Two innocent sisters (Gish’s Lillian and Dorothy) are caught up in the tumult of the French Revolution and are separated when they travel to Paris. One is pursued by a lecherous cad, the other kidnapped by a wicked crone to work as a beggar.
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Griffith has for a long time been referred to as the ‘Father of Cinema’, as much for his ability to thrillingly use other director’s techniques in a coherent and technically proficient manner as for his own editing and camera styles and ability to direct actors toward a ‘cinematic’ performance.
His career was also pretty much on its last legs when he made this mighty, lavish historical epic, as old as its director when originally released (there had already been a version of this story with Theda Bara). It was also his last film that actually turned a substantial profit.
Real-life silent movie star sisters (staple Griffith actors) Lillian and Dorothy Gish forged successful and completely separate cinematic careers between 1912 and 1924, Lillian as the serious dramatic actress in fine movies, Dorothy playing more comedic roles in bigger box-office hits. But occasionally they acted together, with charming results.
Here, their obvious affection is displayed to great effect.
Blindness is very often portrayed as wide-eyed, hand-flailing hysteria, but Dorothy skilfully controls such excesses to convey her character in a more naturalistic manner.
Lillian holds the lead well with an exceptionally mature performance of burgeoning sexuality that belies her character’s frailty.
The supporting cast struggle with Griffith’s tendency to employ tactless and unfunny pantomime at moments of high drama, but there are exceptional displays of comic villainy in Hale (as a bizarrely coiffured servant) and, particularly, Wallace as the warty crone who imprisons and beats Dorothy.
Despite the often old-fashioned style, lengthy running time and glaring errors (for impoverished farmers, the Gish girls live in a spacious and well-furnished hovel), Griffith fashioned a stunningly photographed and excitingly executed drama (the final chase to save Lillian, using a breathless series of cross-cuts that were Griffith’s forte, is still gripping).
Griffith is to blame for the mouldy script (smartly written under a pseudonym), but Kirk takes the plaudits for the spectacular, intricate and expansive production design, hitting the mark with either creepy, expressionistic Paris slums or the ornate mansions of the aristocracy.