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14 August 2012

Conservatism in Revolution: The Gish sisters in D. W. Griffith's ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)

This post is written in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. It is also my contribution to Eternity of Dream's Speechless Blogathon. A full day of Lillian Gish films will air on TCM on August 15. ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) airs at 7:45 am EST.

Lillian Gish (1893-1993) started her career at the age of 19 making films for famed director D.W. Griffith. She starred in his controversial film BIRTH OF A NATION in 1915. Griffith had even put Gish in charge of directing the 1920 film starring her sister Dorothy, REMODELING HER HUSBAND, though she preferred acting to directing. Gish and Griffith made several films together until their amicable parting. Gish referred to her former mentor as "Mr. Griffith" until she died. Gish continued to make movies well into the modern era, her final film being THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987) co-starring Bette Davis.

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.
The Gish sisters with D.W. Griffith
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, 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!


  1. I love Lillian Gish. I haven't seen many of her silents and this one is a great classic so I cant wait to see it.

  2. Why hasn't AMC hired you, yet?

    1. What's AMC? The movie channel? Are they hiring? I could use a job!

  3. The movie channel, yeah. Not sure if they're hiring or not, but you should do what you can to get their attention. I'm sure AMC theaters is hiring, but that's far less romantic and involves butter flavored liquids.

    1. haha! yeah - I applied to the theatres but they wouldn't even take me! i'd love to work at the TV station, though.


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