Broken Blossoms – Iris Barry (1965)

  • D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry
  • With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

BROKEN BLOSSOMS

Griffith had been absent from Hollywood almost two years when he returned after launching hearts of the world. His next important film was to be very different. From the large canvas he turned to an intimate photoplay based on The Chink and the Child,” a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights. Like most of Griffith’s films and all of his best ones, it carried a message. The earlier picture had been his contribution to war, but this fairy tale of nonresistance in opposition to violence spoke of international tolerance. The part of the London waif might have been made to measure for Lillian Gish and the choice of Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese boy was fortunate. Work went unusually smoothly and, after the customary period of rehearsal, the film was completed in eighteen days. When Broken Blossoms appeared everyone was overwhelmed, and not only by the discretion and force with which a difficult subject had been handled. Reviewers found it surprising in its simplicity,” and hastened to explain that the photography was misty on purpose, not by accident. The acting seemed a nine days’ wonder— no one talked of anything but Lillian’s smile, Lillian turning like a tortured animal in a trap, of Barthelmess’ convincing restraint. Few pictures have enjoyed greater or more lasting succes d’estime.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

By 1919 the motion picture was learning fast how to deal freely with ideas and feelings as well as with deeds, and here BROKEN BLOSSOMS, despite its rather theatrical form, played an important part by its scaling down of dramatic action and its intensification of intimate emotion. Possibly Griffith had been influenced by the somber Danish films of the period with their emphasis on atmosphere and on moral and psychological reactions, just as formerly it had been he and Ince who taught the Scandinavians to use an isolated face or gesture as a unit of expression rather than (as on the stage) the actor. In the development of the American film, Broken Blossoms marked a distinct stage. Definitely a studio picture, it emphasized a new style of lighting and photography which, though it has been abused, was valuable. In its contrasting periods of calm and of violence it borrowed something from intolerance, just as the grim finale recalls the death of Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation; but there is a sureness and perhaps a sophistication here which had not formerly been evident. Out of broken blossoms much was to come. It cannot have been without its influence in Germany; we know that it profoundly affected Louis Delluc and his disciples in France; and, but for it, we might never have had Charles Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

D. W. Griffith Repertory Season opened in May 1919 at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York with Broken Blossoms, followed later by The Fall of Babylon (from intolerance), “a new peace edition” of Hearts of the World, and the mother and the law (also from Intolerance). During that summer Griffith moved his company from Hollywood to Mamaroneck, New York, where the old Flagler estate at Orienta Point was converted into a studio. Costs had risen sharply and, if Griffith was particularly responsible for this, he was the first to suffer from it. The complex financial operations that had become part of film production were absorbing more and more of his time. He apparently felt the need to be constantly in or near New York, which was then as now the financial center and shop window of the industry.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in “Broken Blossoms”

Griffith, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin, had founded a new joint distributing company, United Artists, The Love Flower was the second of his pictures for them, Broken Blossoms being the first; but in the meantime Scarlet Days (1919), The Greatest Question and The Idol Dancer (all of relatively minor importance) had also appeared through other distributors.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

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