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This has been one of my all-time favourite films since I taped it off
UK Channel 4 1st October 1988 on its second showing, one to savour and
revel in every few years. There really is no choice: the only version
worth seeing is this one, the Brownlow & Gill UK remaster with Louis F.
Gottchalk's themes lushly orchestrated by David Cullen and Carl Davis
and the Thames Silents Orchestra. From a good silent film Broken
Blossoms is beautifully transformed into a work of Art, the merger of
the music and Billy Bitzer's visuals can be so striking. And the
intelligent tinting was gorgeous too. Over the years I've even played
it just for the music sometimes!
The story? Depressed Chinese ex-missionary in London falls under the spell of listless poverty-stricken beautiful white 15 yo daughter of violent boxer. The crafty and base whites think the worst, but we know that the yellow man's love remained pure - even his worst foe says this ... I know that most people today would hoot at the acting abilities displayed: Lillian Gish's pathetic submissiveness, Donald Crisp's over the top savage expressions and Richard Barthelmess's determinedly serious inscrutability, but appreciation of silent melodramas as a genre is really required rather than simply selecting just one film to watch, such as this. And then again some people have to get over a white man playing a Chinese man whilst simultaneously approving of miscegenation in these much more enlightened times! Would these same people be bothered if a Chinese played a white man? Along with Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, this was Griffiths' best work, pinnacles of the cinema.
Utterly spellbinding poetic stuff for the enlightened, dreadful if your favourites are cgi-riddled and no older than 6 months. And don't expect a remotely happy ending! The beauty that all the world missed smote him to the heart (paraphrase).
Many people believe the best Griffith film is "Intolerance"; some stand by
"Way Down East" and still others believe in "Birth of a Nation" despite all
its problems. However, I think "Broken Blossoms" is the Griffith film which
stands the test of time and still rings true today, over 83 years from its
"Broken Blossoms" is the story of two wounded, abused, seemingly hopeless individuals who find comfort and strength in one another. The Chinaman (played by Richard Barthelmess) and little Lucy Burrows (played by Lillian Gish) are as different as night is to day, however they complement each other and give each other what the other needs; Lucy gives the Chinaman respect as a human being, he in turn gives Lucy affection and love.
What happens to the two souls is, in my opinion, one of the most heartbreaking turn of events ever filmed. The brutal treatment of Lucy by her father and the ultimate sadness of the Chinaman at the end of the film always reduce me to tears.
Those who believe that silent movies are inferior to today's craft really needs to see "Broken Blossoms" and open their hearts and minds to a world that is beyond beauty and beyond pain.
"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
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."
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. (***)
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.
With some excellent acting performances and an interesting, memorable
story, "Broken Blossoms" is one of the better pictures of the late
1910s, and it has held up rather well despite a couple of obvious signs
of age. It would be hard to top Lillian Gish's performance as Lucy in
any era, and Richard Barthelmess turns in a purposefully restrained and
surprisingly effective performance in a role that was far from easy.
The story ties together several weighty themes, and most of them are still pertinent. This is the kind of movie that is sometimes considered to be dated, yet in terms of the main conflicts and struggles that the characters face, there are probably fewer differences between 1919 and 2004 than many might wish there to be. With material like this, it is also easy to allow it to become labored or heavy-handed. As it is, the tone is somber and austere throughout, yet most of the time this is in a thoughtful way.
Since Griffith's work is still so well-known and meets with such widely varying responses, it can sometimes be hard to evaluate his movies individually, without reference to the rest of his filmography. The story here is unusual enough in itself, with the different races and religions of the characters and the implied images represented by each of them. Each character is rather quickly defined as good or bad - a common state of affairs in Griffith movies - and as a result the story is told in a way that reflects that presumption, for better or for worse.
What is hard to deny is that the story and characters will stick with you afterwards. The impression that it leaves is not an entirely happy one, but the movie successfully evokes the humanity of all involved, which is a not unworthy goal and a not insignificant achievement.
The subjects this film deals with are ugly, but the whole thing is done
in a beautiful way.
Subjects dealt with are racism, poverty and the reasons why.
The way Griffith deals with these subjects is the contrasts settings. Look at the room above the Chinaman's shop: opulent, festooned with the finest oriental silk. Compare that with the stark squalor of the abode of Lucy and her bruiser of a father. Then there is the education and sophistication of the orientals compared to the simplistic, ill-thought-out racial prejudice of Battling and his cronies.
I also enjoyed the boxing match. Very realistic - not the fantastic nonsense of your Rocky-type bout where a man all but beaten to a jelly suddenly pulls some heavy punches from nowhere and wins the fight.
The acting, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is terrific from all three of the principal characters. Also, their characters are well-drawn. Even Battling Burrows - complete with cauliflower ear - is more than a mere heavy: he boxes for a living, he drinks, he lives in a slum with few worldly possessions. Why?
I find it hard to believe that the films they make nowadays are nowhere near as good as this. Whatever happened to progress?
