May 31, 1919 THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD
“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” FULL OF BEAUTY
Fragrant with the Poetry of Pure Ideals and a Great Love That Endures Until Death, D. W. Griffith’s Latest Picture Marks the Highest Altitude of Screen Art
By Edward Weitzel
IDEALIZED realism, spiritual beauty springing up in the midst of sordid surroundings, the fragrance of a great love that endures until death—all are found in “Broken Blossoms,” D. W. Griffith’s latest picture. So well has the director wrought that his work marks the highest altitude yet reached in screen art and placei his photoplay on a plane with the masterpieces of painting, sculpture and music. The picture is a tragedy and it cleanses the soul of the onlooker as did the tragedies of the old Greeks, marching relentlessly to the death and destruction of those who defied the gods. In “Broken Blossoms” a father defies heaven in his treatment of his illegitimate child and ends by killing her. His punishment is swift and sure. Moving side by side through this grim tale is a revelation of supreme devotion, a holy flame of pity and adoration that beautifies the entire picture and fills it with sweet incense.
The manner of its making is also a revelation to those who are familiar with the creations of its maker. Much always is expected of D. W. Griffith; “Broken Blossoms” betters anticipation.
A Missionary from the East.
Thomas Burke, whose book,. “Limehouse Nights,” contains a short story, “The Chink and the Child,” furnished the screen with a new theme; in bare outline a simple enough tale is told practically by three characters, but one that will cause the complacent and superior dweller in this Christian land to regard the almond-eyed followers of Confucius with new interest and to find much food for thought after the immediate effects of the picture have faded from his mind. There is a broad humanity running through the tale which consorts fittingly with the spirit of the times and the drawing together of men of many creeds for the moral advancement of the world. A treaty port in China steals slowly through a shimmering curtain of blue and the first scene of the picture transports the spectator to the Orient. The impression is complete. That curious sense of reality that reality alone can convey to the uninitiated is here in full. One important fact is brought out while the action continues in China : A young Chinese poet, learned in the wisdom of his land and the teachings of his faith, is anxious to go to a far country and share his knowledge with those who have never had his advantages. He is gentle, kindly and a dreamer who veils his feelings with the inscrutable repression of his race. The blessing of his god is besought for his mission, and the sound of temple bells is in his ears as he sails away.
The Limehouse Slums.
Contrast at once startling and repellent, ushered in through a curtain of sinister hue, a dull red that is in keeping with the reek and gloom of the region, is found in the next location of the story. The Limehouse district of London, that part of the mighty city near the docks where foreigners of the East touch elbows and yellow men predominate, is the place. Sandaled feet shuffle silently down narrow streets and disappear under distant arches. A place of foreboding, of mysterious happenings behind closed doors. And real in every brick in its walls and every stone that lines its gutters ! And the impression is complete !
Here the Chinese missionary is found. His dreams have been rudely shattered. No one will listen to him, so Cheng Huan has ceased trying to deliver his message. But he still broods over the good he might accomplish, as he leans against the wall outside his little curio-shop
Cheng Meets His Goddess.
One day – he finds a new mission in life: the dedication of his homage to a shrinking bit of humanity—a young girl, hardly more than a child, whose beauty of face and purity of soul cannot be hidden from his sj-mpathetic gaze, although slow starvation, cruel blows and vile language have done their best to efface both. Cheng is attracted to the girl when he sees one of his countrymen try to detain her as she leaves the shop where she has gone to purchase her father’s meal. He interferes in her behalf and she hurries oflf. It is the first act of kindness she has ever known and she cannot comprehend why such a thing should happen to her. The girl’s way home takes her through a narrow alley and along a dock where river craft are moored, and weatherbeaten sail-lofts face the Thames. Turning the corner of a building she enters fearsomely, and finds her father there. He is in a rage because his meal is not ready. Battling Burrows is the title he woii in the prize ring. A great hulking brute of a man without one decent instinct, he beats the girl and leaves her to starve while he spends his time drinking with some drab at a public house—another of the wrecks of womanhood to whose unholy ranks his child’s mother belonged. Why he ever kept the ill-starred mite when its mother left it in his lodgings just before she sought forgetfulness in the river must have puzzled the prizefighter himself. Now that the girl is able to slave for him and take her pay in blows, he suffers her to share his hovel. Here again is deep penetration into things as they are—stark realism that is terrible to behold, accompanied by fixed purposes and the presence of unseen forces that are guiding the seeming blind injustice of this child’s fate.
The Blossom is Broken.
