Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Power of Silence: "Broken Blossoms" (1919)

The years have not been kind to D.W. Griffith, the father of American film direction. "Birth of a Nation," an average but still landmark film, is better known for its racism than its technical achievements. "Broken Blossoms" is also not politically correct, but I am recommending it as an example of Griffith's skill.

Lucy (Lillian Gish) is a teenage girl in the Limehouse district of London. Her father, Battling Burrows (an excellent Donald Crisp), is a boxer more concerned with boozing and broads, much to the chagrin of his manager (Arthur Howard). Since a boxer can't hit his scolding manager, Battling takes out his frustration and anger on Lucy, consistently beating her with a short whip.

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) lives in the Chinatown section of the city, above the small shop he runs. Years before, he was a devout Buddhist in China, leaving his homeland to spread his naive message of peace to all. Now, he is in England, spiritually broken and smoking opium. He sees Lucy here and there, even saving her from the lecherous Evil Eye (Edward Peil).

Battling must leave to train for a fight, and beats Lucy so severely that she wanders the streets in a daze, collapsing in Huan's shop. Huan takes her upstairs and dotes on her, giving her food, clothing, and a new name- White Blossom. As Lucy heals, she and Huan grow closer, until a nosy friend of Battling tells the boxer what his daughter has been up to.

Let's get the racism out of the way first. The entire title of the film is "Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl." It is based on a short story by Thomas Burke entitled "The Chink and the Child." Huan is referred to as the Yellow Man in the credits, and is called Chink by Battling, and Chinky (as a term of endearment) by Lucy. The main Chinese characters, Huan and Evil Eye, are portrayed by white men. Whew! At least Gish is playing Lucy as a teenager, and not a twelve year old girl like in the short story on which the film is based.

Most notable about the film is Griffith's style. So many of the angles and shots we take for granted today were invented by the man, who was never given his due. Many of the scenes are tinted, adding to the drama. Sadly, in order for Gish to appear younger, her scenes look as if they are shot through a filter, almost five decades before the comical "Mame" with a red headed blob known as Lucille Ball, filmed through a seemingly Vaseline-smudged lens. One closeup of Barthelmess allows the viewer to observe his Oriental makeup, and the shape of his natural eyebrows.

Griffith was a great believer of acting with the eyes, as opposed to the often laughable flailing that you might see in other silent films. The editing here is clean, and the special effects are both quaint and nostalgic. Gish is good in her role, Barthelmess tries underneath his makeup, but Crisp is superb as Battling. His performance is modern in its rage and bravado, and although you never hear him speak, Crisp uses his physicality and Griffith's camera to give us a fully realized character.

"Broken Blossoms" was shot in eighteen days for a cost of just $91,000, in California (despite its Asian and European settings). If you can get past the controversial racial elements, and appreciate the direction and performances, then I think you will be in for a surprise. (* * * *) out of five stars.