- NATIONAL FILM THEATRE
- FIFTY FAMOUS FILMS
- BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
- NATIONAL FILM ARCHIVE
- Printed by Cox & Sharland Ltd.
- London and Southampton
The publication in a single booklet of the Programme Notes covering fifty major films in the history of the Cinema drawn from our own National Film Archive and the Film Archives of other countries is one of several innovations. We believe our members will find it more convenient to have the Notes in this form. Apart from being less expensive for those who come regularly to the theatre, it is hoped that the booklet will have some value as a permanent reference work. James Quinn – DIRECTOR
This booklet is the work of many people who have been associated with the National Film Theatre during the past eight years. Apart from the contributions which are credited in the text, there are critical assessments by Lotte Eisner (Cinematheque Francaise), Penelope Houston (editor of “Sight and Sound”), Gavin Lambert (lately editor of “Sight and Sound”), Ernest Lindgren (Curator of the National Film Archive), Rachael Low (film historian and author), Liam O’Laoghaire (Film Acquisitions Officer of the National Film Archive), and Karel Reisz (film director). We take this opportunity of thanking them for their work which has helped so much to bring this present series of National Film Archive programmes into existence.
- U.S.A., 1919 7 reels
- direction: D. W. Griffith
- script: D. W. Griffith, based on “The Chink and the Child”, a short story in a collection called “Limehouse Nights” by Thomas Burke.
- PHOTOGRAPHY – G. W. Bitzer and Hendrik Sartov
- Lucy, the Girl – Lillian Gish
- The Yellow Man – Richard Barthelmess
- Battling Burrows – Donald Crisp
- His Manager – Arthur Howard
- Evil Eye – Edward Pell
- The Spying One – George Beranger
- A Prizefighter – Norman Selly
Griffith returned to Hollywood in 1919 after a two years’ absence in Europe where he had made Hearts of the World. In February he founded, together with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin a new distributing company, United Artists, and the film he made in May of the same year was to be the first important picture to be handled by the new company. Broken Blossoms is an adaptation of a short story by Thomas Burke and tells a simple fairy tale of the London slums. The Girl, living in the shadow and constant fear of her brutish father, Battling Burrows, is befriended by the Yellow Man, an idealistic, high-minded Chinese store-keeper, who loves and protects her. The father finds out that she is associating with a Chinaman and beats her to death. The Yellow Man, seeing his dream of peace and love with the gentle Girl shattered, shoots Battling Burrows and himself commits suicide.
All Griffith’s films carry a message and he made it quite clear that he meant Broken Blossoms to be an allegory. “We may believe,” he wrote in the opening title, “there are no Battling Burrows striking the helpless with a cruel whip—but do we not ourselves use the whips of unkind words and deeds? Battling may even carry a message of warning.” This ingenious disclaimer at once explains the hardly credible bestiality of the villain and justifies the use of what is a rather crude melodramatic plot. But the film needs no disclaimer of this kind. Griffith has treated the story with a gentleness, a direct concentration on the human relationships eschewing all extraneous detail, that gives Broken Blossoms an ethereal, lyrical quality found nowhere else in his work. It has, moreover, an austere simplicity one would not have believed the maker of Intolerance capable of achieving. The misty photography which achieves at times wonderful pictorial effects—and gives the patently studio-built Limehouse a strangely mysterious air—was another remarkably original feat by Griffith’s cameraman D. W. Bitzer. (The film, incidentally, appeared at a time when ‘clear’ photography was often advertised on posters as a great asset and reviewers were quick to point out of Broken Blossoms that the misty pictorial effects were intentional).
To those who know Griffith only as the maker of Intolerance and Birth of a Nation, and think of him primarily as a technical innovator with a particular flair for the crowd scene, will find Broken Blossoms at once a disappointment and a revelation. The disappointment, perhaps, will be short-lived: there are, it is true, few of the startling editing effects that characterises Griffith’s more famous films—in particular, there are very few close shots—but this, strangely, has led to a film of greater not lesser intimacy. The camera dwells throughout on the players and the effects are allowed to come across in the first place through the acting. The film is a revelation in the sense that it has a maturity, a sense of style unobstrusively wedded to content that is at once effortless and more sophisticated than Griffith’s other films.
Griffith introduced Broken Blossoms with these words: “It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of the Buddha ; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears.” This sets the key of the narrative well; but the film is more a tale of Griffith’s conception of love in general than of particular lovers.
Nowhere, even in the silent cinema, have three characters been more rigid personifications of abstract qualities : the Girl of helpless innocence, the Yellow Man of undemanding love, Battling Burrows of evil. The Girl’s innocent, gratefully submissive behaviour to the Yellow Man is presented with a purity bordering on prudishness and the Yellow Man himself becomes the nearest thing to a saint that one can imagine existing in the Griffith world. The brief idyll is ennacted in an atmosphere of almost embarassing holiness in which kindliness rather than love is the dominating emotion. And while this is undoubtedly Griffith’s intention, it gives the centre of the film a certain lack of definition. Perhaps, as has been suggested, Griffith, after making war films, wanted Broken Blossoms to be a tribute to humility and spiritual grace and felt that sex had no part in such a venture. Even if one accepts this, however, one cannot help wishing that the forces of good in the film were not quite so negative, that the Girl and the Yellow Man made, somewhere, some kind of gesture of protest.
Mention has been made of Griffith’s reliance on his actors and he has got marvellous performances from his young players. Richard Barthelmess plays the Yellow Man with a restraint and tenderness rare in the silent cinema. Lillian Gish, playing for the first time the part of the slum girl—a part she was often to repeat—gives the more intimate scene that touching directness which is always hers. The scenes of her hysteria carry a terrible force and one is not surprised to read in her biography (Arthur Bigelow Paine’s “Life of Lillian Gish”) how carefully they were studied.
“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. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were going to do that?’ he asked, shakily. ‘What impressed us all,’ writes Harry Carr (he had become Griffith’s assistant), ‘was that all her reactions were those of a child. Her wild terror in the closet scene—the finest example of emotional hysteria in the history of the screen—was the terror of a child.’ Carr further remembers that she had been to several hospitals, to study hysteria, and to enquire how one would be likely to die, from beating.”
Paine also describes the genesis of a famous gesture which recurrs throughout the film. “It was during this strenuous period that Lillian evolved what Griffith calls ‘the one original bit of business that has been introduced into the art of screen acting.’ In his ghastly preparation for beating Lucy, Battling Burrows pauses, and commands her to smile. Griffith and Lillian had discussed how this could be done most effectively. Then, in the midst of the scene, Lillian had an inspiration. Lifting her hand, she spread her fingers and pushed up the corners of her mouth. The effect was tremendous. ‘Do that again!’ shouted Griffith, and then repeated the scene until they got that heart-wringing bit of technique to suit them. Griffith couldn’t get over it.” It remains to add that the gesture, though effective enough for the first time, becomes through repetition one of the few false strokes of the film.
The part of Battling Burrows is played by Donald Crisp, later to gain distinction as the co-director of Buster Keaton’s The Navigator and director of Fairbanks’ Don Quixote. The part is so violent and unshaded in conception that one cannot conceive an actor playing it with much finesse but Crisp certainly makes no attempt to supply any.