Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

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Film review, written as a social services case, by Jason Day of the silent melodrama about a poor, abused girl in Victorian London who is befriended by a Chinese man. Starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthlemess.

Silent

 


Director: D.W. Griffith. 90 mins. United Artists.

Synopsis

Lucy (Lillian Gish) lives with her abusive father, the champion boxer ‘Battling’ Burrowes (Donald Crisp). He beats her viciously and often, whether sober or drunk. After one beating, Lucy staggers outside and collapses at the door of a peaceful Chinese shopkeeper (Richard Barthlemess) who, unbeknownst to her, has admired her from afar for some time. He offers her sanctuary for the night and a gentle, putative romance begins…until her father finds out.

Review, by Jason DayBroken Blossoms poster

Child Protection Case – Notes

Individuals concerned

Name: Lucy Burrowes (played by Lillian Gish).
Age: 15 years old (Gish was 26 at the time the film was released).
Born: Limehouse, East London, UK. (Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio. Later – Hollywood, Ca. Much, much later – New York City).
Occupation: Unemployed. (Gish – actress of incalculable importance to the development of film performance as an art form. Leading lady of silent cinema before Hollywood existed, she had one of the longest screen careers in history -75 years).

Name: ‘Battling Burrowes’ (played by Donald Crisp).
Age: Undetermined (37 at the time the film was released and, incidentally, sharing the same birth date as this social worker/reviewer).
Address: Limehouse, East London. (Crisp was also born in the East End of London. Later – California, until his death at the age of 91).
Occupation: Boxer. (Crisp was a supporting actor and and also a director of silent films, for Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks). He won a Best Support Oscar for How Green Was My Valley).

Name: ‘Chen Huan’ (Richard Barthlemess).
Age: Undetermined. (Barthlesmess was 24 at the time the film was released).
Address: Born in China, currently residing in Limehouse, East London. (Barthlemess was born in New York, worked in Hollywood and died in New York).
Occupation: Shop owner. (Barthlemess was a handsome leading man of the silent era. He formed his own production company with director Henry King, Inspiration Pictures, and received an Best Actor Oscar nomination at the first ever Academy Awards. He later played dependable, solid supporting roles, such as Rita Hayworth’s husband in Only Angels Have Wings,1939).

Immediate issues of concern – action to be taken?

  • Racism – racist language used throughout, stereotyping of Asian character as submissive, white actors ‘blacked up’ to portray African or Asian people (Barthlemess – adds insult to injury to Chinese people everywhere by even creeping about like Nosferatu, 1922)
  • Child abuse – severe and protracted (beatings by the hand and with implements, malnourishment, inadequate clothing), yet used as catalyst for “poetic, romantic” fiction. Nearly 100 years from the film’s premiere – these scenes still seem intense. Issues for the viewer? There were, even at the time. Gish stated in much later interviews that Griffith hated directing the scenes where she was subjected to physical abuse and that a Variety reviewer watching the film was physically sick
  • Basic nature of the story, florid titles and naive characters/themes – was the greatest of talent wasted?
  • Paedophilia – Barthlemess attempts to seduce an underage, emotionally and physically fragile Gish. She sleeps in his bed and he gives her toys to keep her happy…and occupied. Does he have a view to ‘grooming’ her? In light of the Rochdale abuse scandal, should his back history be probed? Previous offences?
  • Drug abuse – glimpsed, but obvious. Though opium use was a casual occurrence and social evil in Victorian era London, should Lucy be allowed contact with Chen?
  • Public reaction – earned $700,000 profit for the producing studio (about $10m in today’s money), the newly established United Artists. Film therefore seen as a reflection of popular public prejudices, thoughts and interest?

Immediate issues of praise – place in cinema history?

  • Racism addressed? The director was accused of being racist after release of his ‘Ku Klux Klan as heroes’ epic The Birth of a Nation. Caucasian characters here portrayed as violent and prejudiced; Asians as diplomatic, peaceful. But is this sufficient for the modern movie audience (particularly given notes in the above section)? Is he sugaring a nasty pill?
  • Peerless performances – Gish and Crisp display awesome, intuitive, physically strident turns (the infamous scene where Gish hides in a cupboard and whirls in terror as her father tries to reach her – the actress did this of her own volition with no directorial influence, leading to that Variety reviewer’s sickness). Crisp – puffed up, cocky swagger. Gish – almost crippled, hunched up, the look of physical defeat all over her.
  • Setting/design – well realised and evocative; excellent use of props!
  • Camerawork – Griffith’s frequent cinematographer G.W. Bitzer on hand to provide the gloomy, grimy visuals of a foggy London slum
  • Directorial flourishes – shocking use of close-up, typical use of ‘cross-cutting’ between scenes of action to build suspense
  • Quaint title cards (Barthlemess smokes opium is surmised as merely “A whiff of the lilied pipe”).

Immediate action to take

  • Upbraid the piece for overt racism and unctuous, soggy Victorian melodrama. Alhough, in context, this was very much a film of the time
  • The roaring twenties would soon come into swinging life to replace the battered waifs of Griffith’s cinema with the happy flappers and shop girls on the make (boiled beef and cabbage became ‘Champagne and Charlie’ parties ). Dingy East End slums were replaced with Hollywood shindigs
  • Suggestion to reduce the title to Broken Blossoms is in the end denied; keep Griffith’s original, full length title (based on one of Thomas Burke’s ‘Limehouse Nights’ stories ‘The Chink and the Child’). Again – underlines racism of the director.

Conclusion

A turning point in Griffith’s career – his first full film for the studio he helped to create (with actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo), this would be one of his last films to turn a profit. Showed that Griffith was able to direct scenes of intimate delicacy as well as epic scale.

Gish – despite the Victorian sexlessness ladled on by Griffith, she displays her mettle with one of her finest and most fondly remembered performances, using her eyes, face and body to achieve an assured and sympathetic turn.

Barthlemess – slowly working his way up the star ladder, a difficult performance not helped by a too melodramatic approach. There are issues for the modern viewer with his ‘seduction’ of Lucy and being slow to react when she is kidnapped.

Crisp – like Gish, turns in a performance of complex mannerisms and physical tics. Exemplary.

Should the film be taken into care? Perhaps not such a difficult decision – the National Film Registry’s Library of Congress selected it for preservation in 1996 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

So, despite the lapses into silliness (Gish is so depressed she has to use her fingers to force a smile), the downbeat style is actually refreshing (particularly for an American film of this period, when the happy ending ruled the day) this gem was worth rescuing and is now living a happy, settled and secure life (on DVD by Kino Video).

Cast & credits

Director: D.W. Griffith. 1hr 30 mins (90 mins). D.W. Griffith Productions/United Artists.

Producer: D.W. Griffith.
Writer: D.W. Griffith.
Camera: G.W. Bitzer.
Music: Carl Davis (1983 re-release).

Lillian Gish, Richard Barthlemess, Donald Crisp, Arthur Howard, Edward Peil, George Beranger, Norman Selby.

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