#476) Broken Blossoms (1919)

#476) Broken Blossoms (1919)

OR “I Love Lucy”

Directed & Written by D.W. Griffith. Based on a short story by Thomas Burke.

Class of 1996

The Plot: In London’s seedy Limehouse district, Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) arrives to teach the word of Buddha, but becomes increasingly disillusioned with the world and ends up as a curio store proprietor and opium addict. His faith is restored when he crosses paths with Lucy (Lillian Gish), a young lady escaping from her abusive father, the boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). Having admired her from afar, Cheng Huan takes Lucy in and keeps her safe. When Battling Burrows gets word of Lucy’s hideout, things take a tragic turn. It’s a story of racial tolerance from…the director of “Birth of a Nation“!? Oh dear.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites “Broken Blossoms” as an example of Griffiths’ “smaller films that struck a chord with silent era audiences.” The write-up also states that the film “entreats audiences to denounce racism and poverty”. …Huh. Also on hand is an essay by film critic/Slant Magazine co-founder Ed Gonzalez.

But Does It Really?: Call me Ingrid Bergman, because someone’s gaslighting me. Everything I’ve read about “Broken Blossoms” talks about its intimate beauty and its message of racial tolerance. You know, that movie starring a white man in yellowface from the director who helped revive the Klan. Have we all gone insane? Maybe I’m watching this too soon after “Birth” to be totally objective, but I really can’t cut this movie any slack. I’ll be nice and designate “Broken Blossoms” as “historically significant” (it was the first movie released by United Artists), but anyone who says this plodding, insensitive story is one of the greatest films ever made needs to get their head examined.

Wow, That’s Dated: Once again, we have a massive YELLOWFACE WARNING front and center. White actor Richard Barthelmess plays Cheng Huan, allegedly with a tight rubber band under his hat to stretch his facial features. Not exactly “The Joy Luck Club”, is it?

Other notes 

  • According to the credits, Richard Barthelmess appears “courtesy of Dorothy Gish”. Anyone know what that’s in reference to? Obviously she’s Lillian’s sister, but I can’t find any evidence that Dorothy and Richard worked together, at least not in the capacity that these credits imply.
  • Right from the start, Griffith uses the intertitles to preach racial tolerance, asking us to be aware of our own “unkind words and deeds”. Well Mr. Pot, how would you describe Ms. Kettle?
  • Yellowface aside, Griffith goes out of his way to make Cheng Huan (and the other Chinese characters) stereotypes in the opposite direction of “Birth of a Nation”. Cheng et al are wise, kind, and practice tolerance to all around them. Nowhere near as derogatory as the African-Americans of “Birth”, but still an extreme.
  • At least because it’s a silent film we don’t have to sit through anyone’s atrocious or offensive accents.
  • And if this movie didn’t have enough problems, let’s throw in some child abuse for good measure. The film never condones these actions, but I still have to witness it.
  • Donald Crisp kinda looks like James Cromwell. It should be noted that Crisp was also a director, and filmed his scenes for “Blossoms” at night because he was directing during the day (most likely either “Something to Do” or “Putting It Over”).
  • All I knew about “Broken Blossoms” before this viewing is the iconic moment where Lillian Gish pushes her lips up with two fingers to evoke a smile. I did not realize this was in the context of appeasing her abusive father. So much for Precious Images. While we’re on the subject, the two finger move can definitely be misconstrued today.
  • Once Lucy escapes from Battling and stays with Cheng, things are still uncomfortable. Cheng basically lusts after her from a distance; never taking advantage of her, but definitely creeping me out over here. I know that this is all supposed to be a charming respite from her father, but this movie is so slow these scenes are mainly boring.
  • It was around this point that I wondered if the movie’s source material was a short story. Turns out I was right. If your short story doesn’t lend itself to a full-length feature, why not pull a “Big Sleep” or “Short Cuts” and combine a few? Thomas Burke had plenty of material to draw from, much of it also set in the Limehouse district.
  • My other gripe with this picture: No one calls Cheng Huan by name, resorting to certain epithets I’d rather not mention.
  • I always find it amusing when a silent movie’s story hinders on someone hearing something, in this case Lucy breaking a teapot in the back room. I guess I’ll take your word for it, movie.
  • Griffith’s movies can be quite problematic but I have to hand it to him, the man knew the power of the close-up.
  • For me “Broken Blossoms” is best summed up by Griffith himself. According to Richard Schickel’s biography, Griffith had difficulty editing “Blossoms”, stating, “I can’t look at the damn thing; it depresses me so.” Well said.

Legacy 

  • “Broken Blossoms” was originally produced by Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount), but producer Adolph Zukor hated the final film. Griffith bought the film from Zukor for $250,000 and released it through his newly formed studio United Artists. “Broken Blossoms” was a hit, and made over $600,000 at the box office.
  • “Broken Blossoms” was the first film released by United Artists (though the first one actually produced by them was Douglas Fairbanks’ “His Majesty, the American”). Over the years United Artists has risen and fallen, been bought and sold, merged and rebranded. The United Artists name still exists, though it is primarily a distribution company (they release the Bond movies), with its last co-production being 2015’s “Creed”.
  • Although D.W. Griffith was a founding member of United Artists, and “Broken Blossoms” was a hit for the studio, his next few films faltered, and in 1924 Griffith left the studio after the failure of “Isn’t Life Wonderful”. I guess the answer was no. Griffith made a few early talkies, but following his departure from United Artists, his film career was essentially over.
  • The Brits made their own film version of “Broken Blossoms” in 1936. Despite the technological advancements made in the previous 17 years, this version also stars a white man in yellowface.
  • Films with nuanced, respectful depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans (played by actual Asians and Asian-Americans) have been around for decades, but this country is just now embracing them on a large scale with recent films like “Crazy Rich Asians”, “The Farewell”, and “Parasite”.

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