Friday 20 April 2007

Broken Blossoms (1919) D W Griffith

Here's one I've looked forward to for a long time. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl is an anomaly on a number of fronts. It's a D W Griffith film that isn't an epic, for a start, and it has the audacity to describe a relationship between a fifteen year old white girl and a grown Chinese man. It's exactly the sort of controversial subject that couldn't be addressed at all in the code era but this is 1919 so it's possible, making this a highly daring film even though it apparently still omits much of the controversial subject matter from the source story by Thomas Burke. The leads are Lillian Gish, who I am fast coming to believe is the greatest actress to ever appear in front of a camera and who was 26 at the time; and Richard Barthelmess, one of the names that leapt out at me from the pages of Mick LaSalle's book, Dangerous Men, as someone to watch in the precodes, but who I've only managed to see in a few films since.

He's not entirely believable as a yellow man, as the subtitle would have it in the politically incorrect terminology of the time (though it's better than alternative of The Chink and the Child), and indeed there's a good deal of racial stereotyping going on. However at least Griffith hired orientals to play orientals for the most part. His character, Cheng Huan, shrinks from violence and decides to travel to the west to bring the Buddha's message of peace to what he sees as barbarians. He finds his way to Limehouse, the Chinese area of London, where he becomes a merchant. However in an area that would generally be regarded as a huge den of iniquity, he fails conspicuously to bring the peace he wanted, instead spending his days smoking opium.

Meanwhile Battling Burrows, a strutting and brutish prizefighter, has a daughter called Lucy. The implication given us in the title cards is that she's a bastard child thrust back at him by the mother who doesn't want her either, and being a tiny little thing she's the easiest target, physically and verbally, for her father whenever he wants to let loose. He's played by the surprising choice of Donald Crisp, usually a genteel sort, who ends up appearing far more like someone like Allen Jenkins here. To him she's more like a slave and yet nobody offers her any guidance to the right places, merely not to be like them.

Lillian Gish, as expected, is superb. In an era when everyone overacted to get their message across without the benefit of sound, she often underacted and made her story known with subtle touches. It isn't just how her face looks, though it's amazingly expressive, it's how she moves, what she moves and even where in a room she moves it to. Early on, she's forced to smile twice by her father and it's patently obvious that while she doesn't want to either time, the emotions behind her face are completely different. The first time she's scared stiff and the second time she's quietly happy because he's about to leave.

Later, after she comes to meet Cheng Huan, by the convenient device of collapsing into his store after a whipping, she wants to smile for real and adds the wonderful touch of moving her mouth with her fingers as if she knows no other way to do it. Cheng has been watching her for a long while, aware of the beauty of her that nobody else sees, and his devotion becomes another uncomfortable subtext here given that she's supposed to be fifteen. Already the whipping scene was acutely uncomfortable because Gish is so good at appearing scared beyond all reason to make it painfully believable.

Every time I see Lillian Gish, she's giving masterclass lessons. Maybe she also has to make up for Barthelmess here who presumably found it difficult to move his face much given the way it was stretched and so mostly looks vacant. He is great at the devotional scenes, making his attention seem spiritual and beneficent, but because of the lack of facial mobility he also seems almost retarded, bringing a far more unhealthy tone to the scenes too.

The film itself is slow and character driven and works almost entirely from the skill of the cast and crew in setting mood. There's very little action and what there little there is is hardly the real story, serving more as the bluster that surrounds life rather than life itself. I'm sure that it would bore most people nowadays to tears. However for anyone looking for depth and subtlety, it's an admirable success, despite too many title cards with too much preachy text, as I'm coming to realise is hardly surprising for D W Griffith. As the Germans would discover over the next decade, silent film should often be left well alone to tell its own story, and a as a perfect example, Lucy's death scene is the most perfect such scene I've ever been privileged enough to watch. The title card that tries to emphasise it is completely unnecessary.

Certainly, however, it's the earliest classic movie I've seen, with the single exception of something like George Melies's A Trip to the Moon, which would be a real apples and oranges comparison any way you look at it. Possibly because I'm still missing a couple of major titles, such as Griffith's own The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, quality cinema starts for me in 1920. This dates to a year earlier, and while it's not perfect and it still contains much inherent to its era, Griffith was busy defining what cinema was to become and this one stands out above everything else around it.

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