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Classic Silent Film: Broken Blossoms

24/11/2018

Another D. W. Griffith classic

Today, Broken Blossoms is widely regarded as one of Griffith’s finest works. In 2012, the film received five critics’ votes and one director’s vote in the British Film Institute’s decennial Sight & Sound poll. Roger Ebert was a longtime champion of the film, having added it to his “Great Movies” series; and in 1996, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Review aggregation site They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They has since found Broken Blossoms to be the 261st most acclaimed film in history.

Wikipedia

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl, often referred to simply as Broken Blossoms, is a 1919 American silent drama film directed by D.W. Griffith. It was distributed by United Artists and premiered on May 13, 1919. It stars Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, and Donald Crisp, and tells the story of young girl, Lucy Burrows, who is abused by her alcoholic prizefighting father, Battling Burrows, and meets Cheng Huan, a kind-hearted Chinese man who falls in love with her. It was the second film released by United Artists. It is based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” from the 1916 collection Limehouse Nights.

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) leaves his native China because he “dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.” His idealism fades as he is faced with the brutal reality of London’s gritty inner-city. However, his mission is finally realized in his devotion to the “broken blossom” Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), the beautiful but unwanted and abused daughter of boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp).

After being beaten and discarded one evening by her raging father, Lucy finds sanctuary in Cheng’s home, the beautiful and exotic room above his shop. As Cheng nurses Lucy back to health, the two form a bond as two unwanted outcasts of society. All goes astray for them when Lucy’s father gets wind of his daughter’s whereabouts and in a drunken rage drags her back to their home to punish her. Fearing for her life, Lucy locks herself inside a closet to escape her contemptuous father.

By the time Cheng arrives to rescue Lucy, whom he so innocently adores, it is too late. Lucy’s lifeless body lies on her modest bed as Battling has a drink in the other room. As Cheng gazes at Lucy’s youthful face which, in spite of the circumstances, beams with innocence and even the slightest hint of a smile, Battling enters the room to make his escape. The two stand for a long while, exchanging spiteful glances, until Battling lunges for Cheng with a hatchet, and Cheng retaliates by shooting Burrows repeatedly with his handgun. After returning to his home with Lucy’s body, Cheng builds a shrine to Buddha and takes his own life with a knife to the chest.

Unlike Griffith’s more extravagant earlier works like The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is a small-scale film that uses controlled studio environments to create a more intimate effect.

Griffith was known for his willingness to collaborate with his actors and on many occasions join them in research outings.

The visual style of Broken Blossoms emphasises the seedy Limehouse streets with their dark shadows, drug addicts and drunkards, contrasting them with the beauty of Cheng and Lucy’s innocent attachment as expressed by Cheng’s decorative apartment. Conversely, the Burrows’ bare cell reeks of oppression and hostility. Film critic and historian Richard Schickel goes so far as to credit this gritty realism with inspiring “the likes of Pabst, Stiller, von Sternberg, and others, [and then] re-emerging in the United States in the sound era, in the genre identified as Film Noir”.

Griffith was unsure of his final product and took several months to complete the editing, saying, “I can’t look at the damn thing; it depresses me so.”

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