Selected Film Criticism – BROKEN BLOSSOMS (Anthony Slide)

Selected Film Criticism (1912 – 1920) Anthony Slide

BROKEN BLOSSOMS (Griffith/United Artists, 1919)

  • Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 16, No. 3 (August 1919), pages 55-56.
  • Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 8,
  • No. 6 (August 1919), pages 46- 47 and 60.
Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

If the celluloid prints of our day were destroyed by some strange lover of gelatine among the moths and larvae there would remain for the researchers of the next generation only the play-bills and the press-notices. And on viewing these I imagine they would say, “This man Griffith certainly had his world by the tail–year after year these laudations! How tiresome! Was there no one else deserving the top of the column?”

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

But at the risk of being called a mere D. Wark sycophant by those that follow me, I must continue praising David W. The immediate object of to-day’s anthem is, as you probably surmise, Broken Blossoms, a great photoplay of insignificant title.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Let me say that Mr. Griffith’s distinction lies not in the fact that he writes fine narratives on the screen. Other men do that. The extraordinary part of Griffith is that he has never ceased to be a pioneer. He continues to advance. He dares to present novelties of form and novelties of material. He does not always get away with it, but he keeps right on pioneering. He is a long ways from dead, and already the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy has crawled out of its narrow cell and taken a new form in the hexagonal debate as to who invented the close-up. People keep on appropriating his notions, and he keeps on putting forth new notions. He is like a doctor who seldom troubles to make his nostrums proprietary–a year or two after some Griffith knick-knack has been generally adopted almost anybody can tell you that Griffith didn’t invent it at all–Harold Mike Bings did it first, in A Sight for the Gods.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

To come to a more intimate consideration of Broken Blossoms: it is the first genuine tragedy of the movies. An unhappy ending doesn’t constitute tragedy; tragedy seems fore-ordained; the drums of doom are sounding from the first steps of the pageant. So they are for Lucy, the forlorn little thing without a last name, unwelcome child of a Limehouse bruiser, idol of a half-crazy Oriental idealist.

Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Mr. Griffith’s adaptation of Thomas Burke’s grotesque red story, “The Chink and the Child, ” is extraordinarily clever. There the Celestial was little more than a coolie–an old beast of the East in whom, somehow, the forlorn little girl lit a queer late lambent spark of immortality. It would have been hard to make an Occidental audience accept Burke’s slant on this dirty, dried old citron; sounds well enough in a book that you don’t have to read aloud, maybe, but in a show it would almost certainly be disgusting. Especially to men, who sometimes reverence women more than women reverence themselves. So in making the Chinaman a splendid but embittered and fallen young Buddhist, D. W. rose authorially in that moment right alongside Mr. Burke.

Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

For the rest, the tale runs as written except for the very finish, with Lucy dragging out her cowering little life by the London waterside, beaten into semi-imbecility by her accidental father, picked up, reverenced, honored and enthroned by the lonely opium- eater, and at length slain in a monstrous moment of mock-virtue by the insensate chunk that caused her to come into the world. Then the beast dies before the Chinaman’s gun, the Chinaman dies upon his own knife, and the cycle is finished. There is a satisfaction in the death of all three that is an unconscious verification of both its art and its truth. Burrows the battler should not survive the weak little thing he made and slew, and for the yellow man to go on living would have been a hideous hell.

The visualizing of this bitter-sweet story is, I have no hesitancy in saying, the very finest expression of the screen so far. There seems to be no setting or accessory which is not correct in its finest details. The composition is a painter’s. The photography is not only perfect, but, with caution, is innovational, and approximates, in its larger lights and softness of close view, the details of bright and dark upon the finest canvases in the Louvres of the world.

Not content with driving his lens to a record of unexampled recording, Mr. Griffith has added a revolutionary color touch by the use of a Chinese blue, thrown, not by the projector or out of the film, but independently, from the projection booth. This is not a tint and it does not give the impression of colored film. It has a dramatic value which can only be compared to the vital, living blue of the incomparable scene-painter Urban.

