Sunday, November 23, 2008

Orphans of the Storm

Tonight's offering on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights is DW Griffith's 1921 film Orphans of the Storm airing just after midnight (technically very early Monday on the east coast; Sunday evening in the rest of the US).

The plot is a simple one. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play a pair of sisters living in rural France as it was (well, not really) just before the French Revolution. One sister is blind, so the other takes her to Paris for an operation that will supposedly cure her of her blindness. There wouldn't be a movie if that's all there were to the story, so we get a melodramatic plot twist: an aristocrat falls in love with the sighted sister, taking her into his world, and leaving the blind one to suffer at the hands of a cruel man who forces her to beg for a living. Worse, the French Revolution is about to intervene, and our aristocratic hero is about to fall on the wrong side of the revolution....

DW Griffith directed, and it must have been becoming clear to everybody that the world of movie-making was passing him by. Sure, Griffith had made masterpieces like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but other directors were now making pictures with more advanced techniques and better stories. Indeed, this was the last movie the Gishes made with Griffith. Still, Orphans of the Storm has some pretty nifty sequences. One involves the aristocratic class partying with gay abandon, oblivious to all the social upheaval going on outside their manors. The setting for this is more than suitably decadent, and Griffith shows very nicely the chasm between the French classes. Later, after the Revolution has begun, there's a scene involving peasant prisoners being freed by force, and tormenting their previous captors. Their literally riotous celebrating is also excellently photographed.

The other thing that's quite interesting about this movie is the historical goings-on surrounding it. The French revolutionaries were inspired by the American Founding Fathers, but clearly went much further (probably because the French governmental system was much more centralized under the King than the English system, from which the Americans broke away, had been). Griffith's intertitles on the Revolution itself comment on this, and make an interesting mention of the radicals of his day, socialists and communists influenced by what had been going on in Russia.

The version of Orphans of the Storm TCM is showing is supposed to be a restored version. They're listing the running time at just over 150 minutes, which I believe is several minutes longer than the version they've previously shown.

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