Broken Blossoms (1919)

by popegrutch

The first major post-World War release from D.W. Griffith is this melodrama of a waif and an immigrant in London’s Limehouse District. This is one of the better-thought-of Griffith movies, even by those who criticize his earlier hits, but how does it look more than a century later?

The movie starts out in an unnamed part of China, where Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmass in yellowface), a local resident, has a violent encounter with some white American sailors. He is a devotee of Buddhism, and refuses to respond in kind to their taunting and fisticuffs. He decides that the West could use some civilizing, and makes up his mind to bring the word of the Buddha to that part of the world. The film then cuts to several years later, when he runs a small but tidy shop in Limehouse. It seems his missionary zeal is largely forgotten as he deals with the poverty and greed of his neighbors and the struggle to survive in this strange land. Apparently, the only place he can go for company and a taste of the familiar is a local bar that caters to Asians of all stripes – we see men in turbans as well as caftans, almost everyone is smoking, some seem to be holding opium pipes, and there are “fallen” white women scattered about as well as gambling. Memories of his time in the temple in China are contrasted with these images to show how far he has drifted from his original intentions.

Next we see the home of Lucy and “Battling” Burrows (played by Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp, respectively). Burrows is a professional boxer, a heavy drinker and a womanizer, and Lucy is his (apparently illegitimate) daughter, whom he has grudgingly raised as a kind of servant and occasional punching bag. We see him celebrating his latest bout with a bottle of whiskey and one of the girls from the earlier bar scene, but his manager gives him a hard time about his vices, which only makes him angry and likely to take out frustrations on Lucy when she comes in later to fix dinner. She manages to avoid violence by “smiling” by turning up the corners of her mouth with her fingers and also by reminding her father that he’ll hang if he kills her. We see some images of her attempts to find a way out of her predicament – a married friend warns her against the drudgery of a Limehouse wife and some “ladies of the evening” advise her against their profession, but another local Chinese immigrant called “Evil Eye” (Edward Peil, Sr.) is watching her with what designs on her we don’t know.

But Huan also watches Lucy, finding himself inspired by her beauty to remember some of his earlier aspirations to do good in this world. He is reintroduced  to the narrative through an odd scene in which two Christian missionaries come to him to give him a pamphlet. A cutaway shows the topic of the booklet: “HELL.” Without obvious irony, Huan wishes the man luck. Lucy has a tiny piece of tin foil which she hopes she can pawn in exchange for a bit of luxury for herself (her father drinks most his earnings, and then only gives her scraps from his meals that she prepares). Huan sees her peering longingly at the dolls for sale in his window and feels her sadness. He follows her to the store where she buys food and has her tin foil rejected as a trade for a flower, and sees Evil Eye watching her as well. When Evil Eye tries to touch her as she passes, Huan intercedes and shames him into going away, leaving Lucy confused but free to walk home to another beating from her father.

Battling Burrows has a major fight coming up, so has to move to “training quarters” for an unspecified period of time. Lucy takes advantage of his absence to get out of their shared hovel for a while and walk the streets of Limehouse. Huan has been out, evidently smoking opium (“the lilied pipe” according to an intertitle), but Lucy collapses in his store, either from hunger or her wounds, or a combination of the two. When Huan finds her lying on his floor, he stops and stares at her sleeping form. He seems to think she is a pleasant hallucination, because he starts in surprise when she awakes, but then he brings out a bowl of water and proceeds to clean her wounds. Ultimately, he takes her upstairs and lays her out on the bed, then kits her out in silk finery he has evidently been storing since his trip over from China. Lucy, unaccustomed to all of this consideration, reacts in awe,  at first scarcely daring to touch the robe he proffers. They spend several days together (Huan ever playing the gentleman, as we see when he turns his back as she starts to undress), the time granted because Battling is off on his training stint. She remains in the bed, healing from her injuries but also reveling in being treated like a princess or a fragile rare jewel – for the first time learning kindness from this stranger.

Of course, such an idyll cannot be allowed to persist in the movies, let alone in a D.W. Griffith movie, so eventually one of Battling’s pals stops by the shop and sees Lucy in her new finery. He then runs across the river to the training camp where Battling is preparing for his bout and spills the beans. Battling, being a low sort of fellow, draws the worst possible conclusions and wants immediately to run home and “save” his child from contamination, though his manager stops him and makes him stay until after the fight, giving the couple  brief reprieve, and the audience an opportunity to watch some boxing footage.

