Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and Broken Blossoms (1919)
Broken Blossoms (1919) is a significant departure for D. W. Griffith away from the prestigious epics he had produced by 1918 (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World), toward something more straightforward yet delicately ethereal. Lillian Gish stars as Lucy, the 15-year-old daughter of prizefighter Battling Burrows (played to the sadistic hilt by Donald Crisp). Waifish Lucy is the object of Battling’s abuse and the outlet for his anger. Lucy cowers when she comes near him, ever fearful that she will receive yet another beating for some unknown offense. Incredibly, Burrows reprimands her for her constant state of fear. “Why can’t you smile?” he snarls. Ever compliant, Lucy takes two fingers and forces the corners of her mouth up in a bizarre attempt to smile for her father. As in the climactic closet scene, Lucy is the picture of tragedy here, when we see that something so common as a smile is completely foreign to her abusive life.
One day while in town shopping for the evening meal, we see that a Chinese shopkeeper, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) lets his gaze linger adoringly on little Lucy. There is no violent sexuality or malice in his look, as might be expected from her abusive father, but rather a sort of dreamy quality. Lucy is his vision of heaven in the pits of the grimy Limehouse district in London. Barthelmess as the Chinese Cheng does not stoop to easy ethnic stereotypes, which are readily available from Griffith (the film’s subtitle is “The Yellow Man and the Girl”). Some of the film’s title cards contain an interesting mixture of Anglo paternalism (one referencing Battling’s attitudes toward Cheng describes how he hates anyone not born in his own country of England) with blatant ethnic slurs (after being rescued by Cheng, Lucy asks him, “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?”). This is a step beyond the sort of typing exhibited in Birth, but it is nonetheless very visible.
Inevitably, Burrows goes on to beat Lucy into a senseless heap. She struggles to make her way out of this den of violence, and wanders the fog-lined streets of Limehouse. Exhausted, she collapses in the middle of Cheng’s shop. In a slight opium stupor, Cheng cannot believe that this vision has come to his little cubbyhole. Wasting no time, he carries the senseless Lucy upstairs and outfits the room into something fit for a princess so she can make a full recovery.
The climax of the film comes during the famous “closet scene.” Burrows discovers that Lucy has been recovering in one of the upstairs rooms of Cheng’s shop. Outraged that his daughter may have had relations with Cheng, he storms into the shop, racing upstairs and trashes the apartment. He grabs Lucy and takes her back home, where he prepares to giver her the beating of a lifetime. Totally given over to terror, Lucy locks herself in a closet, begging Burrows not to beat her because “t’ain’t nothing wrong.” Lucy runs in circles within the narrow closet, her face a mask of total shock all the while clutching a little doll given to her by Cheng. While preparing for this scene, Lillian visited a mental asylum in order to learn the true look of terror. Her performance in this scene is nothing short of masterful, displaying the sort of tragedy that no child actor could ever achieve (Lillian initially balked at Griffith’s request that she play Lucy, because, at 25, she thought herself too old for the part). Burrows takes a hatchet to the door, and finally kills Lucy with his rage.
Of course, tragedy can be the only ending to the story of such brokenness. Cheng finds the lifeless Lucy, and brings her back to his shop. He lays her out on the bed she used, putting things around her as he would on a funeral pyre. Cheng shoots Burrows, which is another tragedy in itself. He originally came to England from China in order to spread the pacifist meassage of the Buddha. With nothing else to live for, he then kills himself.
The photography in Broken Blossoms is some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen in a Griffith film. Griffith makes liberal use of tinting in order to show daytime and nighttime, which further lends itself to the ethereal mood of the film. Clocking in at only 90 minutes, the story of Blossoms is succinct and splendidly told. Every scene has its place (which is more than I can say for the more operatic Birth) and every actor is allowed to explore the characters to the fullest extent of creativity. This films is truly a masterful example of not only Griffith’s and Gish’s work, but of silent cinema as a whole.