Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp
Director: D. W. Griffith
Full of youthful idealism, a young Buddhist (Barthelmess) leaves China for London, hoping to convert people to his peaceful religion. But life in Limehouse, one of the poorer parts of the city, leaves him disillusioned and he starts to smoke opium. When he sees a young girl Lucy (Gish), abused by her boxer father, he tries to help her but with tragic circumstances. Both of them are fragile and sweet people, like flowers too precious to not get broken by life.
Director DW Griffith is one of cinemas partiarchs, with many people citing his big films like Intolerance as the reason why this is so. But while Broken Blossoms is smaller and more domestic in tone, it’s incredibly beautiful and moving.
First of all, this film has a very odd dichotomy about it that’s worth noting. Barthelmess and the other leads play Chinese characters, which is more than a little uncomfortable at times. The Chinese characters come across as strange, mysterious types who casually smoke opium. It’s more than a little racist and yet, for the time, it was kind of progressive. While many films were occupied with the Yellow Peril and Chinese men seducing white girls, this one shows how wrong that attitude is, and actually changed the source material to make the film a more open minded and tragic story. Here, the Chinese man sees the gentle, fragile girl and saves her from the father who beats her. So, that’s an interesting place to start talking about this film.
The first thing you’ll notice about this film is how beautiful it is. Lillian Gish was a huge star in her day, her fragile beauty and ability to emote are still powerful, even after all this time. In this era, film makers had all kinds of tricks to make their stars, especially the female stars, look luminous. The vaseline on the lens trick came from this era, but so did lighting tricks and hanging fine gauze in front of the lens. This makes Gish seem not only perfect, but angelic, other worldly, impossibly beautiful.
And in fact, though the Chinese man ( his character is unnamed) gets plenty of screen time, it’s really Gish’s film. It’s easy to look back and think that the silent era was a time of melodrama and over acting. Or even of slapstick, overly physical stories. If you think that, watch the scene where Gish forces herself to smile to avoid a beating or the scene where she hides in a closet from her violent and enraged father. It’s a silent film, but you feel every blow of that ax and feel as though you can hear every scream.
The sets in this film are also remarkable. There’s such a sense of the exotic and the destitute, with cobbled streets of London and interiors that are laden with dusty oriental furniture, the small, ordinary poor kitchen hearth that Lucy sleeps by, to the opium dens and boxing rings. It’s all a bit dramatic, but very evocative of time and place. The film captures it’s images beautifully, with wide shots and intimate, beautifully lit tragic faces.
Even after 100 years, this film captivates and makes you feel something. It’s themes of xenophobia, disillusionment and a sense that the beautiful things in life, the lovers and the softer feelings, cannot survive in this harsh world are tragic and always relatable.
See It If: see this film for Lillian Gish’s beautifully captured face and that performance. It’s wonderful to see how far film has come in 100 years and how some stories will always feel relevant.