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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>
Following the elaborate spectacles that were "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" D.W. Griffith seemed to have the formula intact for success. With broad sets, hundreds of extras, three hour epics, and tales told over years and even millenniums in the case of "Intolerance," the 90 minute "Broken Blossoms" would seem to have a handicap of sorts. It is but a simple morality tale involving three people that goes horribly awry. But true to Griffith form it works...and it works nearly perfect.
Gone are the visions of what formed countries, what creates intolerance, and the climaxes involving hundreds of people. "Broken Blossoms" is a mere story of forbidden love if such occurrences can actually be called "mere." And although the sets used to portray the foggy gloom and forbidding darkness of London's Limehouse district were indeed expensive, this was a film carried by its only three stars and one that relies totally on the telling of a story.
Richard Barthelmess plays Cheng Huan, a Buddhist missionary who now takes residence in Limehouse. His original intentions, to help the violent Anglo-Saxons understand pacifism, are subverted by his opium addiction. He runs a small shop in the fog of the city and it becomes his own depressed microcosmic world. The stunning Lilian Gish, who seemingly has no bounds as an actress or as an object of feminine beauty, plays Lucy, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic boxer. Donald Crisp plays this part so well that the lack of sound does not inhibit the volume of cruelty he enforces on his only daughter, nor our ability to feel her level of sheer pain and suffering.
Although all three of them may technically may be viewed as broken and products of their own respective worlds, when those worlds clash with each other and tragedy seems more likely, it is Gish who steals the show. Especially under Griffith's direction. And while Griffith may have already given the cinema more than its fair share of technological nuances with his first two features, he still manages to find subtle bits of direction that affect one's viewing of this sordid triangle: Gish's physical inability to smile and her seeking of solitude in something as simple as a flower cannot be emphasized enough as the film goes along.
Political historians may note that Griffith is up to his usual tricks of racism as it is portrayed in the Asian who is played by the white Barthelmess but this is unfounded. If anything, his character is uplifting, or at least attempts to be. One gets the feeling that his race does not impact the story's eventual ending despite what Crisp may bellow while drunk. Crisp's pleasure comes from Gish's pain and anyone, regardless of race, that tried to interfere would not have caused any sort of behavior change. Of course the Asian stereotypes of pacifism, opium addiction, and flowery imagery are played up to some degree but one can hardly argue over the degree of truth in them more than the story's beginning that sees drunken sailors duking it out at the shipyards over next to nothing. And it allows the film to have its ironic coda to boot.
In more detailed film classes, "Broken Blossoms" will get its share of time but overall Griffith will always have "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" printed boldly next to his name with this film being more of a footnote. That is unfortunate because it stands up well for the time, involves excellent early character acting, and hits us closer to home...and to our heart.
The nutshell: I still believe this should be required viewing. The bigness of Griffith may be gone but he has aptly replaced it by creating atmosphere both in terms of environment and in people. The small story of insignificant lives trapped by their own measures suits Griffith, Gish, and Crisp extremely well...9/10.
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