Broken Blossoms (1919)

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  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp
  • Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan rescues an abused waif and romance blooms as he nurses her back to health.

Broken Blossoms tells the story of two distressed individuals, one East one West, who in uniting and attempting to rise above their terrible circumstances in life are driven even lower. It isn’t happy stuff, but it’s done extremely well and commanded investment from start to finish.

The first half of the movie set the stage beautifully for the two main characters to come together. In Cheng, Lucy discovers the first gentle spirit she has ever known, and in her he catches his first sight of beauty since moving to such a cold and disinterested country. A few details in terms of the film’s Asian-ness were a bit iffy and I’m sure they represented the Western world’s prevalent derogatory opinion of the Asian population at the time. Overall though Griffith’s treatment came across as respectful and restrained in many ways.

Lucy is terrorized psychologically and physically by her boxer father. There were a few disturbing scenes of abuse in the film, none more visceral than in the finale when Battle ripped apart Cheng’s shop and dragged his daughter back home where she frantically hid in the closet. There was a lot of whipping and physical abuse in the film up until this point, but nothing brought me down as much as seeing Lucy try and claw her way out of the small closet as her father zeroes in. It was the nightmare of claustrophobics everywhere. During these years, there was nobody more capable of playing the victim of terror than Lillian Gish and her performance in Broken Blossoms was over the top at times, but effective and competent enough to steer the film away from the campy terrain into which the story seemed to want to drag it.

As for the other half, we first meet Cheng in China as he is preparing to head West to spread the Buddhist teachings of peace and enlightenment. You can tell that he has grand visions of what his life abroad would be like, but after years of nobody paying any attention to him, save for those set on persecuting him for his culture and religion, he ends up depressed and managing a store in Limehouse’s Chinese district. Not really managing a store, more like smoking opium in an empty store and waiting for divine intervention. I liked Barthelemess in this a lot. I wouldn’t quite call his Cheng an un-racist portrayal, I mean he did go by the alternate name of Yellow Man on the cast sheet and was referred to as “Chinky” by friendly characters even. There was something damaged and animalistic about his performance. If forced to come up with a description I would call it graceful, kind, mellow leopard.

This was a really enjoyable movie and neck and neck with The Outlaw and His Wife for the title of best pre-1920 silent film I’ve seen so far. The gritty, realistic town setting, Griffith’s expert and in this case sensitive vision, and three great performances of three great archetypical characters all led to what felt like a way more advanced film than the others I am watching from these years.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

2 Responses to Broken Blossoms (1919)

  1. Pingback: The Phantom Carriage (1921) | classixquest

  2. Pingback: Orphans of the Storm (1921) | classixquest

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