Bebe Daniels grew up with the movies themselves. Beginning as a child actress in the pre-feature era (she was Dorothy in the 1910 short The Wizard of Oz), by her teens she had graduated to playing Harold Lloyd’s leading lady in his Lonesome Luke series. If she’d wanted, Bebe could have gone on as his slapstick sidekick (Lloyd was reputedly in love with her), but instead chose the glam route blazed by Gloria Swanson. Her work under Cecil B. Demille likewise served to elevate her standing as a serious actress, and by the mid-20’s Bebe had become a major star in her own right. Talkies brought her greater acclaim by unveiling a rich singing voice, most notably as the temperamental leading lady who literally breaks a leg in Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street. It was a clichéd role, but Bebe imbued it with such unexpected shading that she emerged as a fully rounded character nonetheless. The actress had worked the same miracle on the silent screen, exceeding expectations as another sort of stereotype, the venerable old vamp in The Affairs of Anatol, Demille’s adaptation of Schnitzler.
Her notorious Satan Synne, whose scandalous public persona (complete with an eye-catching octopus cloak) proves just as synthetic as audiences by the twenties knew Theda Bara’s had been, was a humorous Hollywood in-joke, with Daniels displaying a keen sense for the sardonic and satirical. In a film full of fine roles for women, she proved the real standout, and I believe Oscar would’ve paid his respects by recognizing the emergence of this former child star as a skilled dramatic actress of the first order. Her turn in Anatol was excellent, but not exceptional, and acknowledging a soft spot for Bebe’s Bara burlesque myself, I’ll leave it at that.
Dorothy Gish was also a child of the cinema, coming of age in the movies of D.W. Griffith, for whom she’d made her film debut at the tender age of fourteen. She matured as an actress under his tutelage, and though he never fully appreciated her comic talent himself, he was the first director to bring out her sense of humor onscreen, thus paving the way for Dorothy to become one of Paramount’s brightest comedians in the late teens and early twenties. By 1922, she’d already made her mark in leading lady roles, but I simply can’t ignore her exquisite supporting turn in Orphans of the Storm, which reunited her with the director and sister Lillian. As the poignant, blind Louise, Dorothy absolutely surpassed herself. This is the performance for which she’ll always be best remembered.
In France, two foundlings discovered on the steps of Notre Dame are raised as sisters, though one, Louise, is an aristocrat and the other, Henriette (Lillian Gish), a commoner. When they journey to Paris seeking a cure for Louise’s blindness, Henriette, who had sworn never to leave her sister’s side, is abducted by a lecherous Marquis, and the helpless Louise taken in by a course family of beggars, headed by Madame Frochard (Lucille la Verne). The orphans endure many tribulations amidst the high and low life of Revolutionary France, each diligently trying to ascertain her sister’s whereabouts. Although Henriette is sentenced to the guillotine for sheltering the aristocrat she loves, the Comte de Vaudrey (Joseph Shildkraut), she is saved from the blade through the efforts of Danton (Monte Blue). Reunited with Louise, who has regained her sight, peasant Henriette will marry into the aristocracy, while Louise, of the nobility, opts for one of the common men.
Sumptuously mounted, Orphans of the Storm was an ideal showcase for the Gish sisters, not just because they were cast as siblings for the first time in a Griffith feature, but also because the actress’ roles allowed them to play so beautifully off one another. There’s a relaxed, comfortable intimacy to their interactions early on, and a genuine sense of anxiety, distress, and concern for each other’s welfare that doesn’t feel feigned, during the later partings. Much as their characters must learn to share and share alike (Louise permits the underprivileged Henriette to play with her doll), the co-stars generously divided acting honors between them. An Oscar for Dorothy would’ve been an Oscar for both women. In scaling up the play by Adolphe Philippe D’Ennery and Eugene Cormon, Griffith intended these Two Orphans from different classes to embody the inequities of pre-revolutionary France. As foundlings, they lie side by side, distinguished only by their raiment, one in lace, the other in rags, unconscious of any other difference between them. Brought up as equals, neither rich nor poor among the provincial gentry, peasant Henriette will still be unfairly shunted into a role of servitude to the high-born Louise, who’s been left incapacitated by her condition.
‘Babied’ by her protective sister, dressed, fed, fussed and fawned over, precisely as the overburdened peasant stock from which Henriette descends have always waited hand and foot on their aristocratic overlords, Louise’s inability to care for herself seems the legacy of her class. Those comprising the ancien regime, after centuries of having their every whim gratified, are now incapable of functioning on their own. Though Henriette affectionately chides her sibling with “when Miss Baby’s eyes are quite well- I shall sit down like a lady- and you’ll do all the work,” this exploitative relationship is emblematic of the wider world around them. Despite their ignorance of Louise’s true lineage, the two have unconsciously fallen into the same patterns of behavior as their forbears. When a petulant Louise extracts Henriette’s oath “Never to marry until her sister can see and approve her husband,” she’s really sentencing her to a life of indentured service.
