Affective Empathy and Feminine Attractions in Orphans of the Storm (1921)

By Na Ma, Ohio University

W. Griffith’s melodrama film Orphans of the Storm (1921), produced during the Silent Era, is not typically thought of as a feature that makes the film a subject of sympathy, but feminine images are nonetheless frequent in this silent film. The purpose of this paper is to identify femininity as an element of film attractions where the audience can easily psychologically bond with the female protagonists’ life experience and mental state-the capacity to respond with appropriate emotion. Shamay-Tsoory, Aharon-Peretz and Perry call this affective empathy, thus generating a unique sensibility that I call feminine attraction.

Feminine attractions are the specific term I apply to describe a doctrine that contributes to the empathy that the audience experiences when watching Orphans of the Storm. On the one hand, if a silent drama is too “masculine” and does not show anything funny, it risks being boring. On the other hand, Griffith has to create empathy among the female protagonists and the subjects who view them. Other factors also cause the subject to feel the empathetic affects in Orphans of the Storm. In addition to feminine attraction, which stands out in the film, Griffith also incorporates historical recognition, political identity and transcultural care which are easy to look at, but are not ultimately affective empathy, and do not become a main source of emotional attraction.

Affective empathy, also called emotional empathy, is the capacity to empathize emotionally based on emotional connection and affected by another’s emotional or arousal state. Affective empathy can be subdivided into two scales: (1) sympathy and compassion for others in response to their suffering, and (2) self-centered feelings of discomfort and anxiety in response to another’s suffering. Different from Chaplin’s silent comedies where the male protagonist uses uninterrupted jokes to entertain the audience, Orphans of the Storm as a silent tragedy seeks to capture viewers’ attention with a mix of the female protagonists’ physical ailments and social sufferings. Emotional sympathy can develop into rational empathy. Empathy can be divided into two major components. Besides the affective empathy mentioned above, Orphans of the Storm combines familiar recognition, political identity and transcultural care to create another level of empathy: cognitive empathy-the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state.

Orphans of the Storm is adapted from The Two Orphans, a French nineteenth-century stage play. It tells the story of two poor orphans during the French Revolution. In the Normandy village where they come from, every one knows the two orphans, Henriette Girard (Lillian Gish) and Louise Girard (Dorothy Gish). One is blind and both are beautiful. Visitors from Paris have told Henriette that Louise could regain her eyesight in Paris. So orphaned young Henriette and her adopted sister Louise head to Paris to seek a cure for Louise’s blindness. As soon as they arrive, however, Henriette is abducted by a lustful aristocrat, while Louise is kidnapped by an unscrupulous beggar woman who wants to make money from Louise’s blindness.

Womanhood and Feminine Space is more than manhood or masculine space in Orphans of the Storm, even though in the Revolutionary period it was the men who mainly participated and fought. Griffith uses fourteen acres of sets, reproduces “eighteenth-century Paris…on the Mamaroneck peninsula” (Barry 68), and gives rise to both publicity stories and active sightseeing. Edward Wagenknecht, in The Movies in the Age of Innocence, notes how this movie begins “as abruptly as a Biography with the antecedent slaying of the father of the orphans” (O’Dell 134).

There is a full screen of masculinity in Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation that mainly depicts the masculine attraction and connects the occurrence of historical events with male heroes. The Birth of a Nation chronicles the relationship of two families in the Civil War and Reconstruction and dramatizes the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it was Griffith’s personal habit of implanting the related histories with individuals suffering in the film context. In the subsequent film Intolerance (1916), Griffith starts his historical storytelling with a female protagonist. Intolerance depicts the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 and the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC.

Compared to male protagonists, female protagonists’ “less masculine” symptoms, including the less strong physical figure and more sentimental psychological mentality, can dramatize the degree of individuals’ ailments and social sufferings and arouse the viewers’ empathetic feelings. The female character Pauline in Perils Of Pauline (Gasnier, 1914), who is menaced by assorted villains such as pirates and Indians, has become the most famous example of a damsel in distress. In Orphans of the Storm, Griffith not only uses the details of discarding a baby girl, the death of both parents because of plague, and Louise’s blindness to earn the viewers’ empathetic tears in the first part of the orphan story, but also places Henriette’s abduction by the aristocrat, imprisonment in the fallen women’s prison and her death sentence on the guillotine within the historical context contrast them more sharply and gains more empathy from the audience.

