Across the Silversheet
A Review of Recent Pictures – Motion Picture Magazine
By HAZEL SIMPSON NAYLOR
The photoplay that was to mark an era of advance in the shadow world has been long anticipated. There have, in the last year, been good photoplays and better photoplays, but each on the same level of production. Like the great American novel that is always going-to-be, the great American screen drama has proven elusive. But at last a single path has been blazed thru the forest of prejudice and narrowness, that has marked the opinions of exhibitors and producers as to what the public wants.
Opinions that have hitherto withstood all advance attacks. And the crown of the Columbus of screen advancement goes to David W. Griffith. It all happened when Mr. Griffith inaugurated the unusual by starting a repertory season of pictures at the George M. Cohan Theater, New York City, with a scale of seat prices running from $1.50 to $2.50. The opening night showed “Broken Blossoms” as an initial offering. And “Broken Blossoms,” at the time of our going to press, is still packing that theater.
“Broken Blossoms” is to the screen what Shakespeare’s plays are to the drama. It is a tragic poem, a voiceless opera; all the hopelessness, and despair, and brutality, of our boasted modern civilization are laid bare before us. We may not injure our loved one physically, as did Battling in the play, but is not the wounding of sensitive spirits just as great a crime? The lesson is obvious for those who wish to see it. Words are not delicate enough instruments with which to tell you the story. It requires the clear, silvery call of temple bells, the clash of cymbals, the baying of stringed instruments.
In the Far East lives a young Chinese poet who dreams of carrying his message of civilization to the whole world. He journeys to London, where his gossamer dreams of benefiting others are torn to shreds, which disappear on the current of gross materialization. In England he is recognized solely as a Chink storekeeper.
In the dregs of the London slums, where he takes up his being, lives a bully prizefighter called “Battling Burrows.” “Battling” has a girl child who is the butt of all his wrath, the recipient of his excess strength and brutality. One day, wounded from his brutal whip, the girl flees and falls fainting in the Chinaman’s doorway. The Yellow Man revives her and cushions her bruised body in the heart of his home.
He places soft silks from his former days of luxury in the Orient, about her, burns sweet incense to soothe her waking hours, and brings flowers for her hair. He cares for the wounded child with the tenderness of a lover, and the lack of desired recompense of a mother. The hopelessness of his pure love is almost unbearable to view.
Swift as the stilettic wrath of lightning comes the sudden “righteousness” of “Batling.” A Chink and his child! He steals into love’s altar when the bellow Man is absent, ruthlessly tears the silks from the thin young body; beats, breaks, nangles every object that pure love has enshrined there; and finishes his destruction by dragging the terrified girl home, where he beats her to death.
The vengeance of the Yellow Man follows ‘Battling” swiftly and merely—too swiftly, to my way of thinking. A bullet is too easy an ending.
The yellow poet carries the child back to his broken shrine, for her first and last peaceful sleep, and then, seeking the cold chill of Death-giving steel, dies at her feet. The story, adapted from Thomas Burke’s “The Chink and the Child,” is told with a beauty denied my pen. Each unfolding scene is a marvel in composition, photographically the most beautiful thing that has ever been done. The color tinting which Mr. Griffith has used to flash across the screen helps immensely in getting the desired emotion across. At the moment of the brute’s anger a dull crimson glow floods the screen. We feel hatred, anger and vengeance in the very atmosphere.
As for the players, Lillian Gish, as the girl, gives one of the greatest performances of the year. Thruout her maze” of tragedy, of stark terror, pain and blows, she never fails to give the impression of a suffering child. Richard Barthelmess is quietly convincing as the Yellow Man; in fact, touched one period of real greatness when he stood yearning over the couch of the sleeping child. All the starved longing of the world was in his glance.
Donald Crisp is truly remarkable as “Battling” Burrows ; but it is the master hand of Griffith that has made “Broken Blossoms” a great example of what can be done with the voiceless art. Griffith indulges in an orgy of sorrow and brutality in “Broken Blossoms.” He has put all the pain of life into a beautiful poem. Mr. Griffith has blazed a trail which is going to bring new followers to the screen, but who will have the courage to follow him?
By HAZEL SIMPSON NAYLOR – Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1919 – Jan 1920) Broken Blossoms