Two Orphans, Three Studios, Four Films: A Brief History of The Two Orphans
From the time it was translated into English in 1874, “The Two Orphans” was a successful, well-known play in the United States. The story of orphaned sisters Henriette and Louise, and their separation, tribulations, and eventual reunion on the streets of France became common knowledge, and Kate Claxton’s portrayal of the blind Louise won her accolades and immortality in the annals of American theater. It wasn’t surprising then, when film pioneers began to adapt it for this new medium.
Ad for the now lost 1907 Original Version of Two Orphans
In late 1907, Colonel William Selig created the first American adaptation of the film. Unfortunately, the film is lost, leaving the cast and crew mostly a mystery. We do know, however, that it was staged in six acts, and was touted for its realistic presentation of the interior of a prison. In the years immediately following the film’s debut, film technology and artistry grew by leaps and bounds, so “The Two Orphans” would undoubtedly be considered crude by even the standards of the 1910s. It was these advances that inspired Selig to give “The Two Orphans” another shot four years later.
So, in 1911, Selig staged “The Two Orphans” again, this time with favorites Kathlyn Williams and Winifred Greenwood as Henriette and Louise. It also featured Myrtle Stedman, Lillian Leighton and Adrienne Kroell. The film was praised for its elaborate costumes as well as the impressive variety and magnitude of the sets. While Moving Picture World lamented that the three-reeler was shown in an elaborate screening (one reel was screened per night over the course of three nights), it praised the production highly, calling it, “a triumph for the Selig Polyscope Co. and [it] will go down in moving picture history as one of the big successes scored by the silent drama. It illustrates in a remarkable manner how the moving picture can convey the story and plot of a drama, the motives governing the various characters — their loves and hatreds, their crimes and follies — all so convincingly that the spectator’s mind is held in thrall.” The movie was such an achievement that it stood unchallenged for another four years as the definitive film version of the play, until William Fox and his star vamp Theda Bara entered the picture.
Theda Bara stars against type in the 1915 remake of Two Orphans
The role of the heroic and innocent Henriette was a welcome change for Bara, who had risen to fame while portraying vamps and exotic, dangerous women. In previous films, she had ruined marriages and brought shame to families, here, she was a lost girl just trying to survive the rough streets of France and protect her sister, played by Jean Sothern. No expense was spared in the production of the film. The budget was $300,000 and allowed them to construct a facade of the Notre Dame cathedral. The sets were top of the line, with $10,000 spent on the prison at La Salpetriere alone. This five-reel production outlasted and outshone the previous adaptations, but Selig was determined to bring his adaptation back into the limelight.
In June 1916, while buzz still surrounded Fox’s version of “The Two Orphans,” Selig re-issued his 1911 three-reeler. Because of the time that had elapsed, and the work the players had done since the film, it could now be billed as featuring an all-star cast. Critics and audiences, however, could no longer praise it as they once did. Moving Picture World, who just the year before stated it would go down in moving picture history, now said the acting was too hurried, lacked technical advancements such as close-ups, had imperfect lighting and inferior photography. This film that they praised five years earlier could now simply be credited with its ability to “recall a bygone era.”
For years, while the industry grew and evolved, and the small pioneering studios were closed or acquired by the larger mogul-driver studios, the story remained untouched. Then, in 1922, it was once again adapted…this time by D.W. Griffith. The story was rather tame by Griffith’s standards, however, so to turn it into a true film spectacle, he set it against the backdrop of the French Revolution. With his favorite ingenues Lillian and Dorothy Gish starring as Henriette and Louise, a hefty budget, a new setting and the addition of a race to the rescue (a Griffith staple), Griffith had a classic on his hands. The name was changed to “Orphans of the Storm” to avoid confusion with other productions, and though the popular reception was cooler than it had been for Griffith’s past works, the critical reception remained positive. William Fox reportedly attempted to re-issue his 1916 version in order to capitalize on the fame of “Orphans of the Storm,” but he ultimately rejected the idea, knowing that it would draw many unfair comparisons.
In the span of 15 years, the American film industry saw the production of four different versions of “The Two Orphans,” yet the only one that survives is Griffith’s. While Selig and Fox’s efforts would seem inferior, mostly due to their lack of technology and refined technique, it would be very interesting to see the differences that each incarnation brought to the table. Perhaps prints of these versions will be found one day, until then, we can only try to piece them together through reviews and photos.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub