Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis
By Charles Affron (1977)
The women are goddesses, the men are matinee idols; they are all stars who command devotion and veneration. The reverential and celestial vocabulary has been consecrated by decades of usage and press agentry. The cliches’ first connotations effectively separate public from performer by an expanse of astral geography. The gods reign on high, the stars blink in solar systems light-years away, and we mere mortals, worshiping at their shrines in blissful ignorance, celebrate the distance. We join cults, we become fanatics, we endow the star system with mythologies of nostalgia by collecting the stars incarnations in roles X, Y, and Z and cherishing the relics of memorable and memorized bits. “Play it, Sam.”
The Actress as Metaphor: Gish in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith spring from the turn-of-the-century theatrical milieu. The traces of theatre in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922) are not disguised, and the last two are unabashedly drawn from popular melodramas of the period. Yet these creations also display a category of film rhetoric unrelated to naturalistic theatre and prose narative. When Griffith “opens up” a play he does so by searching out the reverberations of the saga, the painting, the still photograph, the lyric.
The patterns of Broken Blossoms are primarily those of poetry; Lillian Gish’s response to its demands reveals fundamental differences between acting as impersonation and acting governed by the fixed form of the movies. Broken Blossoms creates a tension between theatrical expectations for the stage and configurations pertinent only to the screen. It offers a field for understanding screen acting at its most specifically formal. The integrity of such acting to the cinematic text must be seen through the relationship between Gish and the film’s general structure. In Broken Blossoms the unity of performer and pattern exemplifies the metaphoric factor of screen acting. It elicits our perception of acting’s purely filmic quotient.
Actress and director fit the medium in no film more completely than perhaps in Broken Blossoms. Histories tend to illustrate Griffith’s career with the epic and monumental; the battlefield and the ride of the Klansmen from The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the aerial shot of the Babylonian court in Intolerance (1916) are events of imagination and sweep quite characteristic of his style. The sense of spectacle in the obsessively intercut chase and/or rescue sequences and the fugal structure of Intolerance are grandiose gestures that literally stretch the theatre as far as the eye can see and brutally challenge the limits of our formal and temporal perceptions.
Broken Blossoms appears to be a return to the stage. Most of the action is confined to two interior sets, the rooms of Battling Burrows and the Yellow Man. Griffith does nothing to trick the audience into believing that the world of these characters is broader than the space of these rooms. Indeed, he does everything to emphasize the delimiting walls and the entrapment of the characters within. The far-ranging camera of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is most glaringly absent, and whereas the earlier films taught our eyes to stretch telescopically, Broken Blossoms focuses down to the smallest detail and the minutest gesture.
These distinctions are somewhat misleading, for the memorable details of the epic films are as important as the concerted scenes. Lillian Gish and the admiring sentry in The Birth of a Nation, Mae Marsh’s acting in both films, the homecoming of Henry Walthall, “The Little Colonel,” and the wonderfully silly Babylonian lovebirds are only a few of the exquisite components we remember in Griffith’s mammoth compositions. (Indeed, miscalculated details in Way Down East and, to a lesser extent, in Orphans of the Storm are more disturbing than general structural weaknesses.) Yet, despite treasurable moments of intimacy that refine our perception, the principal design of these films belongs to the fresco, insistently calling upon the alertness of a roving glance. Broken Blossoms makes no such demands. The quality of concentration it summons fits the tauter connections and narrower limits of its frame. If the exhilaration of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is sacrificed, consistency and density take its place and inexorably draw the viewer into the pattern to be trapped in the art as Lucy is trapped in her closet. Griffith deliberately restricts the scope of the camera and denies it its most obvious advantage over the proscenium, proving that movies needn’t move over wide expanses to expose their nature. Without being unfaithful either to movies or to literature, the director adjusts the freedom of the camera to the audience’s perception of the strictest of fixed forms—the poem.
Griffith is repeatedly attracted to allegorical configurations. In the broadest sense Intolerance is an allegory, its episodes designed to represent, to dramatize the concept of intolerance through the ages. The film’s linking image of the hand rocking the cradle (Lillian Gish dimly lit) shows Griffith’s facile use of symbolic conventions. He prefers to draw generalities from character rather than to leave that task to the viewer. In as tired a vehicle as Way Down East a title proclaims that the heroine’s name is Anna, but she might just as well be called Woman.