While Burrows is busy training for a coming prize fight, the girl meets Cheng for the second time. She pauses to look into the window of his shop and sees him inside. He smiles at her. One night her father gives her a harder beating than ever before, and she staggers out into the street, wandering on until she reaches Cheng’s shop. He finds her in a dead faint on the floor when he returns. Gathering her slight form in his arms, he takes her to the room above. To him she is the incarnation-of all that is lovely and he is ready to worship her. He places her on a couch and when she is restored to consciousness and given his choicest food, he has her robe herself in a gorgeous garment from his native land and decorate her hair with flowers. The room itself he turns into a bower for his goddess and is rewarded by seeing a wan smile on her lips. All night he kneels at her side, holding her hand. She is too weak to leave the next day, and the strange delight of being tenderh- cared for holds her a willing captive. Events move rapidly from here on.
Her father learns where his daughter is just as he is going into the ring. At the finish of the fight he rushes to the shop. Cheng has gone out. Burrows reaches the room above and smashes every breakable object and drags the child home. They have barely gone when Cheng returns. His mute anguish as he gazes at the ruin of his temple and its shattered altar and realizes his goddess is not there is one of the great moments of the story. Arming himself he rushes to the girl’s home. He is too late. Her dead form is stretched across a low cot. Her father has beaten her to death. The scene of the killing is carried out with uncompromising realism, but here also the hidden forces that are watching over the little victim give her death the beauty of martyrdom. Cheng’s vengeance is quick. He shoots down Burrows as the prizefighter picks up an axe, gathers the lifeless form of the girl in his arms and bears her back to his desecrated temple. The gorgeous robe is again wrapped about her and she is placed upon the couch. The shattered altar is picked up from the floor and Cheng goes through his service for the dead. A second later he buries a knife in his breast and his soul follows the child’s.
“Broken Blossoms” Shatters a Delusion.
A tragedy, compact and complete. A perfect action without distractions of any sort, it moves irresistibly forward without once looking backward or turning aside, and its whole history is burnt deep upon the memory, never to be forgotten. Vast panoramic themes crowded with characters and events are popularly supposed to afford the moving picture its freest and most profound expression. “Broken Blossoms” shatters this delusion. The screen, in the hartds of a true artist, can encompass all the tragedy of existence in a brief tale peopled by two men and a child, and give it overwhelming significance. Such a tale is “Broken Blossoms.” At no time is its subject beyond the skill of D. W. Griffith to interpret in pictures that glow with material truth and spiritual beauty. The color scheme of its illuminated subtitles is a piece of wizardry that sets a new standard for this important branch of picture making. Nothing draws the eye from the beautifully clear letters, which are thrown upon a background of interpretative color. The effect sought for by elaborate but obtrusive designs is here obtained by the only correct method.
Lillian Gish and Her Co-Stars.
The actors of the three characters, the girl, Cheng Huan and Burrows, are worthy the trust imposed in them. There is no higher form of praise. Lillian Gish as the victim of the prizefighter’s cruelty is a creature so crushed and broken that one’s heart aches for her. She has been so stunted in everything but a constant growth of suffering and terror her appeal is that of a little child’s. Her delight in the doll which Cheng gives her is that of a child and the horror of her pitiful death is the more distressing for the same reason. Never for an instant does she lose the character and she responds to its changes of feeling and the mounting frenzy of its dreadful crisis with ample power and admirable control. Richard Barthelmess shows surprising artistic progress as Cheng Huan. His past impersonations reach an excellent average but none of them approach the rounded perfection of his Chinese poet. Even under Griffith’s direction it is a remarkable achievement for so young a man. He breathes the very spirit of the gentle scholar of the East—a spirit hitherto never understood or portrayed on the stage or the screen.
Donald Crisp’s “Battling” Burrows is cast in all the character’s brutal realism. He is the reincarnation of Dickens’ Bill Sykes, proud of his strength and his ability to ill-treat those weaker than himself. The Crisp impersonation is rich in enlightening bits of sideplay and understanding of the nature of the prizefighter. His manner of death as he tries for a brief instant to fight off his conqueror in the only way he knows, and his final collapse—an ugly sprawl upon the floor—is one of the never-to-be-forgotten incidents of the picture.
Edward Peil’s acting of Evil Eye makes it a companion portrait in the group, the calm indifference with which, after trying to do wrong to the girl, he purchases a flower and pauses to smell it, being a well emphasized point.
George Beranger as The Spying One deserves his place in the cast, and Norman Selby as “Battling” Burrows’ opponent in the prize ring, coupled with Donald Crisp’s skill with his hands, causes the fight to look like the real thing.
A last word about the picture : “Broken Blossoms” is not to be measured by the height of its buildings, the number of its characters or the cost of its production. Rather should it be spoken of in terms that denote the mind and the soul of mankind and the splendid height that may be attained by the devotion of these attributes to the betterment of humanity.