The unique sentiment and heroic acting are widely considered as important traits for feminine attraction and increase the audience’s connection to the story. Long speeches and much singing in Les Misérable are examples of this sentiment and bold style. They become the most powerful tools for Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to express her anger, when she blames Valjean for her being cast into a life of prostitution. An opposite example is also a two-actress-leading film:   The Maids (Christopher Miles, 1975). When telling the story of their boring working days, the two female protagonists almost have no sentimental expression or heroic acting. On the contrary, the happy smile and masculine look gives the audience a feeling that these two maids deserve no sympathy and take it for granted that they are blamed by their masters. In Orphans of the Storm, dramatized facial expression and exaggerated body language produce the melodramatic affect and become part of Henriette’s personality to attract the audience’s attention. Allen calls the film a “dazzling spectacle and mix” (19) of sentiment and heroics, which are nearly unequaled in American cinema.

Dramatized facial expression means wide-open eyes and mouth while the exaggerated body language includes covering the face to show fear, poking someone else with one’s hands to show anger, or running fast as a sign of wildness. Lillian and Dorothy Gish both have these big “water eyes,” especially Lillian. When looking at their eyes, the audience sees that their eyes are full of tears, which can come cascading out at any time. Every time the beggar woman Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne) appears, however, no matter how torn the clothes she wears or how messy her hair, the audience cannot sympathize with her. It is not because she is defined as a bad character, but that her inimical glare, grouchy expression, or even the masculine face can only bring hatred from the audience. Take Lillian’s performance in the last-minute rescue scene as an example. Watching Henriette open her eyes wide when she is about to be taken to the guillotine, the audience can see her internal fear so clearly that viewers start to worry about her fate.

The expectation of feminine attraction has been argued for centuries. Virginia Woolf writes, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”(32) Betty Friedan presents her opinion of the ideal feminine in The Feminine Mystique: “The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity. An American woman no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be.”(93) She thinks that women are not considered female if they are controlled by these societal norms and morés. Simone de Beauvoir asserts that a woman’s femininity determines her worth a man measures a woman’s value based on the man’s personal sexual interests. She points out that that women are the “Second Sex” (12) and are secondary to men. She specifically uses the “eternal feminine” (53) to solidify this meaning of ideal femininity.

In different cultures, expectations of feminine attraction are different. Western cultures think the ideal feminine appearance should include “long, flowing hair, light skin, a narrow waist, and little or no body hair or facial hair” (Davis 35, Ferrante 47, Lesnik-Oberstein 41). In many parts of the world, however, underarm hair is not considered “unfeminine” (McLoughlin 12).  In 1975, the American film critic, academic and screenwriter Marjorie Rosen wrote in Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, & the American Dream that “the film industry presents a distorted image of femininity that reflects prevailing societal values” (19). In 1987 film critic Molly Haskell said, “film not only reflects but reinforces society’s accepted gender role definitions,” and “film is a rich field for the mining of female stereotypes… If we see stereotypes in film, it’s because stereotypes existed in society”(117).

In contemporary Western culture, thinness and femininity are linked. But in the past, fat and heavy women were considered more “feminine” than thin women (Serano 11). This kind of feminine aesthetics can be seen in the Chinese film Curse of the Golden Flower (Yimou Zhang, 2006), when the fat figure in the Tang Dynasty is considered as the most attractive female trait and becomes the only way to determine feminine attractiveness. It can also be traced to Victorian England. In Fingersmith (Aisling Walsh, 2005), the mistress Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy) is much more feminine than Sue Trinder (Sally Hawkins), not because Maud is more of a lady than Sue, but because Maud’s bigger body shape outshines the smaller, thinner Sue. The feminine ideals of beauty have been criticized by feminists and others as “restrictive, unhealthy, and even racist” (Davis 46, Taylor 49).

