Motion Picture Classic – August 1919 Vol. VIII No.6
The Celluloid Critic – Broken Blossoms
By Frederick James Smith
It is trite, of course, to repeat that David Wark Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” marks an epoch in the march of the photoplay. Nearly everyone 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” 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. 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. 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.
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 someone 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 We haven’t the heart to discuss Mr, Griffith’s “True Heart Susie,” (Paramount), immediately after his “Broken Blossoms.” For they are a thousand miles apart. “True Heart Susie” is of the Hoosier caliber of “A Romance of Happy Valley.” It revolves around a young minister who fails to see the love light in simple Susie’s eyes, marries a fickle little milliner, discovers her semi-infidelity after her sudden death, and who turns finally to Susie, who has waited thru it all. To us “True Heart Susie” hasn’t one-tenth of the real country and small-town atmosphere of “The Turn in the Road.” Lillian Gish is quaint as Susie, but darned if we can like her weird country attire. We’ve lived in the country but never glimpsed anything as exaggerated as Susie’s clothes in these mail order days. Clarine Seymour again reveals surprising promise as the cutie milliner who loves jazz better than her fireside. And, considering the Willie Jenkins of Bobby Harron, we can’t entirely blame her.