Classics of The Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe (1959)
Broken Blossoms 1919
The greatness of Broken Blossoms is almost as fragile as its sensitive title. It is a film very easily shattered both by insensitive audiences, and by the inadequate presentation it is often given today. An exquisite little romance, ending in tragedy, and asking eloquently (and pitifully) for understanding between different races and different beliefs, it provided a marked contrast with the gigantic spectacles and melodramatic romances that its director, D. W. Griffith, had hitherto been mainly concerned with.
Richard Barthelmess plays a young Chinese who comes to London’s Limehouse section, hoping to bring with him the peace of Eastern religious beliefs. His hopes are soon crushed, and his only joy is in the silent adoration of a winsome street waif, superlatively played by Lillian Gish.
She is constantly beaten by her brute of a father, a sadistic boxer, played by Donald Crisp. After a particularly savage beating, she runs away, and the worshipping Barthelmess takes her in, treating her only as something to be cherished, without revealing the depths of his love. Her father is informed of what has happened, and his parental “feelings” are suddenly aroused. He “rescues” his child during the Chinese boy’s temporary absence, and in a fit of drunken rage, beats her to death.
Barthelmess, arriving too late, kills the brute, and then, taking the body of his beloved back to his room—the only place where she had ever known peace —he kneels by her side and kills himself. For all its tenderness, it was an ugly story, demanding as much sensitivity and understanding as its audiences could give it. More than that, it needed the very special visual treatment that Griffith gave it.
Photographically it was superb, with its striking sets beautifully lit. Moreover, its tinting and toning were an integral part of the whole; gentle rose hues, savage reds, rich blues for the night scenes, and other tones matching every mood and nuance. Audiences that see this film in its rare public viewing today almost invariably see a black-and-white print, which is tantamount to seeing but a pale shadow of what the film originally was. In black and white the tenderness and beauty fade, the ugliness and sheer melodrama are strengthened. The film’s whole balance is thus shifted. But in its original form the film still weaves that same magic spell that Griffith—and Lillian Gish—gave it in 1919.