Photographer Bitzer has done the best work of his career in this picture.

The fated trio is played by Lillian Gish, as Lucy; Donald Crisp, as Battling Burrows, and Richard Barthelmess, as the Yellow Man. The piece is high tide for all of them.

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

Miss Gish has been allied with the delicate flowers upon Griffith’s tapestries for a long, long time, but here she is called upon to play more than a delicate flower. She must, and does, characterize a little creature of infinite pathos. She has to be both Lillian Gish and the Mae Marsh of old rolled into one sorrowful little being, and her success in this strange combination of motives and beings is absolute. Mr. Crisp as the ferocious Battler is more than physically violent; he has, by many little side touches given intriguing, even humorous little glimpses into the bovine mental processes, the vast self-satisfactions of an ox such as Burrows would be. Mr. Barthelmess as the Chinaman is lofty, exalted, immeasurably removed from a sordid world and its sordid passions, and a calm, implacable dispenser of fate in the last phase. Edward Piel, George Beranger and that delightful pugilistic thespian, Mr„ Kid McCoy Selby, perform small parts with admirable finish.

Only one part of this splendid essay is open to real criticism. Mr. Griffith is not a title writer and his words most inadequately garb his visions. The spoken titles are not so bad, but the descriptive phrases lean lamely upon crutches of sentimentality.

  • Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 16, No. 3 (August 1919), pages 55-56.

Broken Blossoms

It is trite, of course, to repeat that David Wark Griffith’s Broken Blossoms marks an epoch in the march of the photoplay. Nearly every one has pronounced this verdict, but the fact must be stated again.

Broken Blossoms reveals something of what will be the photoplay of the future. For the screen drama of tomorrow is to be a blending of the art of the dramatist, the painter–and the poet.

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

Broken Blossoms is just this.

Since the first animated picture we have had the methods of the stage applied to the screen. Bald stories they have been, in the main, with here and there a flash of splendid dramatic suspense, of fine spectacular effects and of superb beauty of photography. But the thing that was to differentiate the stage and the screen has been slow in coming. Distant flashes had appeared, it is true, but the poetry of the camera has never been really plumbed.

Broken Blossoms reveals a lyric quality we have long dreamed for the photoplay, but never discovered. There are other splendid qualities to Broken Blossoms, but it is because of this alone that we place the production as a milestone of the screen. Indeed, at moments Mr. Griffith makes the camera fairly sing.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Promotional - Broken Blossoms — with Lillian Gish.

So it is not because of its technical advances, its fine handling of a relentless tragedy, its philosophy, indeed, its moving spiritual vein, that we rate Broken Blossoms so highly. It is because Mr. Griffith has at last revealed what the film camera will do tomorrow and in the days to come.

We have frequently lamented what we consider Mr. Griffith’s weakness–a lack of literary discrimination, which, it seemed to us, left his work without a real foundation. Broken Blossoms, however, has an excellent literary distinction. It is adapted from Thomas Burke’s story, The Chink and the Child, of his book, Limehouse Nights. Mr. Burke is an able writer who has set out to paint the London of today as did Dickens of yesterday.

Limehouse is the slum of London, where “East meets West” and the Hindus, the Siamese, the Chinamen and the negro mingle with the Caucasian in the leveling gambling and drinking river-front dives where the swirling fogs of the Thames rise up to hide the hell of it all. To Limehouse has drifted the Yellow Man, a young Chinaman who, fired with zeal, some years before left his native land to bring the message of the Orient to the struggling, blood-mad white man. But the yellow idealist has reckoned without things as they are and his collision with sordid realities of Limehouse has left him dulled and sickened, but still hearing the old call of his temple bells of far-off China.

