The Art of the American Film (Broken Blossoms) – Charles Higham 1974

  • The art of the American film
  • Charles Higham
  • Anchor Books 1974
  • Anchor Press / Doubleday, Garden City, New York

Poet, teacher, critic, Charles Higham brings an especially sensitive eye to bear on the American film. For this major study, he worked closely with archives on both coasts, including the Library of Congress and George Eastman House. He is the author of Hollywood in the Forties, Hollywood Cameraman, The Films of Orson Welles, and DeMille and has been Regents Professor, teaching poetry and film, at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The Advent of D. W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms)

Based on Thomas Burke’s Limehouse story The Yellow Man and the Girl, Broken Blossoms even survives its dated opening title: “It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears.” The three central figures are symbols: Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a boxing champion, who symbolizes the cruelty of life; Lucy, his daughter (Lillian Gish), is feminine weakness personified; the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess) is a representative of the downtrodden, shrinking upon contact with violence. Griffith moves in this film from sentimental romance and the epic documentary to the lyric form.

Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Extraordinarily concentrated, Broken Blossoms is at its best deeply moving: the sequence in which her father drags Lucy from her hiding place and she pleads for mercy before he strikes her down is, due to the dynamic editing and Miss Gish’s playing, made a piercingly lifelike visual experience. The last sequence shows Griffith’s new mastery of suspense—the Yellow Man picking up a knife to stab himself to death following his murder of Lucy’s father; the police breaking in; then a shot of a man striking a gong, and ships sailing out toward the Thames basin. A short textbook of editing in itself, it is a sequence that rewards many reviewings. Photographed under the supervision of Hendrik Sartov by Billy Bitzer, the film offers consistently rewarding images, its evocation of misty streets, piers gleaming, the tracery of rigging on a skyline, cramped lodginghouse rooms foreshadowing and superior to von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York.

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

Griffith’s last years are sad to recall: appearing on radio in Los Angeles to discuss his former successes, living in the sterile ambience of the Hotel Knickerbocker, wandering down Hollywood Boulevard like some dress extra, “supervising” a British remake of Broken Blossoms, or faced with the final humiliation of acting as a special adviser on the looks of primitive women in One Million B.C.

The Art of the American Film Charles Higham Anchor Books 1974 Anchor Press / Doubleday, Garden City, New York

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