After The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Griffith continued to use Lillian Gish as the main female protagonist or even as the only star in such masterpieces as Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). Usually a female finds it easier to gain sympathy than a male does and a kid finds it easier than an adult. When an actress is “very feminine” and “very young” in a tragedy, she easily gains sympathy from the audience. Using these feminine qualities, she can capture the male audience’s eyes, but also increase the female audience’s empathy—not only the affective side of psychology sympathy, but also from the cognitive part of understanding.

Lillian Gish not only has this pretty, “very feminine” face that catches people’s eyes, but also a juvenile style that makes her look younger than her real age. She was 28 when this film was made but looks much younger. Her eyes are the core of her appeal and the audience falls in love with her, not necessarily romantically but certainly “protectively” (Cherchi Usai 19). The audience has been attracted by her emotional sense in this movie, especially when watching her cry.

These “very feminine” and “very young” characteristics become one of the significant factors that led to her acting success in her tragic movies. In Orphans of the Storm, Griffith uses two female characters to emphasize this tragic affect, which is like, or probably far more than the extent of feminine attraction in Broken Blossoms and Way Down East.

The two orphans are played by Lillian and her real sister Dorothy, who has the same “very feminine” and “very young” face as Lillian. The “bold” Henriette is played by the older Lillian while the “timid” Louise is played by the younger Dorothy. When they first appear on the screen, the audience may think they need to wear very ragged clothes because they are from a poor family in a very provincial town, far from the fashionable Paris.

But contrary to the audience’s thinking, these two little angels are more “princess” and “fashion” style. They put on splendid costumes (multiple-layer dresses, silk laces and velvet ribbons) and elegant hairstyles (classical curls and delicate hats) and even have lovely colorful umbrellas with them when they start their journey to Pairs. The outfit choice has become one of Griffith’s wisest decisions. He did not dress these two orphans as real orphans. Their stunning and enchanting look captivates the audience from the very beginning. When they encounter misfortune, their costumes change according to the context. The great looking outfits create a sharp contrast to their miserable situations later in the film.

Both Dorothy and Lillian Gish have given “amazingly poetic and intense” (Pateman 19) performances. The audience can see there is enough drama and pain in their eyes to fill two movies. Their big eyes project countless sentimental emotions into their characters. Every time the audience see either Lillian or Dorothy in a Griffith film, these emotional and rational sides generate affective empathy and cognitive empathy. There is a reason that their performances are so applauded and popular, because both of them have this feminine and juvenile look, which can generate most people’s tears when watching their suffering.

Lillian’s feminine image is fully displayed in Orphans of the Storm in her role as Henriette, more than in any of her other film roles, including Broken Blossoms and Way Down East. In addition to the traditional feminine attributes including the juvenile-style face, small thin figure and sentimental psychological part, some postmodern feminism can also be seen in her portrayal of Henriette. To some degree, this film fully depicts Henriette’s “eternal motherhood” (Allen 3) and postmodern femininity.  In a more structural sense, Allen thinks the doctrine of sympathy is realized in Griffith’s work through a “specific construction of victimized orphans in the historical events and a shift to female character’s maternal motherhood” (54).

Like the Virgin Mary, Henriette is the mother to many characters in the film. First of all, Henriette is the caring mother for her blind sister Louise. Louise has made Henriette promise she will not marry and leave her. Henriette says: “Sweetness, I will never marry until you see the man I am to wed.”(Cherchi Usai, 117). Allen says that Henriette begins as “mother” to Louise, is later committed to the Prison for Fallen Women, and ends reunited with her “sister/daughter”(34). The final image shows the two sisters hand-in-hand, with only one arm of the Chevalier de Vaudrey visible at the left edge of the frame, “even though the scene is actually his wedding to Henriette” (Allen 36). Besides being a lover to the aristocrat de Vaudrey who rescues her from the lustful aristocrat Marques de Praille (Morgan Wallace), she also has played the role as a mother to him.

