Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

  • Director: D.W. Griffith (Oct 20 1919)
  • Writers: Thomas Burke (adapted from a story by) D.W. Griffith (writer)
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

The film’s premiere engagement included a live prologue featuring a dance routine performed by actress Carol Dempster. During Dempster’s dance the stage was illuminated by blue and gold footlights. Later, during the screening of the film, a stagehand accidentally switched on those footlights and the movie screen tinted the film in an unusual way. D.W. Griffith, standing in the rear of the auditorium, was so surprised and delighted at the blue and gold-tinted effect that he ordered all copies of the film to be tinted in those colors during certain key sequences.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

In an article for the Ladies’ Home Journal (Sept., 1925) Lillian Gish she said:

When anyone asks me to pick out from the many I have been in, the picture I like best, I answer without much hesitation, and without much thought, “Broken Blossoms.” I say this not because the picture was an artistic picture, which it was.

I say this not because it was a compelling or tragic story with no clearing-away, no laying of tracks, no getting ready for the tragedy—it was exactly all this; but because the picture was quickly and smoothly accomplished. It took only eighteen days to film.

 

The closet scene was the climax—the terrible moment where Lucy’s father is breaking in, to kill her. Nobody could rehearse that for her. For three days and nights, she rehearsed it almost without sleep. Small wonder, then, that the hysterical terror of the child’s face was scarcely acting at all, but reality. It is said that when the scene was “shot,” there was an assemblage of silent, listening people outside the studio, awe-struck by Lillian’s screams. Griffith, throughout the scene, sat staring, saying not a word. Her face, during the final assault and struggle, became a veritable whirling medley of terror, its flashing glimpses of agony beyond anything ever shown before or since on the screen. When it was ended, Griffith was as white as paper.

(Life and Lillian Gish)

Lucy's father is breaking in, to kill her (Lillian Gish /Donald Crisp)
Lucy’s father is breaking in, to kill her (Lillian Gish /Donald Crisp)

An idealistic young Chinese man comes to England to preach his eastern philosophy of peace, but soon finds himself a disillusioned shop-keeper in a London slum. There he befriends and helps shelter an abused adolescent girl who is regularly beaten by her prizefighter father. When the father learns of the situation his narrow mind and violent temper lead to a terrible confrontation.

Broken Blossoms - Swedish Magazine promo - Lucy Burrows on the pier - Limehouse

Acclaimed by critics from the time of its release through the present day as Griffith’s greatest film. Broken Blossoms may well be the first tragic masterpiece of the cinema. Far more intimate than the epic The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, it is a delicate story of characters and ideals caught up in an inexorable destiny. Many critics also find the eloquent plea for racial tolerance less embarrassing to embrace than the controversial The Birth of a Nation.

Setting the mood brilliantly, the beautiful cinematography is accentuated by subtle pastel color tints that soften the harshness of the story’s London Limehouse setting. The specially composed musical score by Louis F. Gottschalk, a rarity for its time, complements the action even more.

The only real drawback to the film is the exaggerated performance given by Donald Crisp as the brutish father, in stark contrast to the underplaying by Richard Barthelmess. Lillian Gish gives perhaps the most sensitive performance of her career, playing a girl almost half her age.

Griffith adapted a short story from the book Limehouse Nights, by the florid English writer Thomas Burke, while he was working for Adolph Zukor’s Artcraft Pictures (a division of Paramount). Zukor is said to have found the finished film too poetic and gloomy for general release. Griffith decided to premiere the film in a few large cities in May of 1919, but even after a glowing critical reception, Zukor still wanted to delay re- lease until more bookings had been contracted for. Griffith, however, decided to purchase the film for his newly formed United Artists distribution company. It went into national release in October, and within three months had earned almost double what UA had paid to acquire it (which itself was over three times what it had cost Zukor to finance its production).

  • GUIDE TO THE SILENT YEARS OF AMERICAN CINEMA
  • DONALD W. MCCAFFREY AND CHRISTOPHER P. JACOBS
Annabella as Violine in Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' (1927)
Annabella as Violine in Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ (1927)

 As a child, I was fascinated by the movies. Maybe I was ten years old when I saw Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” and I thought she was wonderful. Coming back home from the movie, I remember getting up on a chair looking at myself in the mirror above the fireplace trying with my fingers to make my mouth smile as she did when she was very sad. So moving the faith I had, I thought I would like to do the same thing and be an actress like she was. I didn’t go a lot to movies since we were living in the country. . . .But the one who had made the big impression on me was Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms.” Some years ago, I saw her when she made a grand appearance in North Hampton, New Hampshire where my daughter has a house. She was very pleasant, very intelligent and I think she was a wonderful person.

  • From the interview with Annabella in “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1999 (Page 108)

 

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Broken Blossoms Photo Gallery

This movie was originally made for Adolph Zukor at Paramount Pictures. D.W. Griffith bought it from him in order to release it through his new company, United Artists. “Broken Blossoms opened in New York on May 13, 1919. Although Mr.Griffith had started production of it in the winter of 1918, his refusal to look at it for so long had delayed its release. The audience was deeply moved. The reviews exceeded in praise any picture I was ever in. One New York paper reported, “One can think only of the classics, and of the masterly paintings remembered through the ages; so exquisite, so beautifully and fragrantly poetic is Broken Blossoms”.

 

Another said that this film ought to be the Bible in the hand of every director making films in the future. The New York Call wrote: “He has far exceeded the power of the written word. It would be impossible for the greatest master of language to picture the emotions as Griffith has perpetuated them”. No picture up to that time had received such world wide critical praise. Edward Wagenknecht, Professor of English at Boston University, wrote: “But so far as the players are concerned, Broken Blossoms is Lillian’s first film of all, and the deep sincerity of her terror and passion seem all the more moving and remarkable for always being conceived and projected as the terror and passion of a child.”” (Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

Broken Blossoms - Swedish Magazine promo - Lucy Burrows on the pier - Limehouse

Current Opinion, July 1919 Broken Blossoms

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