The sisters’ contrasting experiences in Paris are meant to reflect the best of times and the worst of times. After their cruel separation, Louise, who’d before turned a blind eye to the suffering of others, begins to ‘see’ how the other half lives. Torn from the genteel lifestyle she’s always known, this aristocrat must now learn to get by under the most deplorable circumstances. While Louise descends into the lower depths (literally, the Frochards live beneath street level, in the bowels of a Paris straight out of a Louis Feuillade serial, crisscrossed with sewers and trap doors), peasant Henriette begins moving in aristocratic circles.
Significantly, Henriette will be on a balcony when the two next meet, having ascended the social ladder, while Louise, who’s fallen through the cracks, is reduced to rags and walks the cobblestone streets two stories below. Their opposing perspectives offer us comparative social vantages, one looking down from the top, the other up from the bottom. By films end, an even deeper irony has been set in motion, so that it’s Henriette, the commoner, being trundled off to the guillotine while Louise is accepted by the howling mob as one of its own. Their roles have been reversed. It’s the revolution itself, in microcosm. Much has been made of Griffith’s liberal borrowings from A Tale of Two Cities, but orphan Louise’s experiences in this nightmarish Parisian underworld, populated by the dregs of society (lame beggars, thieves, panhandlers and pickpockets), bring to mind another Dickens novel as well- Oliver Twist.
Being exploited and taken advantage of herself gives Louise a keener appreciation for the one-sidedness of her own relationship with Henriette. Once she’s regained her vision, she’ll no longer be an imposition. With the old order washed away, she now sees the light. Louise’s consciousness has been raised, her eyes figuratively opened. Orphans of the Storm offered Dorothy her most demanding part in years, and served to remind everyone of what a fine dramatic actress she could be when the occasion warranted. She’s the emotional touchstone of the movie, the eye at the center of this socio-political storm, and Griffith couldn’t have cast her more against type. Dorothy’s Louise was the sort of persecuted innocent that seems tailored more toward her sister’s talents.
While Lillian usually played ethereal ladies whose primary traits were their spiritual strength and physical weakness, Dorothy’s Louise is invested with those qualities here. Where Lillian is more fiery than usual, and permitted to indulge in comic bits and the type of earthy, raucous action that was ordinarily tossed her sister’s way, Dorothy plays her part as tenderly as Lillian might have. Serene and full of grace, her Louise possesses a melancholy glint in her unseeing eyes that tells us she can already hear the angels singing. When she’s locked in the rat infested catacombs beneath the Frochard hovel, and gropes about in blind terror, stumbling headlong into the stone walls, she matches the level of hysteria Lillian rose to when trapped in a closet in Broken Blossoms. Without doubt, Dorothy’s most stirring histrionics are reserved for the heartrending scenes of separation from the sister she’s completely dependent upon. Most moving is the mid-film parting, intended to further tease out their reunion. Spotted singing in a deserted byway, before her sister can come to her rescue, Henriette is arrested by gendarmes and hauled away to prison, while Madame Frochard drags the screaming Louise back into the abyss. This devastating sequence must stand as Dorothy’s finest hour in any film, bar none.
Her acting so sways us that we, along with Henriette, can practically hear her humming that haunting refrain positioned to play such a crucial part in proceedings. Griffith had experimented with the use of sound in the previous year’s Dream Street, and he seems to have been striving for something along similar lines with the use of Louise’s reoccurring leitmotif here. Though Dorothy’s melody has been muted in the silent medium, her simulated snatches of song still seem true as a tuning fork. There’s not a false note in this performance.
So expertly does the actress induce us to empathize with her character as she’s repeatedly rent from the promise of security, by the time Louise does finally come back in contact with her sister, on Henriette’s way to the guillotine of all places, where death threatens to part them forever, all the desperation behind their passionate clinging feels fully justified. Forget the excitement engendered by Danton’s subsequent race to the rescue with pardon in hand, this is the movie’s real emotional climax. Orphans of the Storm is an oddity. The great love affair is not between hero and heroine but between the sisters themselves (de Vaudrey becomes a virtual non-entity in the shadow of it) and appropriately, the film’s fade-out is reserved for the two orphans, rather than the clinch of lovers. Swept apart by the tides of history for the majority of the movie, Griffith makes amends by uniting them forever in that final vignette. It’s befitting since Orphans of the Storm was the last film the Gish sisters ever appeared in for the great director.