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Broken Blossoms

by Peter Bogdanovich
December 30, 2010 3:07 AM
7 Comments
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Between the ages of 18 and 31, I saw thirty-four films directed by David Wark Griffith, generally acknowledged as the first great American filmmaker, if not the first truly epochal director in the world. As a child I had seen perhaps one or two of his movies when my father took me by the hand to the Museum of Modern Art. But in those years during which I went from enthusiast to student to apprentice to professional, I realized that, as is often said, it was in fact true that between 1908 (thirteen years after the first brief projected films) and 1925—-D.W. Griffith had pretty much done it all: established the entire popular vocabulary of cinema, and elaborated on it brilliantly and with global impact. Then along came Ernst Lubitsch from Europe—-as in: first there was Bach and then there was Mozart. Within six years, Griffith’s career was over. But twelve years before that, for his fourteenth feature—-after literally hundreds of two- or three-reel masterpieces—-he directed, produced, co-wrote and scored one of his most haunting and singular works, among the few cinematic poems ever made, his 1919 tragic romance, BROKEN BLOSSOMS (available on DVD).

I first saw the film in Manhattan when I was nineteen and the movie was already thirty-nine; on an index card at the time—-after noting the picture’s subtitle (The Yellow Man and the Girl)—-I wrote: “A classic, this poetic, naive, technically superb and moving outcry against brutality—-a fervent plea for feminine innocence—-remains as poignant and effective as it must have been forty years ago. Griffith tells the story of a wretched, tortured little London slum-girl—-her father’s cruel beatings, the brief respite she finds with a quiet Chinaman [not yet politically incorrect nomenclature]—-with economy, restraint and artistry; and with beautiful performances by Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess.”

Ten years later, at 29, I saw the movie again, this time in Westwood, California, and this time on the card I rated it “Excellent” and added: “More consciously artistic than any other Griffith film, and strangely, not as effective for that reason; it lacks the vigor of Hearts of the World or Way Down East which surround it, and also their cinematic wizardry. Still, it is a lovely work, and something he no doubt wanted to get out of his system—-like Ford’s more pretentious works; he was not to return to this style, and it is clearly not as personal to him as things like True Heart Susie or The Birth of A Nation.”

Nearly two decades later, I saw the movie again, in Vancouver, B.C.---in a beautiful tinted print: the big-screen original had numerous amazing sequences tinted blue and gold—-and by now having lived a little bit more, having experienced success, failure, love, and death of loved ones. At this point I was only three years older than Griffith’s 44 when he made the picture with such exquisite sensitivity, and I was overwhelmingly moved by Broken Blossoms. There was such extraordinary feeling behind every shot and gesture, every frame, every nuance of every performance, like visual music. But especially the transformingly beautiful and brave Lillian Gish, the living personification of characters about whom they say, “the good die young”; and the amazingly feminine, yet eloquently masculine Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese boy, the role that made him a world superstar. Donald Crisp, as Gish’s father, creates among the most loathsome, and convincing, pathologically violent heavies ever put on film.

Gish, of course, is so incandescent and breathtakingly honest that when you see her use thumb and forefinger to faithfully press upwards the corners of her mouth into a valiant smile of grit-filled endurance against the bestial inhumanity of the world, it becomes such a profoundly touching image that it will never leave you. As Orson Welles used to exclaim: “A stone would cry!” Griffith’s Broken Blossoms reminds one of the lyrical, resonant human magic of which the movies once were capable.

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7 Comments

  • Blake Lucas | February 21, 2011 7:31 AMReply

    The best experience I ever had watching a silent movie was of BROKEN BLOSSOMS. Possibly it was the same as you saw that last time--it was said to be the last surviving nitrate and did have the tinted sequences. Lillian Gish was present in person, and a live orchestra played the original score.

    I don't think anyone present walked out thinkiing a silent movie could not be as modern and present and artistically and emotionally eloquent as anything out there.