Similarly, if we dig harder, we can also see Henriette is even a mother to other male characters in this film, meaning she protects the other male characters in the film. Allen stresses that Henriette has an “explicitly marked room” (37) to which several of the film’s main male characters come at points in the narrative. The poor orphan Henriette is “victimized” (Drew 78) by society and falls in love the young Chevalier who rebels against his own heritage and becomes one with Danton (Monte Blue).

In particular, she is the one who has helped Danton, the champion of the people and a founder of the new French Republic when he is in great danger. It is said that the main barrier to Henriette’s freedom is Robespierre. When Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) asks Henriette about Danton’s whereabouts, Henriette wants to protect Danton and closes the door in his face. This incident angers Robespierre, which makes him question Henriette’s morality when Henriette is later in the court. There is probably some sexual jealousy in Robespierre. His secret signals exchanged with Jacques-Forget-Not (Leslie King) in the courtroom leave no doubt that he wants Henriette to be dead because she has rejected him and favored his rival Danton. Political rivalry is later transformed to sexual jealousy.

Henriette’s postmodern femininity is evidenced when she emerges as a fighter. Usually in male-dominated society, lower-class women are only tolerated. But Henriette has challenged the traditional woman’s role and become a fighter. She fights with the lustful aristocrat Marques de Praille when she is abducted to the lavish party for the wealthy aristocrats. She also dares to fight with the hideous beggar woman known as Mother Frochard.  Mother Frochard lives with her two sons and rules them with an iron hand, in a dank, rat-infested cellar beneath the streets of Paris. Henriette does not fear Mother Frochard’s maliciousness and successfully rescues Louise from a lengthy torture.

She never gives up faith even when she is put in prison as fallen women and continues to rebel against the old French system. The French Revolution frees Lillian, but also imperils her romance with the aristocrat de Vaudrey. They are both condemned to the guillotine. Even when she is sentenced to death because of the connection with the aristocrat de Vaudrey, she still keeps fighting for justice in court. Her fighting spirit finally saves her from the guillotine and saves both her and de Vaudrey’s lives. More obviously, she fights against the old system. She ignores the vast differences between rich people and poor people, the aristocrats and the common folk, and she breaks this social gap and finally marries de Vaudrey.

Throughout all of this, Lillian Gish serves as an anchor, her acting closely connected with her completely authentic emotion. She is a “superb naturalistic actor, believable and never over react” (Ferrante 28). She is a symbol of “innocence, honest ambition and unyielding faith in love”(Hollows 15). She looks fragile and weak but actually she is very strong and tough. Her character has great “clarity of purpose and ambition” (O’Dell 19). No one can push her over and beat her.

In most of her films, Lillian Gish puts the “human sense” in combination with the characters more than any other actor in the 1920’s increasingly sophisticated Hollywood. Tedlock says, “She is a world star because she is such an effective communicator of common emotions and because she is truly authentic and innocent. She is also highly intelligent and technically gifted, far in advance of the vast majority of her contemporaries” (126).

Female characters can generate more empathy from the audience. In the popular 2012 Les Misérables by Tom Hooper, the imprisonment of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is caused by hunger because of his poverty, and leads to his long years of slavery and almost a lifetime of tragedy. No matter how Valjean suffers and regardless of the $441.8 million box office (compared to the $61 million budget), however, the tragedy affect and empathetic force that I describe in Les Misérables is still weaker than Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1963). Adding this “female and orphan” condition can make the tragedy more bitter and tasteful. Adolphe d’Ennery has used this magic recipe and created a meal called Two Orphans. This has won many readers, most of whom have made contributions to the box office of Griffith’s film Orphans of the Storm (1963), based on the play Two Orphans.

Griffith has used antithesis and parallel to tell the story. He first uses different images to compare the life of rich people and poor people or the aristocratic and common folk. During the lavish party scene, the camera captures the elaborate feasts inside the palace, especially with extensive close ups of cake and a roast. The film, however, quickly cuts to the starving peasants, who are outside the gate and on the verge of revolt. Another antithesis is between de Praille and Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut). When de Praille is taken by Henriette’s beauty and he has her kidnapped and takes her to his estate. When she is surrounded by aristocrats in the lavish party, most of them feel no sympathy for the poor girl no matter how many times Henriette asks for help. But compared to the merciless French aristocrats, de Vaudrey not only gives bread to the poor people in the square, but also rescues Henriette and in the end marries her.