The Yellow Man keeps a little shop in Limehouse. One day the daughter of a brutal cockney prize-fighter falls in a faint across his threshold, fresh from a beating administered by her parent.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

Now the dreaming Yellow Man has long watched this waif of Limehouse from afar and, in his still idealistic eyes, she is something of a flower growing in the mire. So, all unmindful of consequences, he’ lifts the unconscious girl and carries her to a sanctuary above his shop. There he gently dresses her bruises, gives her gay Oriental robes, decks his room in honor of the visiting goddess and worships. Thru the little drudge’s undeveloped mind runs derisive laughter, then a bit of fear and ultimately an acceptance of this sudden invasion of a quaint Eastern heaven. Finally she even comes to smile.

But her happiness is not for long, for the bully father, fresh from a triumph in the prize ring, hears that his daughter “has taken up with a Chink. ” He sets out to avenge his family and racial honor and rushes to the shop when, by chance, the Yellow Man is absent. He wrecks the rooms and drags away the girl. Once at home, he kills her in his wrath. Then returns the Oriental. He follows the brute to his lair, desperately resorts to the terrifying means of vengeance by which the beauty of his life had been destroyed, shoots the murderer and then carries the dead girl back to his shattered room. He rearranges the torn silken robes, sets up his smashed altar to Buddha and kills himself. So Broken Blossoms ends with the police, the personification of misunderstanding materialism, just forcing their way into the Yellow Man’s shop. But, in vague outline, we see a mystic ship drifting eastward down the river of souls.

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

Critics have said that Broken Blossoms is brutal and even depressing. The note of brutality did not touch us, we must admit. To us the idealism and the spirituality of the theme far overtopped the mere physical side. It is, as some one has said, as a flower unfolding, as delicate as incense smoke. Only the beautiful and the spiritual seem real; the slums and the brutality are as of an unreal land of materialism. Mr. Griffith has told Mr. Burke’s story with the lyric quality of the poet. There are subtitles that are golden gems of direct, finely conceived expression. There are scenes that are living paintings, in their light and shade and balance.

Broken Blossoms is the best acted photoplay we ever saw.

(A broad statement, but nevertheless true!) Lillian Gish is the waif of Limehouse. At once vivid and gentle, pathetic and wistful, Miss Gish gives a performance of the little girl “with age-old eyes” that is unforgettable. And–when she hides herself in the closet to escape her father’s final wrath–she presents a picture of passionate fear realized so realistically that it tears at the heart like a hungry wolf. Richard Barthelmess is admirable as the Yellow Man–indeed, superb in moments. Here is the dreamer of the East almost broken before the realities of life, painted with strokes of splendid subtlety and restraint. And Donald Crisp as the brute, Battling Burrows! Smug, brutally degenerate, vainglorious, Crisp makes Battling a hated figure, relentless in its power.

Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows) in Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows) in Broken Blossoms 1919

For the moment we have neglected to speak of the technical advances of Broken Blossoms. Mr. Griffith is making more extended use of the idealistic close-up of vague out-of-focus photography. Here, it seems, is just what the close-up needed to rob it of its material beaded eyelash and painted lip revelations. Mr. Griffith resorts to it with tremendous effect in handling Miss Gish’s scenes where Battling breaks down the closet door to reach her.

Mr. Griffith is using living colors–palpitating blues, pale bronzes, hot golds and a vivid rose–to aid the dramatic moods of his photoplay. And how singularly effective it is! Who knows but what mood colors may ultimately fill the void left by the human voice?

We might go on endlessly talking of Broken Blossoms. It is, for instance, the initial production of the screen’s first repertoire season in New York and other cities. It is the screen’s first tragedy. We have had stories with “unhappy endings, ” but Broken Blossoms, with its inevitable tale of passions, clashing prejudices and brutal forces, marches with the steady, inexorable tread of a Greek tragedy.

  • –Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 8,
  • No. 6 (August 1919), pages 46- 47 and 60.

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