Apr 7, 2008

Orphans of the Storm vs. The Two Orphans

April 7, 2008

Tonight Film Forum in NYC screened
Orphans of the Storm (1921), with a piano score performed by Steve Sterner. Although the Rohauer print is not a thing of beauty as these things go, the nearly-full house enjoyed it, with applause at the finale.

With its melodramatics, this D. W. Griffith film might seem like an old warhorse of silent cinema. But when Griffith adapted the 19th-century warhorse play The Two Orphans, he was the sixth or seventh filmmaker to do so.

All but one of those films, each entitled
The Two Orphans, is presumed not to survive in any form.

The play Les Deux Orphelines by Eugène Cormon and Adolphe d'Ennery, premiered in Paris in 1874. It was almost immediately translated into English and proved a hit with American theater-goers. (Disputes over the copyright to the English version led to important legal decisions on copyright [hello, orphan films].) After its 1875 launch in New York, The Two Orphans remained in theatrical production for a generation.

Much of the play's success in the U.S. was attributed to the actress Kate Claxton, who played the blind sister Louise (Dorothy Gish's role in 1921). Here's a lovely photograph of her from Plays of the Present (1902) by John Bouvé Clapp and Edwin Francis Edgett (quite a pair themselves, one guesses).

Among the films known to have been made but apparently now in orphan film heaven:

The poster for the re-release of the 1915 film refers, oddly, 
to "the Kate Claxton 1918 Version." Claxton owned 
(with some contestation) the rights to the U.S. adaption. 
It's not clear how the 1918 film release might have been 
altered from its original 1915 edition. 

• 1902 William Haggar's Duel Scene from 'The Two Orphans', made in England

• 1907 French Pathé version, Les Deux Orphelines

• 1907 Selig Polyscope's one-reeler The Two Orphans

• 1910 Pathé adaption [U.S. release title, Motherless]

• 1915 Fox Film Corp.'s feature-length Theda Bara vehicle [aka The Hunchback!]  directed by Herbert Brenon; re-released in 1918

• 1920-21 a German company apparently made but did not release its Two Orphans, bought out by D. W. Griffith himself in advance of United Artists' release of the big Gish pic.

    * * * * 

    What does survive is a mostly complete 35mm print (preserved by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research with UCLA) of the 1911 Selig remake of The Two Orphans. A frame enlargement from this partially-decayed nitrate film has circulated as an emblem of the need for film preservation.

    At the first Orphan Film Symposium, in September 1999, we screened Wisconsin's 35mm print of this then-recently preserved film. Don Crafton offered these informative (and typically wry) comments.

    Although we did not screen the then-recently restored Orphans of the Storm (with its new score by Gillian Anderson), the first symposium was actually entitled "Orphans of the Storm: Saving 'Orphan Films' in the Digital Age." By 2002, the simpler "Orphan Film Symposium" became the official moniker. But partisans and newcomers still refer to the symposium by the affectionate nickname "Orphans." [That's Orphans, singular, as in "Orphans is a swell conference," etc.]


    Orphans of the Storm is also an animal shelter in Illinois (started by dancer Irene Castle in the 1920s).