One important antithesis is the depiction of Danton and Robespierre. Griffith calls Danton, the “Abraham Lincoln of France”, while Robespierre is the “original pussyfooter” (Drew 51). Danton is portrayed as heroic, democratic leader and a warm, emotional man who shows mercy and brotherhood to the good aristocrats. Robespierre is a cold, calculating puritan who ignores individual rights to fulfill his personal political goals. There is no definitive answer to the question of the accuracy of Griffith’s portrayal of the two revolutionary leaders since it is a controversial historical question. Another French Revolution film, Danton (Andrzej Wajda 1983), portrays Robespierre as a “Stalinist-type totalitarian” and Danton as the “pure democratic revolutionary” (O’Dell 98). This evidence demonstrates the validity of Griffith’s film.

Henrietta and Louise can be considered as the most obvious opposites. Henriette is the daughter of a peasant family; Louise is the daughter of an aristocratic woman. The peasant-born Henriette is kidnapped by the Marquis de Praille, taken to the upper-class world to experience insult, but rescued by young Chevalier de Vaudrey, who falls in love with her. Her blind adoptive sister Louise falls into a gang of thieves and beggars, and is forced to beg by Mother Frochard. Drew writes, “the traditional story of family separation and reunion was a perfect parallel to the larger historical theme of revolution and its reconstitution of the human community” (78). There is also a parallel being used in the depiction at the end. Henriette marries the Chevalier while Louise regains her sight. Louise discovers that the Chevalier’s aunt is her long-lost mother and is finally restored to a wealthy background at the end. In addition, the beggar woman’s two sons have very different personalities, one good and the other villainous. The good brother Pierre (Frank Puglia) rescues Dorothy from his villainous brother (Sheldon Lewis), and from his abusive mother (Lucille La Verne).

Poor people’s hunger for bread, rich people’s lustful life, Louise’s ailment, and Henriette’s facial expression are all the typical hyperbole antithesis. The descriptions of the heroes and villains are exaggerated. Danton is presented as the voice of responsible democracy, while Chevalier de Vaudrey is the good aristocrat who sympathizes with the plight of the peasants. The Count (Frank Losee) and the Marquis (Morgan Wallace) are created as aristocratic villains, one vengeful and the other lascivious. Jacques-Forget-Not is a hateful peasant, although less evil than Robespierre since his “malice is based upon actual past abuse instead of mere craving of political power” (O’Dell 133).

Using the characters’ miserable plight to win over the audience’s tears is called the tragedy affect. The tragedy affect is an affect that the characters’ tragic experiences can propel the audience into similar psychological sufferings, a magic force that draws more of the audience into this drama. By default tragic melodramas or tragic scenes in other kind of melodramas can always catch the audience’s eyes. The plays that provide the strongest fundamental examples of the genre of Shakespearean tragedy are Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Anthony and Cleopatra. Even today, these four classic tragedies still dramatically influence the creation of tragic scenes. Watching other people become weak or miserable can awaken inside the audience the most sympathetic or empathetic feelings. It is either a reminder of the audience’s similar experience or because the members of the audience suffer psychological enjoyment when they see other people being tortured.

It is a cliché to use the technique of familiar recognition, such as comparing the figure of Danton in the French revolution to Abraham Lincoln in American history. Granted that some clichés are common to this genre, such as an orphan with an identifying locket. Lockets become a key to identification in Orphans of the Storm (1921), such as when one of the heroines is recognized by her long-lost mother. Where Griffith goes astray somewhat are his attempts to liken the French Revolution to events and persons with which American audiences might have been more familiar.