    BB is one of my two favorite Griffith movies, edged only by TRUE HEART SUSIE, made the same year (a really good year for him because THE ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY, much in the vein of SUSIE, is also great). I personally prefer his intimate films to the big epics including his two most famous films--he did those well but did these even better. They are rich with nuance, and really tap his modern side as characters think of other moments from their lives and we see those images, moments which evoke their emotions. Even as a century passed, I don't think anyone has done that kind of better, and it still seems do daring and dazzlingly modern in this hands, going back to his Biograph shorts too, a treasure trove of amazing films.
    In BROKEN BLOSSOMS, looks at how the two main characters are introduced, Lucy sitting on the wharf and the Chinese boy standing against on a wall, yet the fragments of their lives build up intense feeling about them before the narrative is even really under way. It's truly poetic. That's Griffith--in so many ways, he is still ahead.

  • Doundou Tchil | January 7, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    What love movie? As political and social commentary this film is shockingly ahead of its time. It overturns assumptions about race and the superiority of the west. When I saw this when I was 19, the depiction of the Yellow Man as Nosferatu (ahead of its time in that sense too) made me cringe. Now I'm amazed Griffiths could make something so daring at a time when people swallowed that whole Yellow Peril hysteria.

  • shalini | January 5, 2011 8:19 AMReply

    Great write up Peter ! I havn't seen this movie yet, but after reading your " touchy review " can't wait to watch it.

  • Tom Moran | January 4, 2011 10:28 AMReply

    I've seen "Broken Blossoms" a number of times in a number of venues (including opening night of the now-defunct D.W. Griffith Theater on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s), and it was only recently that I came to see it as Griffith's reaction to the brutality and bloodshed of WWI. I think he's positing Eastern values as being superior to Western values, which highlights the tragedy when the values of peace are destroyed so horribly. A great and profound film.

  • Mr. Wu | January 4, 2011 10:02 AMReply

    I remember this film first coming to my attention well over a decade ago when seeing 'A Personal Journey Through Amercian Films.' It's amazing to look back now at the films covered in that three-part series and note how many have become touchstone films for me, representing many favorites and important films from their eras. I continue to explore, although very slightly yet, the masterpieces from the silent era. If I were to show any silent film to anyone, this would be it. (Although tempted I would be to choose von Sternberg's 'Underworld'). I am very fortunate where I live that silent films do make the occasional repertory rounds and so can be seen in a theater as is meant to be. (But at the theater am I watching a DVD or the actual film? Always read the fine print.!) Looking forward to my first viewing of 'Sunrise' in two weeks. Until then, time to dust off the old VHS 'Broken Blossoms' (and dust off the old VCR) and look at it again. Like Mr. Bogdanovich, I am sure my reaction to the film will be much different than in 1999. I look forward to seeing what that reaction will be.

  • Christopher Stilley | January 3, 2011 5:23 AMReply

    You just don't see the kind of mystical chemistry between a man and a woman in films of the talkie era and that goes triple for now a days..I've been enjoying the Murnau,Borzage silents lately and especially the Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor films,those films could be about anything but the 2 leads seem to hypnotize from another plane every time..

  • Ross Barnard | December 30, 2010 9:38 AMReply

    If one is a movie buff, devotee, addict - call it what you will - one sometimes thinks one has seen certain films one has not actually watched from opening to end titles. Happened to me just yesterday with GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, on TCM. Almost changed channels when the title came up, but then I realised some of this dialogue was not so familiar, so I stayed with it, and had a grand old time, watching Joan Blondell take Warren William for a grand old ride! It's the set-pieces that are excerpted in countless docos on certain eras of film history that one has seen, not the entire film. Such is it with DW Griffith films - I have seen WAY DOWN EAST, and certain others, I believe, at University Film Group screenings way back in the early 1970s, and I now have BROKEN BLOSSOMS on DVD, but have hesitated to sit down and watch it, thinking I know it already, from excerpts in docos such as HOLLYWOOD. Not so! Peter's review, and most importantly his chronicling of his interaction with this film over time has prompted me to devote to it the time and consideration it deserves, as do the other Griffiths from this period, which I am now prompted to seek out and immerse myself in, whether I have seen them previously or not. So glad to have come upon BLOGDANOVICH - it's now required daily reading - Ross Barnard, Gunnedah, NSW, Australia

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