This film spawned the famous song "Limehouse Blues."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Eschewing the epic grandeur of his previous works like Birth Of A
Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is an exquisitely crafted
tragedy from D.W. Griffith. Whilst perhaps not his most important film,
it could very possibly be his most perfect.
Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, it is the story of an all too brief innocent love between two broken souls amongst unbearable poverty and brutality. Richard Barthelmess plays Chen (The Yellow Man), a noble soul full of peace and love who, as the film opens, leaves his homeland to spread the word of Buddha to "white barbarians" in England. However, the film cuts forward a few years and we find Chen living amidst the squalor of Londons docklands. His hope crushed by the drudgery and vice that surrounds him he flits between his small shop and an opium den where he loses himself in gambling and drugs.
There is, however, one ray of light. Lucy (Liilian Gish), an illegitimate fifteen year old girl who suffers daily abuse at the hands of her brutal, prizefighting father (Donald Crisp). Unable to smile after years of torment, she shuffles through the streets past Chens window everyday, stopping at the opposite shop to look at the flowers she longs to be able to afford. When she returns home she is treated like a slave in constant fear of her fathers wrath. One night he goes goes too far and beats her to within an inch of her life. She manages to crawl out of her hovel only to collapse inside Chens doorway. Their fate is now set. He treats her with the gentleness that she has never known whilst she reignites the innocence in his heart. Yet, tragedy inevitably looms.
Such was the power of the romantic partnership Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish, they were to be drawn together again by Griffith in the following years Way Down East. Although modern audiences may raise eyebrows at the thought of an American actor playing a Chinese immigrant, these things must be seen in the context of their day. Besides, Barthelmess, with his slender good looks and sad eyes, perfectly captures the starved yearnings of Chen whilst the tenderness of his character is captured in his slow, graceful movements.
Yet it is Lillian Gish who is the revelation. Already a well known star under the guidance of Griffith, she raised the bar for screen acting to extraordinary heights in Broken Blossoms and once and for all confirmed herself as the greatest actress of the silent era; light years ahead of her contemporaries. Just watching her in this film is like watching a lesson in screen acting. Not a gesture is wasted as she haunts the mazey alleyways of East London whilst in dreamlike soft focus close up she radiates beauty and charm through her grimy, downtrodden appearance. Her final screen moments capture perhaps the defining image of defiance in the face of adversity.
Besides the groundbreaking acting, I could recommend Broken Blossoms for so many different reasons. The soft camera-work gives procedures an ethereal, dream like quality whilst the framing of both close-ups and the interior sets is exemplary. Almost every frame drips with care and attention to detail. The film also riffs numerously on dark wit and irony. At one point a zealous minister tells Chen that his brother "leaves for China tomorrow to convert the heathen" whilst later a policeman talks of "only 40,000 casualties this week" in a reference to the Great War. On top of this there is the brave representation inter-racial love and subsequent all destroying racism. Similarly the brutal scenes of child abuse ("Please daddy, don't") are terrifying as Lucy cowers in the corner begging for mercy.
This film really is a complete work from one of the masters of American cinema at his very peak. If Birth Of A Nation showed the World the vast possibilities of this still new art form, then Broken Blossoms proved it could have a soul too.
It is rather interesting to compare the silent D.W. Griffith BROKEN BLOSSOMS with its inspiration: the 1916 Thomas Burke short story The Chink And The Child, published in Limehouse Nights (Grant Richards Limited, London). Griffith has deliberately left out, added and changed parts of the story in his film. When Burke's collection of Limehouse stories was published it was feared that the book would be barred by the censor. Recently books by Vere Stacpoole (The Blue Lagoon) and D.H. Lawrence (The Rainbow) has been suppressed, as 'frankness in fiction was frowned upon...' (John Gawsworth - Foreword to: The Best Stories of Thomas Burke, Phoenix House, London, 1950). There were enough worrying themes in the story: its sadism, the utterly impossible interracial love affair and the girl's youth. In Burke's story Lucy is found in an opium joint, where a prostitute has taken her to make a profit out of the virgin. Cheng rescues the 'alabaster Cockney child' - she is only twelve - to bring her '...love and death.' Burke's poetic prose is not always graphic: «He took her hand and kissed it; repeated the kiss upon her cheek and lip and little bosom, twining his fingers in her hair. Docilely, and echoing the smile of his lemon lips in a way that thrilled him almost to laughter, she returned his kisses impetuously, gladly. ... And she was his; her sweet self and her prattle, and her birdlike ways were all his own. Oh, beautifully they loved. ...» Nevertheless elsewhere Burke clarifies the nature of their relation as « It may be that he forgot that he was in London and not in Tuan-tsen. It may be that he did not care. Of that nothing can be told. All that is known is that his love was a pure and holy thing.» Griffith's additions vary from Lucy's artificial smile to Cheng's religious mission. The Christian missionary is also Griffith's invention. He has a dig at Western Christian morality sending missionaries around the world while there's still enough to be done in Battling Burrows's own home town. Near the end Cheng kills Battling Burrows with a handgun as in any American western. In Burke's London Limehouse nights a snake deals with Battling Burrows. Was such a venomous revenge not personal enough to Griffith's American taste?
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