The grandiloquence is unsuited to a film flawed by dubious bits of crowd-pleasing “down-East” humor and melodramatic ploys that were worn out long before Griffith used them. Anna’s interest as heroine is manifested only twice: the baptism of her dying baby and the snow storm/ice floe sequences. The rest of the film degrades a register of allegory worthy of Woman.
This is not the case in Broken Blossoms. Griffith envisions the film as a dynamics of idealism, innocence, and brutality The three protagonists—the Yellow Man; Lucy, the girl; and Battling Burrows—consistently enact their ascribed characteristics, and every element of the film sustains the purity of the conceptual byplay. The names contain allegorical clues—man, girl, battling. The minor characters, Evil Eye, and Spying One, along with the title, complete the pattern. The credits reveal Griffith’s risky intention. The risk is in the notion that the reality of filming can bear the strain of allegorical textures. If Broken Blossoms lacks obvious pictorial scope, its ambitions are great nonetheless. Much of its impetus seems unrelated to the particular strengths of the medium.
After a brief prologue in which the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess) is introduced previous to leaving China “to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife,” we see London’s Limehouse, the principal exterior set of the film. With this set Griffith establishes the motif of enclosure. Even outside we are inside; the space is radically – circumscribed by the opposing storefronts and the rear arches.
The Yellow Man’s idealism has been deflated by the confines of this street, by the very bricks against which he huddles. This shot is a melancholy, reflective emblem, the straight lines and angles of which are drawn into the curved body. This linear tension draws the viewer into the Yellow Man’s reverie. The next is a closer shot, which lessens the distance and expressively uses the changed angle of the hero’s head, the chin tucking in the shoulder, to increase proximity and intimacy.
Griffith’s caricatural notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso, but he uses it throughout the film when presenting Lillian Gish as well—pensive, cowering before her father.
Fear, thought, the frailty of the heroine and the habitual attitude of the hero are expressed in a single cast of body, a spatial indication of their nearness to an interior world—one they will briefly share. They both curl in on themselves, as they seek refuge from the hostile space around them, and direct our own feelings toward the small centers of these frames that are so often limited by the irising of Bitzer’s lens.
The degree of introspection is then heightened; Barthelmess, leaning against the brick wall, is quite literally thinking about himself dreaming while smoking opium in a “scarlet house of sin.”
Again, the linear strength of the composition draws us to the center—arm, pipe and torso form a triangle at the apex of which the drug-hooded eyes reflect inward.
The shots of Barthelmess leaning against the wall and smoking opium and of Gish seated on the wharf establish the film’s landscape, a conceptual and emotional one contained in the minds of the protagonists. The limited dimensions of the spatial correlatives repeatedly bring us back to the inner worlds of Lucy and the Yellow Man where the force of imagination, through the processes of metaphor, transcends their everyday prisons. If Griffith means them to be allegorical characters, they, in a real sense, use allegory to exist. They escape their intolerable reality by substituting symbols for things.
Lucy is a fifteen-year-old (Gish had grave reservations about assuming the part because of her age) and her inner life is much simpler than the Yellow Man’s, yet she accomplishes the film’s most vivid gesture of poetic transformation.
A desperate defense against her father’s brutal domination, her finger-induced smile is a bit of “business” whose ambiguities of sentiment are extensions of its ambiguous position between the realm of representational acting and that realm of the film in which the actor becomes metaphor itself. It represents the way symbols are manipulated, the function of mask, the very root of artifice. Lucy is in constant terror of her father. This is the prevailing attitude in which the physical changes are wrought; it is a limited field upon which the richness of Gish’s invention is displayed. When Lucy sees Daddy the tiny twisted mouth echoes her hands twisting her shawl.
Gish plays a fifteen-year-old in mortal fear of her brutalizing father, and the actress never overreaches the character’s age and experience. The restrictions of chronology control a degree of stylization appropriate to this extraordinary mixture of face and mask. The pained eyes burn through the pitiful, forced smile; the actress unites expression and emblem. She forces our attention to that line where art is hinged on its artificial conventions and its verisimilitude. The distance between mouth and eyes helps us apprehend the link between Lucy’s specific plight and the universal burden Griffith has thrust upon her, the eternal victim.
