BROKEN BLOSSOMS (D.W. Griffith, 1919, USA, 90m, BW)
Cast: Edward Piel, Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish, Donald Crisp, Arthur Howard, George Beranger, George Nichols, Karla Schramm, Edward Peil, Ernest Butterworth, Moon Kwan, Fred Hamer, Wilbur Higby, Norman Selby
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writer: D.w. Griffith
Running Time: 87 min.
When Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) moves to London to spread Buddhism, he is unprepared for the deplorable conditions and intolerance of its inner city. But Huan succumbs to his environment; his missionary dream turns into indifference and opium addiction, until he finds battered Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) at his doorstep. He devotes himself to her recovery, and the two kindred souls become close, but tragedy awaits in the form of Burrows' abusive father (Donald Crisp) a boxer.
With Broken Blossoms in 1919, instead of telling a vast tale spanning millennia and featuring a cast of thousands, Griffith focused his attention on the tragic interplay between just three people: a Chinese immigrant to London (Richard Barthelmess), a young waif with whom he develops a brief but touching relationship (Lillian Gish), and her brutish father (Donald Crisp). It’s been suggested this was another sop by Griffith to those who had accused him of being a racist due to the content of BoaN although, while Bathelmess’ Chinese immigrant is a completely sympathetic character, the thoughtless racist attitudes that were commonplace back then are still very much in evidence. For example, the movie’s secondary title is ‘The Yellow Man and the Girl’, and during a tender love scene, Gish’s Lucy says to him: “Why are you so good to me, Chinky?” — which tends to break the mood just a tad.
Griffith’s trademark use of tiny gestures and changes of expression is very much in evidence in the performances of Barthelmess and Gish, while Crisp, who is barely recognisable as the kindly patriarch of countless 40s flicks, paints a broader picture of the loutish Battling Burrows. This counterpoint between screen father and daughter works well, stressing the fragile nature of Gish’s waif, while emphasising the misery of her dependence upon her uncouth father. Barthelmess, meanwhile, spends much of his time gazing miserably at the bleakness of the world around him as his character tries to lose himself in a haze of opium after failing to spread the word of peace. Chen seems to be moving through a dream for much of the film, passively allowing himself to be buffered by the world, and only shaking himself from his torpor when Lucy almost literally falls at his feet.
This scene, in which Lucy and Chen first meet, is wonderfully atmospheric and beautifully framed and is, strangely, the prelude to the film’s weakest segment. Having set the scene beautifully and created a great atmosphere, Griffith allows proceedings to slip into melodrama. While Battling’s discovery of Lucy’s new friendship is melodrama of the most Victorian kind, the relationship between the two potential lovers goes nowhere which, while perhaps true to the film’s title, leaves the story struggling for momentum. Lucy enjoys a few hours of being spoiled by Chen — the first time in her life that she ever has been, but there is very little interaction between them, and Chen’s apparent consideration of forcing himself on Lucy before finally kissing her sleeve really doesn’t ring true at all. In fact, the scene looks as if it were added almost as an afterthought to inject a little suspense.
Broken Blossoms was first recommended to Griffith by Mary Pickford who told the director about the short story "The Chink and the Child" in author Thomas Burke's collection Limehouse Nights. Griffith shot the film in just 18 days, without breaks and often working at night. Crisp was also working on a film at another studio and could only shoot his scenes after regular hours and on weekends. Though he had initially hoped to shoot the film in the Limehouse district, Griffith settled for a Hollywood sound stage.
Broken Blossoms was made with the help of Adolph Zukor who gave Griffith a $250,000 advance. But Zukor so disliked the finished film that Griffith ended up paying Zukor's money back in order to have Zukor sign the film over to him. Griffith released the film with much drama, selling tickets for three dollars each, which was an extremely high price for movie admissions at the time. After premiering in several cities at the three dollar rate, Broken Blossoms was widely distributed by United Artists, the first film release of the studio formed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Griffith. Broken Blossoms also secured the fame of Gish, Barthelmess and Crisp. But the film's success did not guarantee Griffith could operate without limits. His next three films (The Greatest Question, 1919, The Idol Dancer, 1920, The Love Flower, 1920) were made for Associated First National in order to raise money to complete his next masterpiece, Way Down East (1920).
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