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Cheng Huan is a missionary whose goal is to bring the teachings of peace by Buddha to the civilized Anglo-Saxons. Upon landing in England, he is quickly disillusioned by the intolerance and apathy of the country. He becomes a storekeeper of a small shop. Out his window, he sees the young Lucy Burrows. She is regularly beaten by her prizefighter father, underfed and wears ragged clothes. Even in this deplorable condition, Cheng can see that she is a priceless beauty and he falls in love with her from afar. On the day that she passes out in front of his store, he takes her in and cares for her. With nothing but love in his heart, he dresses her in silks and provides food for her. Still weak, she stays in his shop that night and all that Cheng does is watch over her. The peace and happiness that he sees last only until Battling Burrows finds out that his daughter is with a foreigner. Written by
Tony Fontana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
BROKEN BLOSSOMS (United Artists, 1919), directed by DW Griffith, is a little film that's not only quite melodramatic, but terribly, terribly sad. In fact, it's labeled as American cinema's first tragedy. Unlike Griffith's epic masterpieces as THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and INTOLERANCE (1916), each running over two hours in length, BROKEN BLOSSOMS, is in fact a simple story focusing on three central characters (Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish, in order of their appearance) that deals with touchy subject matters ranging from racial prejudice to child abuse, topics that are still sensitive issues even today.
Based on Thomas Burke's "The Chink and the Child," the story begins in China where Cheng Haun, also known as The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess), a young idealist, coming to the London slums where he hopes to convert rude Westerners to the gospel of the gentle Buddha. Instead he makes his living by running a curio shop. Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), a small-time prizefighter by which the title cards describes him as "an abysmal brute, a gorilla from the jungles of East London," living with his illegitimate daughter, Lucy (Lillian Gish), a tragic figure who waits on him hand and foot. So terrified of him, whenever her father commands her to smile, the frightful Lucy simply pushes up the corners of her mouth with her fingers. After one of her frequent beatings, one night Lucy stumbles out of the house, walking to the Chinese curio shop where she faints in front of Cheng Haun's door. Cheng Haun finds bruised girl and takes her in, tending to her wounds. While under his care, Lucy, called "White Blossom" by the Chinaman, is treated with the kindness and sensitivity she's never had. When Battling Burrows is told of his daughter's whereabouts, he sets out to get "the dirty Chink" and to "learn them both."
In spite of its old-fashioned screenplay with the use of a white actor (Barthelmess) in an Oriental role, BROKEN BLOSSOMS is still timely. Lillian Gish gives an Academy Award winning performance playing the 15-year-old Lucy Burrows. Academy Award meaning that if the best actress award had existed in 1919, Gish would definitely have been recognized with that honor for her achievement in handling a difficult assignment in a believable manner. For famous climatic "closet scene" in which Gish's character, Lucy, locks herself in to avoid another brutal whipping by her father, is as realistic as any performance could ever be. As Burrows breaks the door apart, piece by piece, with an ax, the terrified Lucy, with no place to run nor hide, goes into a frenzy like an trapped animal. Being a silent film, one can virtually hear the screaming coming through the screen. For this scene alone, Gish has proved her capability as one of the finest actresses in this history of film.
With such a depressing theme, BROKEN BLOSSOMS reportedly was a surprise hit upon its release. A very atypical Griffith production to say the least. The sole reason for its success is how Lucy is portrayed on screen, ranging from her tragically sad face and shoulder-length hair adding to the believability to her character, knowing full well that Gish was a young woman in her early twenties enacting the role of a 12 to 15 year-old child. Donald Crisp, the most unlikely candidate in getting any Father's Day cards after this performance, would appear as lovable fathers in numerous family films of the 1940s, as well as earning an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (20th-Fox, 1941). It was fortunate to Crisp's credit that his performance of the unsympathetic prizefighter with the colley-flower ear didn't ruin his future in films. Barthelmess, on the other hand, offers a sensitive portrayal of a caring and peaceful Chinaman against the wicked ways of the world. This is the film that elevated Barthelmess to the rank as top leading man through much of the 1920s, one opposite Gish again under Griffith's direction in another classic tale, WAY DOWN EAST (1920).
With a limited amount of actors listed in the cast, the supporting players consists of Arthur Howard as the fighting manager; Edward Piel as Evil Eye; Norman "Kid McCoy" Selby as a prizefighter; and George Nicholas as the Policeman. And was that Roscoe Karns as the reporter in the final portion of the story?
BROKEN BLOSSOMS was one of the twelve selected silent films that was broadcast on public television's 1975 presentation of THE SILENT YEARS, as hosted by Lillian Gish. Prior to its presentation, Gish discussed how the movie came about, and did so again practically word for word in the 1988 Thames video presentation prior to the feature presentation scored by Carl Davis. Over later years, BROKEN BLOSSOMS had been released under numerous video distributors with different music scores and different lengths. The Thames, Republic Home Video (organ scored) and KINO Video collections (with pleasing orchestration) comes closer to the original length of 90 to 95 minutes, restoring the opening segment and plot development (missing from "The Silent Years" broadcast) set in China involving Cheng before coming to the Limehouse district of England. The restored KINO version had been the print used for Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Nights" for quite some time before converting to new but inappropriate underscoring.
BROKEN BLOSSOMS has become the kind of movie in which success comes only once. This tragic tale was remade in England (with sound) in 1936, but little is known of it today, except for the fact that Griffith was originally slated to be the director. While the 1919 original may not be the sort of movie for all tastes, it's one that will be long remembered, thanks to the remarkable direction by the master, D.W. Griffith, and sensitive portrayals of Gish and Barthelmess combined. (***)
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