Monday, August 24, 2009

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Director: D. W. Griffith
USA 1919
90 min
Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp, among others.

Not being one of the motion picture pioneer D. W. Griffith's usual mastodon pieces, this is an unobstrusive dramatic story about forbidden love between a poor, abused girl, Lucy (Gish), and a Chinese man, Cheng Huan (Barthelmess), who travelled to the United States to spread the learnings of Buddha.

When Lucy, after having been brutally beaten by her father, ends up fainting at the doorstep of Cheng's store, he instantly becomes fascinated with the beautiful, unhappy girl. He takes her up to a room above the store, treats her well and sees that she recovers. When her father, Battling Burrows (Crisp), finds out that she is having a relationship with a "simple China man", he takes her back and prepare to learn her a hard lesson.

Following is a hideous scene, one of the most frightening I've ever seen in a film. Scared to the bone, Lucy panics and hides from her insane father in a closet, desperately hugging a doll Cheng had given her. All the while her father bangs on the door, Lucy tries to appeal to her father's feelings, yelling that "They will hang you!" and "T'was nothing wrong!".

To prepare for the scene, Gish supposedly visited an insane asylum to learn how to imitate the feeling of pure horror. She managed so good that people walking by the studio during filming tried to rescue her when hearing her screams.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess.

G. W. Bitzer's photography is simly amazing. He and Griffith collaborated to find ways to soften the light and bring out the dreamlike feeling of the surroundings. They used different filters, they greased the camera lens and came up with tons of other ideas of how to make the perfect cinematography. It has to be seen to be understood.

For the untrained eye (i.e. to those who do not think much at all), this film might seem like racist propaganda. Racial slurs like "Chinky" are used, and the Asians (always smoking a hookah) are mostly played by Kaukasians in yellowface. This does however have explanations.

[Updated for clarification.]
The racial slurs are not meant as offensive, they are mearly a product of the time. Several times in the film Battling Burrows is actually pointed out as a common racist (see lines like "He didn't like people who were born in another country").
Why Kaukasians play the roles of Asian people is simple to explain: the production code at the time forbid non-Caucasians to kiss the Caucasian leading actor/actress on-screen, thereby reducing the possibility of a non-Caucasian having a romantic leading role at all. (At this time the only big Asian name in Hollywood was Sessue Hayakawa, and soon Anna May Wong [post about her and difficulites like these here] would enter the scene.)
Yes, it's racism - but it had however nothing to do with the director's choice directly.

Broken Blossoms was the first film to be produced under the name of United Artists, a production company founded by Griffith, Mary Pickford [post], Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin. Initially it was supposed to be released through Adolph Zukor's Artcraft company, but when Zukor saw the final production he got furious.
"How dare you deliver such a terrible film to me!"
Griffith returned to Zukor's office the next day with $250 000 in cash and bought the film back from him, releasing it himself.

Well done, lucky us. It's a fantastic film, even though it's a true tearjerker.

D. W. Griffith.

Adolph Zukor.

I went through the trouble to put together the famous closet scene from Broken Blossoms with a Mike Oldfield song, since I think it's such fun to mix old and (relatively) new. The song is called "Evacuation", and you can find it on the soundtrack to The Killing Fields (1985). I kind of liked the result!
You can call it blasphemy if you want, but then you should know that I at first considered The Beatles' "Help!" and The Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man"...


Mykal said...

Lolita: I have always loved this film as well for many of the same reasons you have written about. It is just so beautiful to look at, particularly the scenes when Gish or Barthelmess are walking in the city streets or along the waterfront. Pure beauty.

I've watched this a couple of times and the "closet" scene is very difficult for me to sit through. Just one of those scenes that really makes the heart beat faster in sympathy.

People are slowly forgetting what an amazing actress Gish was, so completely connected to whatever part she was playing. Watching this film, it is easy to see why she was so beloved in her day, and why Griffith loved her like a daughter.

Thanks for posting about one of Grffith's small but perfect gems. -- Mykal

Samuel Wilson said...

Lolita, you're slightly wrong about one thing, depending on what you make of the career of Sessue Hayakawa. During the 1910s, Hayakawa was an established star in Hollywood, and often the star of his films. But while he had leading parts, whether he could ever be a leading man (except in the villainous context of The Cheat) is another story.

As for Broken Blossoms, it's the product of an ugly time, both brightened and darkened by Griffith's romanticism. It's a piece of period pictorial poetry that retains its power for receptive viewers. The fact that we're discussing it proves that.

Lolita said...

Thanks for commenting! Yes, Gish really amazes me as an actress. The only thing we can do is try to make people re-discover old starlets like her.

Samuel Wilson:
I blame it on my cold. What I meant was, naturally, that a non-Caucasian person could not kiss a Caucasian leading man/lady. That's what kept Anna May Wong from work, since Sessue Hayakawa was the only Asian leading man active during the beginning of her career.
I'll correct it.

And I did not say that it was an ugly time, because it was. Only that the depiction of the characters doesn't necessarily mean that the people responsible for the movies were racists. Being products of their time, they simply saw some things as natural, the same things we react strongly to today.

Hope I made more sense now!

Diana. said...

A little vbit of gossip:
I have heard that this was kind of a (very) scandalous film.
Otherwise, Gish, to perform a moribund (?)in La Boheme, didn´t eat nor sleep in days, just for "some" realism in her scenes. i think she was a very devoted actress.
(my english is no good, sorry!)

Christopher said...

truely one of the greats!..I like your video...theres that music again! ;o) well..

Lolita said...

Gish was fascinating! Thanks for the trivia :) Well, in 1919 it wasn't the most usual thing, a white girl and a Chinese man together. Today you wouldn't look twice.
Oh, it's great that you're doing your best! Thanks for commenting, welcome back!

Thanks, Chris! You're the first one to comment on it, hehe. I thought it perhaps wouldn't be in everyone's taste!

Gloria said...

With all the films that have been done since, this scene of horror remains unsurpassed. The innocence, too.

incidentally, Lillian Gish in"Broken Blossoms" made a great impression on a young Englishman, who would years later had the pleasure of directing his idol

Kate Gabrielle said...

OH, I definitely want to see this! I'm glad I know its' on the internet now, so I can see it!!

I just found this on youtube and I think you'll like it!! Go to 1:15 -

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lillian Gish was indeed a marvel, and Griffith had great respect for her talent. It's a haunting film in many ways, and your music video to the closet scene is quite evocative of the terror of the character, the terror we are meant to feel.

Lolita said...

Oh, I did not know Lillian Gish and Charles Laughton collaborated!

Kate Gabrielle:
YouTube can be a goldmine :)
You were right, I like it! Very sensual scene. I almost get the feeling that the man is attracted by her... haha.

Jacqueline T. Lynch:
Thank you for the kind words! It's a pretty disturbing soundtrack, The Killing Fields. Very useful!

Gloria said...

Lolita... I gather from your comment that you haven't seen "Night of the Hunter"

If you haven't, I'll only say this: it is a film with *Lillian Gish* AND **Robert Mitchum**.

(Nuff said! ;D)

Lolita said...

Oh, now I see! I must have had a black-out - I totally forgot that Lillian Gish was in that film! I love it, one of my absolute favorites :)

Izzy said...

wow I should know better than to watch that video at night alone in the dark! that music made it really, flat out frightening

Lolita said...

Thank you! I count that as a success!