14 June 2009

Broken Blossoms (1919)

d. D.W. Griffith / USA / 90 mins.


As a text, Broken Blossoms is perhaps D.W. Griffith's most rewarding film to experience. He dabbles in themes ranging from the large and complicated to the delicate and subtle (or as subtle as Griffith is capable of being), and combines those themes with Griffith's advanced approach to cinematic engineering. It is the story of two neglected souls — an adopted girl with a brutalizing father; a Chinese immigrant who experiences London for all its foggy demoralization — who have crossed paths numerous times before but finally come together and burst outward with the energy of mutual adoration. As a film, it is a tip toward greatness, tarnished if slightly by its stereotyping propensities and occasional mawkishness.

The film is a study of triumvirate of characters. Cheng (Richard Barthelmess) is leaving China for England to become an entrepreneur and bring the tenets of Buddhism — or, as Griffith seems to see it, eastern Christianity — to the English. He has fallen in love with a young girl named Lucy (Lillian Gish) from afar, but due to constraints on him from the culture and constraints he has put himself, almost never is close enough to say anything meaningful to her. She is a resident of a violent household, where her adoptive father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), is a drunken boxer who regularly turns to violence against her when he is upset. It is typical silent melodrama, though enriched by Griffith's small storytelling flourishes along the way (and a gorgeous array of expensive sets). He dips into nonlinear narration early on by allowing all three characters to have cutaways depicting scenes of thought — Cheng, depressed and alone in England thinking about life back in China; Lucy, reflecting on a married woman who warns her to avoid marriage unless she wants a lazy husband and bratty children and on prostitutes who warn her away casual relationships; and Burrows, given a moment of victory in the ring.

As with the rest of Griffith's works, Broken Blossoms is a study in comparisons and contrasts: masculine versus feminine, poverty versus wealth, peace versus violence, East versus West. Such dichotomies, often easy to glean from first impression, make the engine of silent drama churn more fluidly. The appeal of Broken Blossoms as a text exists in the way Griffith uses such contrasts and applies to the triangle of characters: Cheng reflects both in Lucy and Burrows, for example (and Lucy and Burrows each reflect in the two they are not). We immediately sense the differences between war in Burrows and tranquility in Cheng, who treat Lucy in categorically opposite ways, and what is even clearer is the way in which Burrows's ignorance will lead to certain doom for all involved. More interesting, however, is the subset meditation on masculinity and femininity viewed through the lens of war and peace, a recurring contrariety in Griffith's work, most notably — and explosively — in The Birth of a Nation. In this work it is not as explosive, but neither is particularly subtle. Cheng and Lucy draw visual likeness in their perpetual hunches, a posture in Gish's acting to reflect her submission to Burrows and her despondency in all aspects of life, and a posture in Barthelmess's acting that reflects a similar hopelessness and, more awkwardly, a cultural stereotype; Burrows, meanwhile, stands erect and barrel-chested, both at home and in the ring.

The masculine/feminine contrast is no more apparent than in the cross-cutting sequence between Burrows's boxing fight and Lucy's perceived threat of Cheng attacking her. Burrows finds out through a compatriot that Lucy is convalescing at Cheng's shop, but rather than leave his boxing match he sticks around to complete it before going to "save" her. Meanwhile, we constantly suspect Cheng will force himself onto Lucy (the film instructs us to read it as such, given its inherent xenophobia and its previous portrayals of male characters), but he never does. He is quick to act, quicker than Burrows in many ways; when he realizes Burrows has taken Lucy from his shop back to their home, there is no hesitation on Cheng's part to save her, as there was with Burrows earlier. Griffith's ultimate view of masculinity has less to do with the strength and power embodied in the male figure than it does with the strength and power to restrain oneself and act in an appropriate and timely manner when needed. (It should be noted, however, that the source of such restraint is spurious; it's not only the fact that a real man wouldn't force his way with a woman, but that a Chinese man couldn't be portrayed actually giving such love to a white woman. The only way such love would be possible would be in the metaphoric image that opens and closes the film, silhouettes of overlapping boats against the harbor. More on that in a moment.)

Gish is a peculiar actress, no more evident than her work in Broken Blossoms. Her performance is at once overwrought but highly effective, a sort of expressionistic acting that occurs at the edges of realism. When she and Griffith decide to portray Lucy as so unhappy that she can barely smile and must force her muscles upward with his fingertips to create the illusion of happiness, it borders on the overdone. And yet, the moment she willfully and authentically smiles later is affecting, nearly erasing what felt too stagy earlier. The emotion meant to be interpreted through her posture is almost too evident, and her earlier moments of fear (coupled with the occasionally sensational inter-title cards) are enough to draw suspicion; but again, near the film's end when Burrows's threats against her are deadly serious, a look of fear washes over her face that cannot be taken in any other way but true. If she hadn't made you afraid for her life in the film's first act, by its third she's become striking and convincing. Her acting is somewhere in between the laconic approach of Barthelmess and the fiery approach of Crisp, exemplifying her troubled state of mind.

