Friday, February 9, 2024

Orphans in and out of the Storm

There’s something poignant and (let’s face it) picturesque about orphans. The idea of a child moving through the world without the loving embrace and guiding presence of parents is sad indeed. But many of us tend to believe that children who lack one or both parents make up for this loss by being that much smarter, pluckier, and stronger than their better-endowed peers. In the end, these kids are the heroes of their stories: at least, that’s the way it works in Grimms’ Fairy Tales and many novels. Just think of what Charles Dickens has written, in works like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. His motherless, fatherless boys ultimately emerge (after many disturbing adventures) triumphant, as does Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. And it’s not merely a 19th century phenomenon: let’s not forget one of the most famous, most ultimately powerful, orphans of them all—Harry Potter.  a



 A colleague of mine, attorney Marlene Trestman, became (to her own surprise) a biographer when she published Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin. Marlene, from New Orleans, had the misfortune to lose both her parents by the time she was eleven. Fortunately for her, the Jewish Children’s Regional Services saw to her needs, eventually connecting her with foster parents she still regards with deep familial love. She grew up well aware that the building at the intersection of St. Charles and Jefferson avenues where she received social services had at one time been the venerable Jewish Children’s Home. The Home, founded  before the  Civil War, had welcomed Jewish orphans from all over the American South, including the smart and talented Bessie Margolin. Its history became Trestman’s new writing project, Most Fortunate Unfortunates: The Jewish Orphans’ Home of NewOrleans.

 What does all this have to do with movies?  I asked Marlene whether moviegoing played any part in the lives of the orphans housed at the Home in its early days. Here’s what she wrote back:  Superintendent Leon Volmer (who was an early adopter of the newfangled technology of motion pictures) reported to the board in August 1916 about the movies he screened in the Home (with a donated film projector): ‘The bi-weekly picture shows are not only a thing of beauty and joy to the children but are also very beneficial educationally . . . We have some exceptionally fine pictures, such as The Children of the Ghetto, Wanted A Home, The Foundling, and Nature Studies. Such pictures not only broaden the mental horizon of the children but strengthen their moral vision and are an attractive yet powerful aid in the character building of children.”” Marlene notes that in the sentence about character-building, “Volmer may have been referring to the fact that loss of movie privileges provided a sure-fire method to curb misbehavior!”

 Later too the orphans were treated to entertainments about kids like themselves whose parents were dead or missing. In 1918, they saw an actual live play, Pollyanna, with a seventeen-year-old Helen Hayes as the “pluckily cheerful orphan girl” who spreads joy wherever she goes. (This sappy perennial was to become a movie favorite. It starred Mary Pickford in 1920 , while Hayley Mills played the role for Disney in 1960.) The Home organized a special movie outing in 1919 to see Pickford play yet another orphan in Daddy Long Legs. In 1922 they watched what sounds like Orphans of the Storm, starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish as waifs surviving the French Revolution. If you have the misfortune of being orphaned, I guess it’s encouraging to know you’re not alone.


No comments:

Post a Comment