A Short History of the Movies (Broken Blossoms) – Gerald Mast 1971

  • A short history of the movies
  • Gerald Mast, deceased
  • Formerly of the University of Chicago
  • © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  • Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

The way to improve film acting was not just to make the actors underplay but to let cinematic technique help the actors act. A camera can move in so close to an actor’s face that the blinking of an eye or the flicker of a smile can become a significant and sufficient gesture. Or the field of view can cut from the actor to the subject of the actor’s thoughts or attention, thereby revealing the emotion without requiring a grotesque, overstated thump on the chest. Film acting before Griffith—and before his greatest star, Lillian Gish—not only in the Film d’Art but in Melies and Porter and Hepworth as well, had been so bad precisely because the camera had not yet learned to help the actors.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms is Griffith’s most polished, most finished gem, a tight triangle story of one woman between two men. Out of this triangle come the film’s values, rather than from Griffith’s subtitles and allegorical visions. If the film is less weighty than the epics, it is also less pretentious. To shift terms, one could call The Birth of a Nation an epic, Intolerance a film essay or tract, and Broken Blossoms a lyric—an emotional poem made to be sung. Like so many Griffith films, Broken Blossoms is an adaptation of a work of fiction—Thomas Burke’s “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. As with The Clansman, Griffith took another man’s work and made it his own, as the film’s metaphoric title so clearly shows (the cleaned-up subtitle, however, was “The Yellow Man and the Girl”).

Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms

The film is Griffith’s gentlest, his most explicit and poetic hymn to gentleness. The typical Griffith film shows violence destroying gentleness; the focus of the films is usually on the violent disrupters: war, social upheaval, union protests, political chicanery, sexual debauches. In Broken Blossoms, the aura of ideal gentleness dominates the action, punctuated by the violent jabs of the real world. The gentle man in the film comes from the Orient to bring the message of the gentle Buddha to the vicious, violent men of the West. Once he arrives in London’s dockside slum, Limehouse, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) runs into the “sordid realities of life”—gambling, whoring, opium smoking—that constitute life in the West. He virtually gives up.

Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

Then in the film’s second section, Griffith switches to the female figure of gentleness, Lucy (Lillian Gish). Raised by the prize fighter, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), Lucy is an unloved child who spends her time wandering around the Limehouse district, trying to scrape up enough tin foil to buy herself a flower. Flowers are the primary visual metaphor for gentleness in the film, as the title indicates. Lucy’s gentleness, however, like Cheng Huan’s, runs into sordid realities. Her reality is her father, Burrows, a brute who uses Lucy as both slavish servant and defenseless punching bag. One of the most poignant touches in the film is Burrows’s insistence that Lucy smile for him, regardless of her real feelings. Since she is unable to summon a genuine smile, she uses two fingers to force one.

Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

The next section of the film necessarily brings the two gentle figures together. Cheng Huan is attracted by Lucy’s gentle purity, which he instantly perceives. They first meet, appropriately, over the purchase of a flower. She later collapses in his shop after a terrific beating by her father. Cheng Huan enthrones her in his room as a Princess of Flowers, and the two celebrate a brief but beautiful union of gentle love. Lucy even smiles without the aid of her fingers for the first time, and Cheng Huan’s one weak moment of animal lust (brilliantly communicated by a painfully tight close-up) is soon conquered by his realization of the ideal perfection of his guest and their relationship.

But the realities break in upon the ideal. Burrows finds her at Cheng Huan’s, trashes the place, drags her back to their slum room, and begins his inevitable attack. She retreats to a closet; he smashes it open with an axe, and Griffith creates one of the most accurate renditions of human frenzy in screen history as Lucy frantically starts rushing in a circle inside the closet—trapped, flustered, terrified. The death of all three characters is imminent. Lucy dies from this final beating, Cheng Huan shoots Burrows and then stabs himself. Blossoms, despite their loveliness, cannot survive for long in the soil of mortality.

Griffith suffuses the film with the atmosphere of dreams and haze. Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish have perfectly harmonious faces of inner calm and peace. Their acting is so restrained and so perfectly matched that the two feel like a single being. Griffith also succeeds in giving the abusive father both energy and credibility. Griffith makes the prize fighter walk, stand, sway, stagger like an animal in the ring. After Cheng Huan shoots Burrows, Griffith adds one of those observant touches that brilliantly makes the moment come to life. Burrows, reeling under the shot, instinctively puts up his dukes and begins dizzily jabbing at his opponent; after a few weak and faltering feints, Burrows collapses. This realistic yet symbolic, emblematic detail at the moment of death—for once Griffith gives his villain as much naturalistic attention as his heroes— parallels Lucy’s final living gesture in which she uses two fingers to poke her face into a last smile.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Griffith’s lighting also sustains the film’s mood; Broken Blossoms remains one of the most beautifully lit films in screen history, supported by the beautiful color tinting and toning of its original 35mm prints. The lighting of scenes in Cheng Huan’s shop and room is an atmo¬ spheric blend of beams of light and pools of shadow. Lillian Gish, as the Princess, becomes luminous, surrounded by the gray and black regions of her flowery kingdom. Griffith uses low-key lighting exclusively for these scenes. The lighting is not only atmospheric, it is also a precise visual translation of the film’s metaphoric contrast between gentleness and violence. While Lucy is enthroned in Cheng Huan’s room, Battling Burrows fights his title match. Griffith cross-cuts between the place of love—the room—and the place of hate—the ring. The boxing ring is harshly lit with bright, even white light; the room is suffused with shafts and shadows. Although Broken Blossoms asks a lot less of its audience than the earlier epics, it keeps its promises.

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