Monday, July 9, 2007

Orphans of the Storm (1921) - Part 1

Since Bastille Day rolls around this Saturday the 14th, today and tomorrow we’ll have a look at Hollywood’s view of the French Revolution with “Orphans of the Storm” (1921). Hollywood’s view by way of Long Island, where the movie was shot, though the look is credibly 18th century France, and this was one of director D. W. Griffith’s best films.

Real life sisters and silent film icons Lillian and Dorothy Gish play adopted sisters who travel to Paris for a doctor to treat Dorothy’s blindness. On the road, they meet a lecherous Marquis with designs on Lillian, who paints his lips with lipstick before engaging her in flirtation, and who inappropriately touches both the flowers on her bodice and one of her sausage curls. We see he has nefarious designs on her. In Paris, he arranges his henchmen to kidnap Lillian for an evening of debauchery.

We are introduced to a number of characters and plot lines, and how Mr. Griffith (as Lillian used to call him) intersperses this is nothing short of masterful. We meet the handsome young Chevalier, played by Austrian actor Josef Schildkraut in his first American film. His uncle and aunt, the Count and Countess, played by Frank Losee and Katherine Emmet represent the aristocratic class soon to fall prey to the vengeful starving masses, represented by the glowering Jacques-Forget-Not, played by Leslie King.

There is a huge scope of political and social history being diced up for our easy digestion here. A huge swath of time is telescoped in the individual stories of these people whose lives become linked through misfortune, coincidence, and the swift march of historical events.

Mr. Griffith tells us in the prologue that all this French Revolution soured into murderous anarchy by “otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID.” He even uses the anachronistic term of bolshevism to describe their dissent, and Robespierre is deemed a “pussy-footer” for blowing with the wind politically. Another fun term of days gone by. His use of the term bolshevism, and perhaps the film itself, is a reaction to the “red scare” in the U.S. in the early 1920s.

The Court of King Louis XVI is lavishly presented, with enormous interiors of great halls and salons, and palace exteriors huge in scale. In one scene, courtiers are moving in procession in the great hall, and floor is so polished we can see the reflections of the actors.

The village streets are paved with cobblestones, and the filthy hovels of the poor peasants are shown in stark contrast to the grand environment of the aristocrats. The detail is exceptional.

Danton, played by Monte Blue, is introduced to us as “The Abraham Lincoln of France,” in a scene where he confers with the visiting Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette. When Danton sees the young Chevalier distributing bread to a flock of starving peasants whose desperate looks he cannot escape, Danton remarks, “If more aristocrats were like you, things would be different.”

But they’re not, at least not in this film. Even the Chevalier’s family is known to have committed terrible atrocities in punishing its estate tenants, including the father of Jacques-Forget-Not, who had boiling lead poured into his veins. In this flashback scene, the Chevalier, still a boy, looks on. As boy he is played by Kenny Delmar, who you will remember as the voice of Senator Claghorn on Fred Allen’s radio show. The cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn was based on this Senator Claghorn character of Delmar’s. You can take a moment to play Six Degrees of Foghorn Leghorn. Tomorrow we’ll get back to the film.

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