American Movie: Broken Blossoms (1919)

When the enormous (and enormously expensive) spectacle of Intolerance failed dismally to recoup even a fraction of its budget, D.W. Griffith found that his career as an independent filmmaker had been dealt a mortal blow from which it never recovered. He would never again be able to create films on a scale to match his two most famous efforts, nor would he be able to work in the industry without the support of financial backers.

Throughout the next decade and a half he struggled to connect with a modern audience which was growing further and further away from his Victorian sensibilities. Among his last few modestly successful efforts of the late ‘teens and early ‘twenties is Broken Blossoms (or The Yellow Man and the Girl), a small romantic melodrama that stands in sharp contrast to the vast ambitions of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The result more than makes up in feeling and artistry what it lacks in scope and energy.

There are really only three characters of importance in the story, and we are first introduced to Cheng Huan, the “Yellow Man” of the title, as he is preparing to leave China and spread the peaceful message of Buddhism in the barbaric, violent West. Not surprisingly, Cheng is played by a white American actor (Richard Barthelmess), but both the script and the performance avoid tasteless Asian stereotyping, if not cliches (an important distinction).

The other two characters are Battling Burrows, a low-class British man, and his teenage daughter Lucy, played by Donald Crisp and the ubiquitous Lillian Gish. Burrows is a part-time prizefighter, part-time drunken lout. He is a volatile brute with a short fuse, and Lucy bears the brunt of his distemper. Meanwhile, three years after leaving China and settling in England, Cheng’s idealism is slowly withering away amidst the haze of opium addiction and thick London fog.

Lucy is one of the few things in Cheng’s life about which he seems to feel anything anymore, and he relishes her shopping visits in his squalid corner of the city. When, after a particularly severe beating, Lucy stumbles away from her home and collapses on Cheng’s doorstep, he takes her in and nurses her back to health. In the process, these two “broken blossoms” breathe a little color back into each other’s lives, but their happiness is not meant to last.

Just like Griffith’s other films, Broken Blossoms has a message, but it is developed artfully and with a certain subtlety that is lacking in the director’s earlier efforts. The film addresses major issues like racial bigotry and domestic abuse, but it refrains from preaching at the audience from the title cards. There is no tacked-on coda at the end. Griffith is finally allowing his films to speak for themselves. The result is not perfect, but it is effective.

The lion’s share of the credit for that effect rests with the performance of Lillian Gish, delivering what is generally regarded as her finest work for D.W. Griffith. It is rare in silent cinema to see such a skillful portrayal of raw emotion that does not tip noticeably into the realm of exaggerated melodrama. Lucy’s total lack of self-consciousness when she is alone reinforce her vulnerability in the minds of the audience which lends that much more weight to the naked terror in her eyes when she is confronted with yet another beating. And the tenderness of her scenes with Cheng (despite the fact that she nicknames him “Chinky”) are infused with touching sweetness, all the more so because Lucy exudes an aura of one who has not so much as heard a kind word for as long as she can remember.

It was around this time that Griffith, Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks started United Artists together. When Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, screened Broken Blossoms after it was completed, he was horrified by the downbeat ending. He demanded to know how Griffith dared to submit such a terrible film, and the director left in a rage. He was back the next day with a quarter of a million dollars in cash and an offer to buy Broken Blossoms from Paramount. Zukor accepted, and it became UA’s first release, winning acclaim with audiences and critics alike; and deservedly so, for it is one of the best silent pictures of the decade and a masterpiece of its time.

~ by Jared on September 10, 2008.

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