The “last minute rescue” in the end is exciting and typical. Cutting between Henriette approaching the guillotine and Danton racing on horseback to save her is a perfect example of “stretched action” (O’Dell 79). The time it takes Henriette to walk three paces is twice or maybe three times longer than it is in reality, because that scene is intercut with other action. This builds suspense and creates an “unbearable sense of impatience” (Drew 71). Henriette is about to be guillotined and Danton races to her rescue with a pardon in his hand. The suspense is so great that the audience is caught up by the Henriette’s incredible misfortunes. In addition, there is a scene that a line is formed and the whole crowd looks like a “weaving serpent” (Cherchi Usai, 56). This also generates a certain “claustrophobic effect” (O’Dell 137), because the whole scene is created in a way of organization.

The plot of Orphans of the Storm can be divided in two sections. The first is crammed with incidents: a murder, kidnapping, orgies, duels, last-minute escapes, and finally a “pathetic scene” (Davis 19) in which Henriette hears her adopted blind sister singing. She starts to search for her in the streets, but the spectators are so powerful and prevent the chance for the sisters to reunite. The second half of the film, played after a five- minute intermission, portrays the Revolution itself. The mobs are as frightening as the Klan ride in The Birth of a Nation and the storming of the Bastille. The masses surge into the streets and squares with torches and weapons. It is said in several scenes that Griffith “masks the top and bottom of the screen, and anticipates the wide-screen ratio” (Barry 68) to heighten this tragic effect.

Poverty and illness are always good ingredients for tragic dramas. In one scene in Orphans of the Storm, aristocrats enjoy delicious food and a luxurious party inside the palace while the common people wait outside and beg for mercy from them. Poor people rather than rich people can always get sympathy from the audience. When their ragged clothes and painful ailments are displayed on the screen, the audience feels the scene is cruel and becomes more sympathetic toward the poor people. It has even become a genre cliché that rich people have no mercy on poor people. An example is the lustful aristocrat Marques de Praille (Morgan Wallace) whose carriage kills a child, yet he feels no regret. He just throws a bag of coins at the peasant’s father. Rich people can even bully poor people to satisfy their devilish desires.

The depiction of human rights and poverty has “stirred” (Drew 78) the audience to wish for the overthrow of the cruel old order. Griffith’s sense of social justice is here given the perfect setting as Wagenknecht observes, “like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles…. that while the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for ‘Bolshevism and license’”(111). The imagery of splendor creates “envy and longing” (Drew 13) for the unattainable. Drew describes the sharp contrast as great “aesthetics” (78) in its lavish depiction of Old World luxury.

The Paris and American versions of The Two Orphans begin in the year 1784, five years before the Revolution. It has nothing to do with the Revolution. Neither the initial uprisings of 1789 nor the Terror of 1794 intrudes. It is just an old-fashioned story, and there is no “Bastille to storm, no tribunals, no guillotine, no committee of Public Safety, no Danton, no Robespierre, no orgiastic carmagnole dance (Cherchi Usai 126).” But in Orphans of the Storm Griffith puts historical figures such as Danton and Robespierre and historical props such as the guillotine and, the two miserable orphans–the two weaker and helpless girls – in the context of the French Revolution. It helps to dramatize the tragic affect in this film.

Some reviewers maintain that Orphans of the Storm is an attack on an unjust system and therefore sympathetic to revolution. A 1992 review in the Chicago Herald and Examiner points out, “The underlying causes of the great upheaval, the starvation and the heart-rending tortures are inflicted on the people by the most casual spectator and render him helpless and a puppet to the director’s art (Drew 81)”.

There is comment in New York Times: “As the vivid scenes of the historically colored melodrama flashed one after another on the screen everyone surely felt that Griffith was himself again” but added, “The seasoned spectator, no matter how he may let himself go, knows that every delay is a device to heighten the suspense and every advantage given the rescuers is calculated to evoke his cheers (…) whatever he does, he is not surprised when the girl is saved.”

Other critics contend that the combination of the melodrama with French history only weakens the overall effect of the film. It is “ludicrous” to call Danton a French Abraham Lincoln and his comparisons with Bolshevism and warnings against the “red menace” seem “mildly amusing” (Drew 12). Richard Schickel states that the film is “unconvincing” because it imposes “a tale of female victimization” upon an epic form, which he asserts is “essentially masculine” (Drew 78). Barry claims that there are some minor flaws such as “ the silly subtitles and the traditionally awkward and the groping blind girl” (51) in this film.