The first encounter between Gish and Barthelmess sustains the pattern of contemplation initiated at the film’s beginning, and, again, framing devices locate and organize our simultaneous perception of event and style. We see Gish while she is being seen by Barthelmess; the window separates, connects, and delimits, and provides a spatial referent for the process of observation.
The back-lit, soft-focus, Hendrick Sartov close-up of Gish, a lovely but facile device for idealizing the heroine, was to become a cliche. But it was in Broken Blossoms that it first achieved consistency as a significant element of the vocabulary used to photograph Gish. One of the film’s tensions is in the duality of the presentation of the heroine—Lucy, as tangible victim of her father’s whip and hammering fists, and as angelic vision in the eyes of the Yellow Man. The latter kind of shot disembodies her, deemphasizing her physicality by turning her into a chiaroscuro pattern, an abstraction that favors the film’s allegorical penchant.
Griffith opposes this to the stark, clear photography of the violent scenes Gish plays with Donald Crisp as Battling. The camera underlines the dialectic between phenomenon and ideal—the palpable and the transcendental—demonstrating its versatility as it shifts between the two modes, truly catching these actors as they pass from the realm of nature into that of allegory. Griffith abuses this technique in subsequent films with Gish, when the idealized heroine is denied the supporting apparatus of Broken Blossoms style. Through the twenties to her last starring film at MGM, the vision retains its aura of beatitude and in La Boheme (1926) provides for some particularly cherishable shots, although it never again finds a context as congenial as Broken Blossoms.
The physical register is signaled when Lucy, returning to serve her father a meal, quickly fixes a “smile” on her face. Then “the terrible accident”: she spills something on Burrows’s hand. Gish’s performance, to this point based on pent-up terror and control, now bursts forth in a frenzy that is one of her specialties. Her loss of restraint and her willingness to decompose the harmony of her being set a standard for the portrayal of hysteria that only she herself will match. (Griffith gives her repeated opportunities to do so in The Greatest Question, 1919, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm where her tremblings are no less unsettling for their familiarity.
The reiterated and almost unvaried master shot postulates the integrity of the space and the necessity of Lucy’s suffering within it. The same is true of the master shot of the Yellow Mans room. What is, I expect, a shooting expedient conspires to the fihii’s advantage by furnishing constants in the poetic pattern, akin to rhyme, meter, and recurrent imagery. Even the transitions recall the constancy of the setups. Lucy struggles to her feet, drags herself through the streets to the wharf (an often repeated locale), and finally she arrives at the Yellow Man’s shop.
Here, the framing shafts of light provide a variation for our recognition of a set that belongs to the film’s strong series of limitations. The blossoms of the title, fragrant and so perishable, have a dual meaning. They refer to the name the Yellow Man bestows on Lucy, White Blossom, and they suggest the allegorical tradition of Renaissance love poetry that turns the beloved into a flower. They establish the stylistic linkage between the film’s hero and heroine. Conventional role-playing is altered by the fact that Lillian Gish, in her twenties, is playing a fifteen-year-old, and Richard Barthelmess, an American type to the point of caricature as later shown in Way Down East and Tolable David (1921), has assumed the role of a Chinese. The Yellow Man creates the love poem by providing the regalia and the rhetoric, but he is also within the poem as object, rendered so by Barthelmess’s version of lover. He is a blossom as well as Lucy. Actor and actress are profoundly alien to their roles; the characters are alien to their environments, and they create a space for themselves at the center of this film.
The meeting of Lucy and the Yellow Man evokes responses in Gish, Barthelmess, and Grifiith that guarantee the blossoms’ integrity. Nothing jars the internal structure of the poem. Lucy has fainted on the floor of the shop and the Yellow Man finally sees her.
Gish casts her eves down and Barthelmess averts his face, both momentarily withdrawing into themselves before crossing the barrier to become intimate object and referent in a metaphoric relationship. Then their inwardness will be mutually inclusive.