After winning the fight, Battling goes back to his shabby house, to find Lucy’s bed not slept in, then he has his informant show him the way to Cheng Huan’s shop. Huan is out at the moment, so he discovers Lucy upstairs, alone, dressed in silk and lying in luxury. He blows his top, imagining her as some kind of courtesan to a foreigner. Lucy desperately tries to explain the situation, but Battling is now out of control with rage, and smashes up the room, destroying every fragile object he can. Meanwhile, “Evil Eye” has told Huan what is going on at his place, but by the time he returns, Battling has dragged Lucy back to his hovel. When Battling picks up the whip, Lucy runs and locks herself in the closet, still pleading her innocence and trying to remind her father that he’ll hang if he kills her, but Battling’s fury is all-consuming and he smashes down the door and whips her anyway.

Meanwhile, Cheng Huan has made his way back to the shop, found the wreckage, and gotten a gun from a chest. Now, he heads over to the Burrows place, to find Battling, who has just beaten his daughter to death, drinking a bottle of whisky to calm down. Burrows makes a play for an axe, Huan empties his gun into him, and after a few feeble attempts to fight on, Battling falls dead on the floor. Huan now takes Lucy’s body back to his shop, places hr on the bed in the upper room, and decks her out with flowers, wishing her on her way in peace. Battling’s manager goes to check on him and finds the body, reporting the murder to the police, who now go to investigate Cheng Huan, but before they can arrive he has stabbed himself to death. The final shots show images of the Buddhist priest ringing a prayer bell and a boat sailing from the harbor of Huan’s home.

This movie ranks among Griffith’s best work. The scenes of Lucy in the upper room are diffuse, poetic, almost motionless at times, paced at a speed outside of the normal time of cinema, never mind the tightly-edited chases that had established Griffith as a film maker. While the pacing is slow and deliberate, its far from a static film, however. The editing tends to emphasize contrasts, as between the orderly world of Huan’s shop and the squalid chaos of the Burrows home, or between the peaceful spiritual reverie of Huan and Lucy versus the violent and carnal boxing match. The photography is on a different level as well, and although cameraman Billy Bitzer is still credited, it’s pretty well-known (and confirmed to some degree by Bitzer himself) that his new “assistant” Hendrik Sartov is responsible for much of the look of this film. Sartov was from Europe, and may have been influenced by newer styles (such as Expressionism) now coming into vogue there, but this was one of his first motion pictures – prior to this he was a still photographer – and it’s possible that the slower pace is partly due to the care he took in setting up individual shots instead of thinking in terms of fast cuts.

I find myself in (rare) agreement with James Card, who said that one problem with this movie is the contrast between Barthelmass in yellowface and the genuinely Asian actors hired as extras for the scenes in China and in the Limehouse bar. It’s not just a matter of makeup. Barthelmass doesn’t move like them. He doesn’t walk like them. He doesn’t bow like them. As Card says, he “is made up as a stereotyped stage Chinaman, eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands tucked into his sleeves, and made to walk hunched over with teetering steps.” Neither Barthelmass nor Griffith intended this to be offensive or unrealistic, but good intentions often pave the way to the worst offenses. In this case, we are meant to see Cheng Huan as spiritually superior to the white brutes surrounding him, but since he comes off as a caricature, the message is tainted with the worst aspects of white culture from the period. It really doesn’t help that all of the title cards refer to him as “The Yellow Man.” Only by reading the name on his shop window do we learn his identity.

That said, from an acting point of view this is really Gish’s movie, not Barthelmass’s, and her performance dominates to such a degree that the problematic issues can largely be overlooked, and often have been by reviewers. Gish’s “trapped animal” performance at the end when she is in the closet has frequently been touted (not least by Gish herself), but I was also taken by the way she uses her eyes to demonstrate her amazement at receiving kindness and care from Huan. When he gives her a doll, something she has always dreamed of owning, she looks at it in fascination, seems almost afraid to touch it, and shows conflicting feelings of joy, confusion, and gratitude simultaneously in her expression. She was now twenty five, playing a fifteen-year-old (the character was twelve in the original story), and she was now experienced enough as an actress but also close enough to the girl she is portraying to find perfect expression of her emotional states. Griffith and Sartov give her the right spaces to do her work, and she runs with it.

In short, while “Broken Blossoms” does not displace “Way Down East” as my personal favorite Griffith feature, and while there are some problems for a modern audience, it is well worth the while and fortunate to still be viewable more than a century later.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer, Hendrik Sartov

Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmass, Donald Crisp, George Beranger, Edward Peil

Run Time: 90 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).