Griffith believes “touches of history” (M. Drew 12) are good for family dramas, and that history helps to scale things up, as it did in Intolerance (1916) and The Birth of a Nation. There has just been a violent revolution in Russia, a perfect opportunity for Griffith to “frame his new film as a cautionary tale (Cherchi Usai 67)”. Another reason for Griffith’s interest in the French Revolution may have been his usual urge to “engage European quality film on his own territory (Barry 98).” It is plausible that his competitive force was spurred by the “success of German epics featuring this or that historical figure against this or that kind of historical turmoil: Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion (or Madam Dubarry, 1919) (Allen 124).” 

There are also different cultural factors in the film. In an effort to be topical, Griffith takes all possible chances to equate the French Revolution with the more contemporary Bolshevik rebellion in Russia, and to warn his American audience of the dangers of mob rule. This is not surprising for a man who glorified the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation and the faked Chinese actor in Way Down East. Transplanting the melodrama within the actual events such as the French Revolution could provide a convincing background and the opportunity for spectacle. Perhaps Griffith wants to imitate the master of Ernst Lubitsch, whose Madame Du Barry, set in the French Revolution, had “aroused such enthusiasm” (Barry 32) in its American audience in December 1920. Foster Hirsch writes in The Hollywood Epic that Orphans of the Storm is a powerful depiction of the impact of war on innocent characters, which achieves magnitude through the ecstatic suffering of its heroines.”

Indeed Griffith portrays the French Revolution as well as any adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Throughout Orphans of the Storm, Griffith’s film sense is so strong that one is never conscious of its stage origin. Griffith’s ability to individualize characters, handle crowds and sustain suspense brings more excitement and tenseness to the film, making it more entertaining. In his next film The White Rose (1923), Griffith set “the pattern for the murder-mystery” (Cherchi Usai, 126) film in one exciting night, so that he could make the film more suspenseful.

The seasonal variations in Mise-en-scène of this film are good example to show Griffith’s emotional sympathy to the people who suffered in the French Revolution. Louise is abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame in the midst of winter and forced to beg on the streets during a snowfall. The revolution took place during a long summer, when the common people’s hope and madness reached a “boiling-point with the acts of the frenzied masses” (Drew 78). When the problems of the Revolution and the fates of the two orphans have been resolved, the scene cuts to a spring setting where flowers are in full bloom in a garden.

Griffith tries to call the attention of the American public to the dangers of “anarchy and Bolshevism” but also seeks to educate his audiences that “the concentration of wealth in the hands of few and the deprivation of the many, whether under feudalism or monopolistic capitalism, inevitably leads to revolution when unchecked by governmental regulation (Drew 81)”. The placement of the big historical event in Orphans of the Storm increases the dependability of the message and especially emphasizes that kind of tragedic effect.

As in his earlier films, Griffith uses historical events to comment on contemporary events. In Orphans of the Storm he uses the French Revolution to warn about the rise of Bolshevism. Griffith uses the story of class conflict to set a plea for “inter-class understanding and against destructive hatred.” At one point, in front of the Committee of Public Safety, a main character pleads, “Yes I am an aristocrat, but a friend of the people.”

Orphans of the Storm can be seen as Griffith’s precious gift for having re-created a period, a gift that goes back to Judith of Bethulia (1914). His critics admitted that his “sophisticated” style and clarity is ideal. For example, Intolerance questions basic human rights in such a direct and forceful fashion that no other film can exceed. His early work seemed “too crystal-clear”; while now his films take on a “duller edge” (O’Dell 137). His later films reach “philosophical heights” (O’Dell 142), but do not plumbed the depth as much as Orphans of the Storm.

References

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Davis, Kathy. Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences: Cultural Studies on Cosmetic Surgery. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 2003. Print. p. 93.

Ferrante, Joan. Sociology: A Global Perspective (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. pp. 269–272.

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