The Yellow Man makes his room over into a temple for Lucy, and he garbs her as befits a goddess, adorning her hair with combs, offering her incense (which with childish finickiness she refuses). She admires her own transformation in a hand mirror—a reaction of superbly in-character, coquettish delight—and expresses gratitude for a small vase of flowers. It had been her wish for a flower that brought them together on the street earlier in the film. Flowers are more apt for these characters than theatrics.
The film’s motifs and attitudes prepare its most courageous scene, one in which actor and director fully meld the dictions of drama and lyric poetry. The intertitle proclaims the worst in Grriffith’s taste, his bent for overstatement, his belaboring the point the image so completely transmits without words: “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon, and places them on her hair; and all night long, he crouches, holding one grubby little hand.” Barthelmess seems to be praying at Gish’s bedside while she sleeps.
The moment is privileged, an epiphany linking the Yellow Man’s religious ideals to his dream of love. What then occurs is a schema for the use of metaphor, its creation, and its power to fix the epiphany in time, to render it tangible through its correlatives. Barthelmess quite literally catches the moonlight in his hands, carries it across the room and showers it on Gish.
Griffith’s prose is inadequate to the flow and grace of the shot, the quality of belief shaped by a flexible actor and sustained by a patient camera. A pattern of circular arm movements that involve the whole room is followed by a third frame enlargement of Barthelmess’s hands close to his face in an ambiguous reminder of the prayer stance. Then, even at that instant when the light is released, a slight hunch of his shoulders preserves some aspect of character during his most total transport. Kneeling by the bed at the foot of his shrine, he once again projects qualities of religious and sexual ecstasy, sublimely confusing the two just as lyric poets did from the early Italian Renaissance to the English pre-Raphaelite period.
The transition from the first frame to the second, from contemplation to prayer culminates in touch, the contact of face and hands. The whole sequence is a rapid shift of emphasis—from his hands circling to hers, and from her face bathed in the light he bestows to his own beatified by her hand. The light, which is the linking factor of these exchanges, is explicitly part of the scene’s theatrical content, and its value accrues through scarcity. Light alone, the light of a very special and personal moon cornered by the Yellow Man, breathes life into these characters. Metaphor is their only means of sustenance.
Yet if Broken Blossoms has the cast of lyric poetry, it is lyric poetry dramatized by the intrusion of other modes. Griffith creates a tension of manner that constantly places the idyll in jeopardy, forcing a confrontation between the interior, private world and the harshness of the exterior, physical one. His obsessive opposition of idealism and necessity appears in contexts ranging from the plight of his virginal heroines in Biograph one-reelers to Belshazzar’s flamboyant paradise destroyed by the barbarous Persians in Intolerance. The configurations of Broken Blossoms are particularly successful in animating conflict with paradox.
The Yellow Man gives Lucy the doll she admired in his shop window. Gish is at her prettiest here. She passes from childish delight to maternal tranquillity, expressing love for the doll surrogate that cannot be directed to the Yellow Man. The gesture with the doll’s hand on her cheek is a. structural link between this scene and the finger-smile sequences. Instead of a tortured smile, the doll’s hand induces a rapture that extends the characterization. In this shot Gish combines emblems of little-girlhood and womanhood to sustain the allegerical pattern of the film. We and the Yellow Man perceive an essence of femininity, granted shape and scope by the stylization of a woman playing a fifteen-year-old who plays at being a woman.
If in the moon sequence Barthelmess enacts the proximity of spiritual and physical love, it is now reiterated in a different, more strident key. He corrupts Gish’s child/woman portrait with a terrifying close-up of menacing lust.
The poles of the film are disturbingly close in this sequence, providing an ambiguous current for Griffith’s abstractive characters. One of the triumphs of Gish and Barthehiiess is the pulse they make throb beneath the conceptual surface Griffith imposes on Lucy and The Yellow Man. Broken Blossoms is most emphatically an acted poetic allegory.
