Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Orphans of the Storm

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Orphans of the Storm

With Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith returns to the epic form he revolutionized with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Does he still "have it"? Well, unfortunately, not quite. The earlier works showed an incredible ability to balance exciting spectacle, multiple storylines, and intimate personal detail. Orphans proves itself unable to achieve this balancing act. At times it appears sluggish, at other jerky. As it cuts between different people and places it is initially confusing - a sense of rhythm is not established - and eventually distracting. The movie is at its best when it settles on telling the story of two sisters. Henriette (Dorothy Gish) is an abandoned aristocrat adopted into an impoverished family and then blinded during an illness; she becomes a beggar tormented by an evil old hag. Louise (Lillian Gish), Henriette's resilient but constantly besieged protector, is kidnapped and separated from her sister; she develops bonds with a revolutionary and an aristocrat which will serve her well in her struggles. The French Revolution and the subsequent Terror serve as a backdrop for the melodrama.

The movie certainly has effective passages. The sequence where the kidnapped Louise is brought to an orgy and pleads for mercy from the aristocrats, who chuckle and assume it's all a perverse show, has an intriguing air of decadence (it reminded me of the extremely disturbing stage show in Interview with a Vampire, where the undead tease and torment a screaming naked women, eventually devouring her before the eyes of a bourgeois audience who assumes it's all pretend). And as the guillotine (inevitably) looms over Lillian Gish's pretty neck, the requisite rescuers (led by none other than Danton himself) race to save her and a suitable amount of suspense is evoked (though not as much as one would suspect).

But Griffith's formal tricks - the crosscutting, the alternation of shot size - are not only old hat by now, but completely de rigeur, the banal stuff of every Holywood movie. A mere six years after The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's tools are no longer innovative and he knows it, which is why Birth still sparkles with the fresh breath of invention nearly a century later, but Orphans drags. More importantly, the different elements of Orphans do not cohere. Birth is American mythology created by an American artist and the historical recreations contain real conviction and passion. Orphans' use of Danton and Robespierre feels contrived (Lincoln never played as central a role in Birth) and the violence - except when a little girl is trampled by a callous aristocrat's carriage - is less shocking than that in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Intolerance. Hell, we don't even get to see one severed head!

Occasionally the movie steps outside of its conventions and delivers something unexpected and exciting. In one scene, Louise is up in her room when she hears Henriette's voice calling from the street below. She rushes to the window and calls down to her sister who - of course - cannot see her and flails about wildly. In lieu of obviously unavailable sound, Griffith uses fast cuts and an accelerated pace to evoke the unbelieving thrill the sisters experience at the possibility of reunion (though sadly for them, it will be nipped in the bud). Here, finally, the cutting is rhythmic above all else; and earlier in the sequence, there's a mini-montage, almost avant-garde in its cuts on motion, of Henriette's birth mother looking at Louise's locket and realizing that the missing sister is her own daughter.

Even when the style does not reach this level of invention, Griffith maintains his way with human behavior. He always gives the characters something to do and occasionally their idiosyncratic actions carry the film to surreal heights. One example is the carmagnole, the crazy dancing of the masses through the streets of Paris: one worker collides with a foppish servant and starts dancing on top of him, sitting backwards and riding him like a donkey. Moments like this work best in a silent drama because they provide human spectacle. Less successful is Danton's stirring oration to his peers, in an attempt to save Louise from the guillotine. We have to assume it's stirring since - duh - we don't get to hear it. Note to silent directors: best not incorporate big speeches into your climaxes.

Overall, Orphans is a bit too long and uneven, but it certainly isn't bad, just weak compared to Griffith's previous stabs at the epic form. Does it represent a permanent downturn in his career? It appeared in 1921, and by the end of the 20s, even before the dawn of the talkies, Griffith was becoming obsolete, so perhaps. Three of his films remain on my Netflix queue, so we shall see.

Previous: Way Down East
Next: America

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.

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