Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Orphans of the Storm (1921) - Part 2

Like the villainous Jacque-Forget-Not, we see that the commoners, like the rapacious aristocracy, are not all that great either, and have their own nests to feather. One of the nice ones is Pierre Frochard, who peddles a knife sharpening and scissor repairing trade in the streets, but not very successfully. His hag of a mother, played by veteran stage actress Lucille La Verne, and his bullying brother Jacques, played by Sheldon Lewis, would rather steal and beg. You can’t pick your relatives, unless you happen to be Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who remain devoted to each other throughout the several ongoing tribulations of this film. They are separated and spend many months trying to find each other, while the blind Dorothy is held prisoner by Mother Frochard and made to beg in the streets. Their underground hideout is a foul sewer of rotten wood, dripping stone and dirty straw. And some strategically placed rats.

Lillian, meanwhile, escapes a fate worse than death at the Marquis’ fete, where the debauched aristocrats bathe in wine fountains and a dandy drinks wine from a glass clenched between the ankles of a woman of apparently questionable virtue. The Chevalier saves Lillian, they fall in love, but cannot be together until they find Dorothy, and his uncle and aunt, the Count and Countess, relent and give their permission. We learn that the Countess is actually Dorothy’s long-lost mother, and so things turn out right at the end and we have our happy ending. Dorothy becomes not only sighted, but rich and aristocratic. Not a bad deal. However, now she is too good for the decent fellow Pierre Frochard, who finally becomes a man by defying his rotten mother and knifing his bullying, lecherous, brother, saving Dorothy from a fate worse than death. Frochard also knifes the executioner about to guillotine Lillian. Apparently a man who sharpens knives for a living knows how to stab pretty well.

Danton, echoing the ferment of the rebellious people mutters, “Damned Aristocrats!” long before Clark Gable ever got to say the naughty word in “Gone With the Wind.” Danton has troubles of his own. Royalist spies are after him, and he hides after being wounded in Lillian’s room, compromising her respectability. But, she’s a feisty thing and insists he stay, cares for him, and he pays her back by rushing to the scaffold with her official pardon just as Madame Guillotine is about to have her for lunch.

Griffith keeps shifting the action from one plot element to another, never letting us get bored, keeping us on edge, making us wonder what will happen next. One wonders what efforts it took to get hundreds of extras in the appropriate costumes, appropriate weapons, cannon, and a horse cavalry filmed at a racing gallop. In the scene where Dorothy and Lillian, reunited as Lillian is in the cart being taken to the guillotine, embrace for the last time and kiss, they are stone still, a vision of complete stillness while the wild crowd behind them of peasants and revolutionaries wave sticks and guns and various sharp things in a constant frenzy. It looks almost like a contrived special effect.

But Lillian need not fear, as Danton makes a speech before the revolutionary tribunal to save her life. We can tell he is eloquent by the way he flails his arms around as he speaks.

The French Revolution, its backwash noted for the horror it created, is not the only revolution to exhibit a dark side. Most revolutions begin with a mixture of high ideals and terrible violence, and end not always with justice and peace, but with a confusing new set of rules to adjust to, and justice is sometimes delayed for months or years. The Russian Revolution had its aftermath of injustice, and even the American Revolution, lauded for creating the first Republic the world had ever known, suffered Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion in its wake. These two limited, but enormously politically important events were limited perhaps because they were regional, and we had no aristocracy upon which to take vengeance once the British army was defeated and could no longer be blamed for our troubles, and no guillotine to make execution a public entertainment of our wrath.

Still if “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” as Thomas Jefferson expressed, it can easily slip through our fingers to unspeakable and bestial anarchy. This is not just the stuff of history. Present day perspectives we might have aside, Mr. Griffith was seemingly echoing Hollywood's uneasiness over the Red Scare in America at the time, with his references in the film to bolshevism. How much of the film is really about the Red Scare in the guise of examining the Reign of Terror would be an interesting discussion.

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