When Louise (Dorothy Gish) was a baby, she was left on the steps of Notre Dame cathedral because though her mother was an aristocrat, her father had been a peasant, and after the upper classes had him killed the infant was left to fend for herself. Fortunately she was found by another peasant who was at the steps to leave his own child there, but filled with guilt he took them both back to his home to be raised as sisters. His daughter was Henriette (Lillian Gish), who ended up taking care of Louise when she fell blind due to the plague. But there was a chance of a cure...
Generally considered to be the D.W. Griffith film that best survives as a piece of pure entertainment, this historical epic cum hoary old melodrama was based on a popular play, but he wished to score a few political points in the process of adapting it so included a large dollop of the French Revolution, which also helpfully increased the excitement levels, especially when he ended with a race against time to stop the blade of Madame Guillotine. But make no mistake, with the Russian Revolution fresh in everyone's minds, he was not only hoping to quicken the pulse and appeal to the tearducts, but to rail against the Leninists into the bargain.
But there had been an American Revolution of course, so the aristocrats are generally portrayed here as hopelessly decadent and ripe for an overthrowing - as long as such action weeded out the nasty ones and allowed the nice ones to remain. One of the nice ones is Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut) who falls for Henriette once she and Louise venture to Paris seeking a cure for her blindness, but - and get out your handkerchiefs for what followed - they are separated when evil aristo the Marquis de Praille (Morgan Wallace) kidnaps Henriette after he's enraptured by her beauty, leaving the helpless Louise to be forced by ne'erdowells into begging for them.
It's true the doll-like Gish sisters were genuinely captivating in their silent outings, so put those bizarre rumours of them being rather more intimate than sisters are meant to be to the back of your mind and appreciate the way they lit up the silver screen back in their heyday. Lillian in particular was in her element, not quite the doormat she often played, and a more proactive heroine even if she does have to be saved a few times by powerful men. Mixing fact with fiction to create a blockbuster in much the same way James Cameron would with Titanic around seventy-five years later, Griffith included such figures as Robespierre (as a baddie) and Danton (as a goodie) to the tale of Louise and Henriette, with absorbing results.
But the fact remains it would be a better film if its writer and director had declined to add in his somewhat reactionary worldview, as that stuff gets in the way of what is a rollicking adventure. There's nothing here anywhere near as bad as his blatant racism in Birth of a Nation (a film Lillian never saw anything wrong with and defended to her dying day, incidentally), but the feeling that Griffith was making the aristocracy the villains through gritted teeth was never far away, and he came across as far more comfortable with Act II when the rabidly murderous Revolution explodes onto the screen. With a lavish budget well spent - huge sets, impeccable costumes, thousands of extras - there was much here to engage the eye, and even though the aims at the emotions could be massively unsubtle, all that effort that went into it was surprisingly effective. Try to ignore the tub-thumping politics and Orphans of the Storm was a fine item of silent cinema from a master whose reputation was always questionable, if not his technical skill.