Silent Nights: It moves!

A screengrab from a somewhat dazzling tracking shot in D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1922), a shot made all the more striking considering that a) Griffith’s Way Down East, made only two years earlier, contains virtually no camera movement whatsoever and b) Orphans of the Storm is otherwise pretty dull stuff; Griffith’s best and most interesting films are grounded in an American idiom that doesn’t really translate here to a costume drama set during the French Revolution. 

But about that camera movement: to my knowledge, Griffith employs a few panning and tracking shots in Birth of a Nation (1914), and (if I’m remembering correctly; it’s been a few years) Intolerance (1916) sports some quite impressive crane shots during the Babylon sequences and some tracking shots during the climactic race with the train, but camera movement virtually disappears in Way Down East, and there’s not even very much to speak of in Orphans.  But on the rare occasions when the camera does move in this film, things suddenly come to life, and we get the feeling that we’re moving through the space of Griffith’s opulent sets rather than just gazing at them like paintings.  In this shot, which takes place during a bout of post-revolutionary revelry, the camera tracks backward and with some speed, as if participating in the dance along with the revelers.  It’s a rare moment of excitement and vibrancy in a film that is decidedly not one of Griffith’s best—though it does sport Lillian and Dorothy Gish, playing (adopted) sisters, in their final joint collaboration with Griffith.  When they kissed each other for about the thousandth time, it finally dawned on me that theirs is the real love story at the heart of Orphans of the Storm, not the utterly forgettable pairings that spring up between each of them and some dreary male suitors.  The film ends with a clinch, but it’s between Louise and Henriette, not between either of them and their men.  

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