ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) is by far my favorite feature-length silent drama, featuring both Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Two peasant sisters grow up in pre-revolutionary France. After their parents die, Louise becomes blind and Henriette vows to care for her, and solemnly promises not to marry until Louise can see and approve her choice. The two travel to Paris to find a cure for Louise’s blindness, but Henriette is abducted by a nobleman who is infatuated by her innocent beauty. Louise is kidnapped by the cruel Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne), who forces her to beg on the street.
Henriette is rescued from disgrace by the noble Chevalier who promptly falls on love with her and proposes marriage. Henriette, remembering her promise to her sister, refuses him. As she continues to search for her lost blind sister, the revolution begins and both sisters are caught up in the midst of the strife ripping the country apart.
Both Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith* were staunch Republicans. She was overjoyed to be invited to the White House to meet President Warren G. Harding after her saw ORPHANS OF THE STORM and a few years later she would meet Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while filming in Rome. She did not approve of American involvement in oversees conflicts, including WWII. In the 70s she became a strong supporter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Griffith wove his anti-revolutionary political views into ORPHANS OF THE STORM. He didn’t even try to be subtle about the message of the film. One of the first title cards of the film reads:
“The French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism.”*
Danton, the conscientious lawyer who attempts to bring peaceful democracy to France, is described as “The Abraham Lincoln of France.” Like Charles Dickens did for his Tale of Two Cities, Griffith studied Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution. The familiar scene in both Tale of Two Cities and ORPHANS OF THE STORM, in which a peasant child is run over by an aristocrat’s coach, is taken directly from Carlyle’s history.
As Lena points out on QueensofVintage.com, Lillian Gish expressed an interesting blend of female characteristics presented in 1920s film heroines. On the one hand, she played weak and helpless waifs in her movies. On the other hand, she was an independent professional woman in real life. Gish was also a talented, versatile actress who worked hard to give her characters extra dimension. She and Dorothy give excellent performances in ORPHANS OF THE STORM. They are full of sweetness and kisses for each other. The film builds pathos and excitement because the audience is actually made to care for the sisters and their relationship, in addition to the romance of the story. I hope you enjoy your day of Lillian Gish movies today on TCM!
*07/28/2013: It has recently been brought to my attention that, while Lillian Gish was an active member of the Republican party, D.W. Griffith was not. He subscribed to Jeffersonian political views and was more of a Southern Democrat than anything else.