for success. What I kept from mentioning all night is that, apart from being phenomenally broke, I’m also waiting to hear back from the manager of a restaurant where I’ve applied – and interviewed three times now – for the front desk position. If I should get this job I’ll be tasked, among other things, with cleaning windows and bathrooms. The few people I’ve mentioned the job to, even when I leave out the part about the toilets, have gone on to suggest, with varying degrees of transparency, that perhaps this job is somehow beneath me – which I think is just empirically false, and should therefore be easy to dismiss, but it does bum me out, a little bit, and certainly doesn’t help me to make peace with the fact that this is not where I thought I’d be at 25. That things haven’t worked out as I planned.

gif-2Anyway. So that was on my mind a lot as I watched Orphans of the Storm, especially toward the end. All that anarchy stuff gets pretty intense, and my mind was trying to wander.

The movie is about two sisters, Louise (Dorothy Gish) and Henriette (Lillian Gish). Louise is made an orphan when, as a baby, she’s abandoned on the steps of what I think is some sort of convent. She’s then discovered and adopted by Henriette’s parents. The two of them are made orphans (Louise for a second time) when those parents are killed by the plague. Louise is blinded, after battling the illness herself, and so the girls travel to Paris where there’s apparently some medical procedure that will restore her vision. Then the French Revolution takes off while they’re there. The girls get separated. The movie follows their efforts to reunite.

Orphans of the Storm, the fourth movie on this List directed by D.W. Griffith, looks like it was as large a project as Intolerance; however, I think it rectifies the major mistake of that latter movie. Seems like Griffith thought, with Intolerance, that the technical mastery and sprawl of the film would elevate its characters. I think it actually works the other way around. It’s the bigness and strength of your characters that elevates the story. Look at Within Our Gates. The smallness of almost every set is claustrophobic, and the near-total absence of extras makes each scene, as the movie progresses, feel increasingly desolate. Still, that movie is probably just as emotionally stirring (albeit in a much different way) as Intolerance, which is a thousand times larger in scale.

It’s quaint as fuck.

Orphans of the Storm
also looks and feels familiar as the sort of movie that’s tailor-made for an Academy Award (which didn’t exist at the time of its release, but still). A period piece with massive sets, hundreds of extras, ornate costumes and a few bloodless battle scenes sprinkled in. There’s a love story to complement the central theme of familial love. It advocates peace, tolerance, while simultaneously capitalizing on its audience’s bloodlust with a bunch of huge fight scenes.

One of the movie’s best shots. Look at the floor and you can see tracks in the dirt from the wheels of whatever cart they’re using to draw the camera backward.

This movie feels passionate, and you can tell that the director must have poured his soul into it, but it’s not as good or distinctive as Intolerance or Broken Blossoms. If you’re a fan of period pieces, and a sucker for movies about sibling bonds and sweeping romances, you’ll probably like this one a lot. It’s clearly a very good movie. Guess I just brought some biases to the table that kept me from really enjoying of it.

One comment

  • Yeah, you asked me about this one. It is the 110 percent melodrama that mar this movie. It is totally over the top on what it wants to tell us and that gets in the way of message. Also I can certainly relate to having the head somewhere else when watching a movie.


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