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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>
Like the BROKEN BLOSSOMS of a trampled rose, the pure affection between two unutterably lonely people is destroyed by evil & hatred.
Turning his back temporarily on the Silent epics of his past, movie master David Wark Griffith turned the laser beam of his talent on the tragic story of three pathetic individuals living in the slums of London's Limehouse: a fragile waif, her vicious father, and the gentle Chinese shopkeeper living nearby. No huge casts rampaging through innumerable subplots, no tremendous production values spent to illustrate the sweep & flow of a historical period. Just three people living increasingly desperate lives, brought together by a tidal wave of pure emotion.
Lillian Gish was right thinking she was too old to play the young girl, and she did so only at Griffith's insistence, but it is impossible to contemplate anyone else in the role. She is utterly luminous as the abused child who finds a few moments of glorious affection with the young foreigner from the East. Miss Gish's magically expressive face creates a classic cinema moment when she attempts to smile to save herself from a beating, pushing up the corners of her mouth with two fingers, while her tormented eyes reveal to the viewer her deep pain and fear. Later, in her celebrated closet scene, like a trapped animal she releases an explosion of frenzy which is still difficult to watch, as her attacker uses a hatchet to smash the barrier between them. Miss Lillian had started rehearsals while weakened from the Spanish Flu; she created a movie portrait which caught her genius forever.
Matching her in almost every particular is her costar Richard Barthelmess, who gives a most sensitive portrayal as the Chinese missionary who comes to England to proselytize for Buddha, but instead finds himself alone & friendless in the squalor of the great city. Barthelmess uses his eyes almost exclusively to express what's in his heart, bringing enormous dignity & repose to his role. It is too easy today to criticize a performer for playing an ethnic role, but once, to be able to do so convincingly, was considered the hallmark of a capable actor. Barthelmess does so with both conviction & distinction, bringing the film to a heartbreaking conclusion.
Rounding out the threesome is Englishman Donald Crisp. Although in reality the most gentle and affable of men, he nonetheless made a career during the Silent Era of playing violent brutes, never more despicable than here. His character glories in the terrors he inflicts on Miss Lillian, the viewer loathes him, and his eventual fate is most welcome & well deserved.
The film almost didn't get released. Paramount Pictures boss Adolph Zukor hated it; he thought it too morbid. Griffith raised the operating costs of $91,000 and purchased the film, releasing it through United Artists. Receptive audiences helped it make millions. As Miss Lillian said decades later, "Griffith put tragic poetry on the screen for the first time."
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