(1919) Directed by: D.W. Griffith; Written by Thomas Burke; Adapted from a story by D.W. Griffith; Based on a short story by Thomas Burke; Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp
Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
“Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I planned – spinning and screaming terribly...When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale.” – Lillian Gish (on her climactic closet scene – excerpt from Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen, by Stuart Oderman)
Today’s post covers two events in one! Although I planned Silent September almost a year ago, I just recently learned about the Gish Sisters Blogathon, and instantly knew I had to participate. Special thanks go out to Fritzi at Movies, Silently and Lindsey at The Motion Pictures for hosting this blogathon and letting me join the party. While I don’t profess to be an expert on Lillian or Dorothy Gish, stepping outside my cinematic comfort zone is what my blog (and especially this theme month) is all about.
Compared to Griffith's earlier features Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is decidedly less epic in scope, but no less noteworthy. Similar to the controversy surrounding the first film, the specter of racism raises its ugly head with Broken Blossoms (aka: The Yellow Man and the Girl). It’s easy to ridicule the film as an artifact from a less enlightened time, and it’s just as easy to side-step the issue entirely, with the usual argument: “It was from a more innocent time when institutionalized racism was the norm in the film industry.” While neither stance is invalid, adopting either point of view exclusively is to deny the film’s formidable virtues, along with decades of movie history, where racial insensitivity was an unfortunate byproduct. It’s important to point out that Broken Blossoms, in its own well-intentioned way, contends with topics of racism, the clash of Eastern and Western cultures and xenophobia.
Lillian Gish is captivating in her role as Lucy, and is arguably the best reason to watch Broken Blossoms. Her character was changed from 12 years old to 15 (Gish was 26 at the time), with silk placed over the camera lens to soften her facial features. Gish masterfully conveys a combination of innocence and anguish, as someone who is conditioned to expect the worst, and is rarely disappointed. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Lucy locks herself away in a closet, screaming uncontrollably at the fate that awaits her outside the door. I felt myself cringe as she pulled away from her sadistic father (Donald Crisp), helpless to avoid the inevitable beating.
Richard Barthelmess plays Cheng Huan (listed in the credits as “The Yellow Man”) an opium-smoking shop owner, who takes in the battered Lucy and helps aid her recovery. Barthelmess' character, as portrayed in the film, is significantly older than the 15-year-old boy dictated by the original story. The age disparity between Cheng Huan and Lucy creates some uneasy implications, but it’s never fully explored. Barthelmess’ character is probably the most difficult for modern audiences to accept, but it’s important to keep perspective. In an age when it was standard practice for a Caucasian actor to play non-Caucasian roles, the opportunity for an actor of Asian descent to play the lead role simply didn't exist. What stands out is his compassion for Lucy – he’s the only person in her short life that ever demonstrated kindness toward her. It’s no surprise that nothing good will result from their chaste relationship, which is doomed from the start.
Crisp is genuinely frightening as Battling Burrows, Lucy’s father. He’s a boxer with a short fuse, who routinely takes out his anger on the closest individual to him, namely his daughter. You can feel the tension rise in their scenes together. Even when he doesn't lay a finger on her, the feeling of unease is palpable. At any given moment, he's one step away from violence.
In contrast to the epic scope of some of Griffith’s previous efforts, Broken Blossoms is presented simply. The set pieces are relatively spare and confining, but used to great effect. Like Lucy, we feel trapped in this little borough, set in the Limehouse district of London. Griffith utilizes rose, yellow and blue tinting to further set the mood.
In her book, Romance and the “Yellow Peril,” Gina Marchetti discusses Lucy’s pathetic life of abuse at the hands of her father. She explores themes of implied pedophilia and incest in the film, and suggests less than noble intentions from Cheng Huan. While Marchetti presents a strong argument, it ultimately dilutes the power of the central story, and dismisses Gish’s stellar performance. It’s easy to feel conflicted, due to the cognitive dissonance generated by the more unsavory aspects of the film, which perpetuate a naïve, simplistic view of Chinese society. By the same token, it’s impossible to deny that Griffith was a gifted filmmaker, who created a beautiful, tragic piece of art, propelled by the strength of the story and the talent of his performers.