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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 <email@example.com>
Cheng Huan is so saintly because DW Griffith knew there was a lot of Sinophobia in the US, audiences would have trouble accepting a Chinese hero. In the original short story, Cheng Huan is just a guy who joined the Chinese merchant marines when he got into debt, and then grew tired of shipboard life, and ended up in Limehouse, a multi-cultural port district in the poor section of London. He was never a Buddhist missionary, and fell just short of being a statutory rapist (albeit, he really loved Lucy); another part of rehabilitating his character was to change Lucy's age from 12 to 16. The audience is not supposed to think they had a sexual relationship, but if people played that out in their heads, it wasn't illegal (unless it was under US miscegenation laws, but Griffith kept the London setting). Anyway, it wasn't child-rape. In the original story, Cheng Huan is not a Buddhist missionary, nor a pacifist, and the only way in which he is morally superior to anyone else in the story is his ahead-of-its-time compassion for Lucy. DW Griffith's personal copy of Limehouse Nights, the book with the short story "The Chink and the Child," on which Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) is based, with all his screen writing marginal notes, still exists, in a rare book collection at the Lilly Library on the campus of Indiana University, along with a manuscript copy of the story by the author, with comments by Griffith and Lillian Gish. See more »
The intertitles state, "The Buddha says, 'What thou dost not want others to do thee, do thou not to others.'" It was actually not the Buddha but Confucius' teaching. See more »
The Introduction to Silent Movies for those who only know Chaplin
"In this scarlet house of sin, does he ever hear the temple bells?" Broken Blossoms is the movie I use to introduce people to silent film who only know it from Chaplin shorts or Birth of a Nation. It is one of the most sensitive movies ever made, in my opinion, and is usually overlooked in any top 100 movie listing. I fear the oversight is due to the listers not having actually seen it.
The version I have--which is now sadly out of print--is the Thames Video version with Lillian Gish's introduction. It is also the one with the original Louis Gotshalk score, pieces of which are sometimes heard on other versions, but the impact of the full orchestral Gotshalk score is overwhelming on an already exquisite film. If you have a chance to see this version, by all means do so.
In answer to a question in another posting, the movie WAS originally tinted--it was part of the "epic poetry" attempt and was quite common with a lot of Griffith work--even back to "A Corner in Wheat".
While I am an immense Gish fan, a lot has already been said about Miss Lillian in the other comments, so I will concentrate on Dick Bartlemess as Chen Huan. The quote above accompanied by his sad look as he leans against the wall of his curio shop tell it all: wrecked youthful enthusiasm--his despair only temporarily abated by the "pipe" in the Limehouse opium dens. His dreams of youth, all packed away in his garret, are only brought out when the one thing that gives him hope that is goodness amidst all the squalor stumbles into his shop.
Only after Lucy arrives can Chen Huan allow himself to dream--to return to golden days of learning, beauty and goodness and ideals. He literally places his dreams of his lost youth on the trembling body of Lucy, but it such a pristine ideal he dare not "defame" it, or it too will disappear like all his other dreams. He must observe it from afar--almost ephemeral. He knows what Hell is like (even before he was shown the booklet by the Christian Brothers). His hell is his lost heart, his lost love. "Bits and pieces of his shattered life." Almost invariably when I find someone to share the movie with me, they are amazed how well it is made and how well it's core story stands up to today. The particulars of Chinese, Cockney and London are not the point; it is a story of hope and despair, of lovers and dreamers. A mature story for a mature audience.
I often wonder if it could be made today. As open as we think we are, I wonder if the basic story could be told again. No matter--it's been told--excellently
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