The sexual ambiguity of the Yellow Man’s gestures toward Lucy is further complicated when Battling Burrows discovers his daughter at the shop. Griffith uses precisely the same kind of terrifying close-up to express the father’s rage. By treating lust and fury similarly, Griffith throws awry the pat polarization of characters and concepts: Yellow Man/peace and Battling Burrows/war. The disorientation of these values will be finally accomplished when Barthelmess— who was to bring Buddha’s message to the West; who enshrined poor Lillian Gish in his personal temple—standing next to an illustration of prizefighters, faces down and shoots Donald Crisp.
The hunched stance is apt for expression of both irony and menace. Up to the film’s last minutes, Griffith generates a crescendo of terror, pain, and violence following Burrows’s entrance into the love nest. The precious enclosure and the hermetic lovers are rent asunder; the words of the lyric poem are disarranged and strewn across the now familiar areas of the film. If the audience feels panic during the denouement of Broken Blossoms, it is because the elegiac rhythm and the idealized surface have been so radically altered. The stillness of epiphany is shattered by extremes of theatricality, modes borrowed from melodrama that test the integrity of the poem with the purity of their excess. Broken Blossoms is as much a clash of literary styles and shapes as a clash of ideologies.
At this point in the film the particular strengths of Lillian Gish are given their greatest and most fulfilling challenge. Torn from her bed and thrown to the floor, she witnesses her father’s destruction of the room with only a hint of the expression of fear that she will eventually summon.
Still clutching the doll, she is dragged down those familiar streets, home through the fog. Then Crilfith cuts back to Barthelmess and his discovery of the wreckage and her absence.
Barthelmess’s despair and anguish, his sell-abandonment, prepare for Gish’s great scene. All of their acting in miniature, in repose—acting that aimed toward the private center of their poetic existence— is now reversed, and the walls no longer seem adequate to contain their performances. As the world breaks in upon them, each responds with frantic extensions of their beings into the physical universe. Barthelmess’s hysteria is stylized Chinese; Gish’s version goes beyond recognizable style.
A particularly inspired invention locates her explosion of hysteria in a closet, the film’s smallest space. The general pattern of containment is both respected and supremely violated, This most circumscribed area, suited to the interiority of the lyric poem, provides a frame for the screen’s rawest manifestation of unchecked emotion and frenzy . Gish presses herself to the closet wall. Then begins a confrontation between actress and closet, and an assault on our collective claustrophobia that set a standard for any subsequent scene of enclosure. The space is delimited by body, hands, eyes, and face.
A sense of duration unfortunately is not conveyed by the frame enlargements. The camera relentlessly records Gish, and she spares the audience nothing, forcing it to share the plenitude of her suffering. The sequence is finally modulated; Gish reassumes the crouching position, drawing herself into a corner, while Crisp hacks at the door. When he reaches through the opening he has made, the conflict between their worlds is conveyed in purely spatial terms.
All the confines are breached as Lucy is pulled through that same opening, her spirit raped as she passes from one realm into another. Griffith is fiendishly inventive in scenes of menace, as Broken Blossoms demonstrates. The final beating features a tapping motion with the phallic whip handle, a disquieting prelude to the fatal strokes that we do not see.
Lucy is left alone to die. Isolated now by her pillow, she still clutches the doll that links her to the Yellow Man, but also veyr much her father’s daughter, she composes her final “smile.”
In a shot that seems to be held forever, her death connects the various attitudes and spaces of Broken Blossoms: the peace of the Yellow Man’s room, the agonizing smile-poem, and the bruises inflicted by Battling Burrows.
The stillness is interrupted by the confrontation of the Yellow Man with Burrows, but it is resumed in the final sequence by an ineffable cadence of echoes of posture and placement. Lucy is returned to her altar to be venerated along with the other icons, and her death is consecrated through the joy and passion of Barthelmess’s suicide.
Peace is restored and the pattern is completed by the sublime tilt of the head, which forms the proper closure of the poem that was begun when the Yellow Man first leaned against the brick wall. Between these wedded images Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess act out the impossible, escaping from themselves through a refinement of gesture and stance to incarnate a totality of being that ranges from the most exquisite presence of flesh and pain to the airy reaches of aureoles and karma. That is the scope of Broken Blossoms.
Gish was always Griffith’s little girl/very young lady. Her vulnerability to menace was sublimely appropriate to the complex of reverence and sadism that qualified Woman in his imagination.