Historians often label Broken Blossoms as perhaps cinema's first interracial love story, a definition that works as long as you acknowledge the lovers on screen are both of the same race. Of course, a Caucasian playing an Asian character was customary (though not essential), and continued long into the era of sound. "Yellow face" — which consists of a silken wardrobe, a straw conical hat, and eye-squinting — is not nearly as distracting as the horrendous black face in The Birth of a Nation. because it is not objectively racist, as it was with the ignorant and vicious portrayals in Birth, although surely Griffith and Barthelmess take considerable advantage of cultural stereotypes. (The line might seem arbitrary, but there is a distinguishable difference in the films' attitudes.) Barthelmess, though white, is not ineffective in his portrayal of Cheng. The exterior might be poorly and lazily channeled, but the character's interior struggle with loneliness and fear should be lauded. Still, when Barthelmess is given a close-up, the film unavoidably showcases the ersatz nature of the actor and subtracts from what could be a more organic narrative. We can be generous and grant the film this as a result of its time and place, but assessing art is always a balance between what it meant upon its debut and what it still means today; it might not have raised many eyebrows then, but today it does, and should appropriately be considered a flaw.

I've held back comparison to Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat until the end. In a way the films are so different it seems almost unfair to draw a comparison, except to elucidate the flaws of Broken Blossoms by way of suggesting DeMille's is better — or at least has aged better, due to its own innovations and emphasis on avoiding the pitfalls of silent melodrama by channeling genuine subtlety. DeMille's film is not an innocent bystander, and is indeed a product of the 1910s in the way that it doesn't steer clear of possible xenophobic interpretations. But its thematic transgressions are ultimately less than Griffith's. DeMille has an Asian actor (the grand Sessue Hayakawa) playing an Asian character, and realizing the potential theatricality of his story, opted to hew as close as possible to subtlety. As a result, DeMille's film is self-sustaining, playing as well outside of context as within, and that's something that can't quite be said for Griffith's film. Compared to his other works, Broken Blossoms does move in that direction to, but properly put into context of other films, it is still guilty of superficiality and few editorial decisions that draw inessential attention to its production. But in its multiplicity and push toward a subdued narrative and reined thematics, Broken Blossoms proves itself to be perhaps the top work in Griffith's canon.

5 comments:

Sam Juliano,  17 June, 2009  

Yes T.S. again and again to your assertion that "BROKEN BLOSSOMS is perhaps D.W. Griffith's most rewarding film to experience." It is surely my own personal favorite of all his films, and that includes the much more auspicious INTOLERANCE and BIRTH OF A NATION. Of course the reason comes down to emotional resonance. I would myself excuse that occasional mawkishness as a product of the period, and the stereotyping is likewise typical of films made in the teens and 20's.

Here are the glorious passages that reveal the essence of your review here:

"As with the rest of Griffith's works, Broken Blossoms is a study in comparisons and contrasts: masculine versus feminine, poverty versus wealth, peace versus violence, East versus West. Such dichotomies, often easy to glean from first impression, make the engine of silent drama churn more fluidly."

"Historians often label Broken Blossoms as perhaps cinema's first interracial love story, a definition that works as long as you acknowledge the lovers on screen are both of the same race. Of course, a Caucasian playing an Asian character was customary (though not essential), and continued long into the era of sound. "Yellow face" — which consists of a silken wardrobe, a straw conical hat, and eye-squinting — is not nearly as distracting as the horrendous black face in The Birth of a Nation. because it is not objectively racist, as it was with the ignorant and vicious portrayals in Birth, although surely Griffith and Barthelmess take considerable advantage of cultural stereotypes."

Indeed. The yellow face issue sustains itself through later films, including Capra's THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN and even in THE GOOD EARTH.

I understand you saying that Gish is overwrought, but although her performance doesn't match the one she gave in Sjostrom's THE WIND eight years later, it's still remarkable. (I realize you basically say that here). Some critics have taken issue with Bathelmess, but I agree with you that he exudes an inner loneliness quite effectively.

There's really so much more I can say, but suffice that this review has been granted immediate entrance to the Screen Savour Hall of Fame.

Alexander Coleman 19 June, 2009  

This is an exceptional review, T.S. I'm a major fan of this film, usually considering it Griffith's most precise and mature piece of work. Great job in detailing all of the complexities which may include flaws but in my estimation finally collude to make Broken Blossoms a singular cinematic experience.

I a piece on this glorious film as well.

T.S. 23 June, 2009  

Sam and Alexander - Much thanks to both of you!

@Sam - I think I could say comfortably that this would be my favorite film of Griffith's as well, certainly of his 1910s era (I haven't seen Way Down East or Orphans in the Storm yet). It is the emotional resonance that gets me, too. I feel a little too stern for coming down on it as hard as I do for its mawkishness and its stereotyping, although I'm happy to admit my ultimate assessment of the film takes those into account and largely ignores them as products of their period; but not all films from the 1910s were committing such narrative sins, so it's an all-things-considered sort of deal with me.

Thanks for saying it belongs in the "Hall of Fame," too. Hopefully it isn't too narcissistic of me to say I'm particularly proud of this review.

@Alexander - Thanks for the wonderful comment and the link to your fantastic analysis. (For those reading this: click through and read it!) If I'm a little too hard on Griffith, it's for no other reason than I know his canonical status is unquestionable. He is not a favorite director of mine, but his work is more illuminating to me now than it's ever been. As a total film experience (the artistry, the story, the acting, etc.), I think it falls slightly short of masterpiece status for me, but without a doubt it's among the best films of the 1910s and certainly worthy of all the words written on it. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing.

Peter,  25 June, 2009  

Excellent review! I saw this film many years ago on video tape, and I remember being moved. The language of silent cinema takes some patience to navigate, but there are infinite rewards.

T.S. 08 July, 2009  

Thanks for the feedback, Peter. I agree with you on the rewards silent cinema has to offer, although I wonder if others do ... at least my Google Analytics would suggest as much. Ha ha.

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