"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 27, 2011

"Broken Blossoms" (1919) by D.W. Griffith, with Lilian Gish (Film review)

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) is a Chinese storekeeper in London's slummy Limehouse district. A disillusioned man, he is addicted to opium. The only bright spot in his life is seeing Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) walk by his store. Lucy's stepfather "Battling Burrows" (Donald Crisp) is a brutish, boozing and womanizing prizefighter, who uses his daughter as a punching bag to get rid of his frustrations. Cheng saves her from the brute's claws, but when the boxer sees his daughter with a "yellow man," the beast is loose. He beats his daughter Lucy to death. Cheng, although a man of peace, kills the "pig" and then voluntarily exits this life himself. End of film. The "broken blossoms" are of course symbolic of Cheng and Lucy.

When I was a kid, I sometimes came across children's books that were melodrama incarnate. Children would be beaten and maltreated, they were all alone in the world, would get a terrible illness or die a painful death. I hated those books. Broken Blossoms reminded me of those despised books. If any keyword is applicable for this film, it must be "mawkish." This is a film for the handkerchief brigade.

On top of that, the film is totally dated. In 1919 the Chinese were called "yellow men" or "chinks" and interracial marriage was forbidden by law - it was a crime. When you spot a Chinese in the film, you can be sure he is clutching the cliche of an opium pipe. Cheng is not played by a Chinese actor, but by the American actor Richard Barthelmess, whose Caucasian nose and eyes give him away (if not the way he moves, which is not at all Chinese). Even so, a love story between the "yellow man" and "white maiden" was out of the question. Reviewers point out that Griffith was quite liberal in this case as he made a film about this subject at all, but that doesn't make me happy.

Gish was Griffith's favorite actress and has been praised for her role in this film, but I am afraid she looks a bit too old for it (twenty-three, while Lucy is supposed to be fifteen). On top of that - to show how pitiable she is - she staggers with small steps like an old woman, sentimentally overacting her role.

This is not a classic, but treacle trash and should be relegated to the back-shelves of the museum of film. D.W. Griffith has been praised as the first great American film director, and although he applied some technical innovations, his films are either racist (Birth of a Great Nation) or too melodramatic (the rest). There is no need to watch his movies anymore, unless when studying film history.