Broken Blossoms (1919)

Regent Street Cinema, London

                                                3 March 2017 


We were at the Regent Street Cinema this evening to answer two vital questions, Firstly, is there anything better in the cinema than watching a silent film?  To which the answer is; yes, watching a silent film with live music accompaniment.  And the second question, is there anything better than watching a silent film with live music accompaniment?  To which the answer once again is yes, watching a silent film, with live music and at a free screening!  Well, tonight’s event hits all three criteria, a screening of the D W Griffith classic Broken Blossoms (1919), with live organ accompaniment by Donald MacKenzie and a free screening courtesy of  Westminster University’s Difference Festival.  

The film opens in China where Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) is preparing to depart to ‘the Anglo-Saxon lands’ to spread the gentle message of Buddha.  But once in London and amid the poverty and degradation of the Limehouse district his earlier idealism fades and he escapes from reality by visiting the local opium dens.  Meanwhile, 15 year-old waif Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) lives with her abusive father, the boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). Cheng cherishes Lucy from a distance, seeing a beauty in her that no one else notices.     

One evening, after a particularly severe beating, Lucy escapes her house. Cheng finds her unconscious on the floor of his shop and takes her to his room above, where he nurses her back to health. But word gets to Burrows that his daughter is living in the house of a ‘chink’. After getting drunk Burrows goes to the shop to fetch her back.  Cheng is not there so he smashes up the room before taking Lucy home.  Fearful for her life, Lucy locks herself in a cupboard but Burrows smashes down the door and beats her to death.  When Cheng returns to find Lucy gone he takes out a pistol and goes to her home.  Discovering her dead he is confronted by Burrows and shoots him.  Taking Lucy back to his room he carefully lays out her body before taking a knife and committing suicide. 

Based on ‘The Chink and the Child’, a short story by Thomas Burke from his 1916 anthology Limehouse Nights, Broken Blossoms is now regarded as one of Griffith’s finest films.  Yet it may never have seen the light of day.  Lillian Gish initially refused the role of Lucy, considering herself too old to play the book’s 12 year old female character. Eventually the story was amended to make her a 15 year-old.  Lucy’s emaciated appearance can in part be put down to Gish’s physical condition while making the film, still recovering from Spanish influenza which nearly cost her her life.  And even after the film was shot, its fate was not secure.  According to Lillian Gish, Griffith was initially reluctant to start editing the film because he felt the story too depressing and unlikely to be successful.  Paramount boss Adolph Zukor was even more scathing, “You bring me a picture like this and you want money for it?  You may as well put your hand in my pocket and steal it. Everybody in it dies.  It isn’t commercial.”  Griffith was forced to raise the cash to buy out the distribution rights from Zukor.  In the end it proved a wise move as the film was a critical success and went on to make a $700,000 profit. 

In complete contrast to Griffith’s earlier epics such as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms was a film on a much smaller, intimate scale and contained almost entirely within two small interior sets.  Made just four years after Birth of a Nation and focusing on a similar inter-racial story line, Broken Blossoms is free of the gross racism that blighted the earlier film (although phrases such as ‘the yellow man’ or ‘chink’ are no longer politically acceptable and there is still the matter that the leading man was white but acting in yellow-face make up).  In fact, it is the Chinese character that is portrayed with dignity and graciousness in contrast to Burrows and his cohorts who are shown up as sly, brutal and racist. There is also a certain humour in that it is Cheng who has come to London to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxons while at one point we see a priest who is about to depart for China to ‘convert the heathen’.   

As well as the racial interplay, the film is also noteworthy in how it deals with the relationship between Cheng and Lucy.  Cheng, despite his timidity, is clearly sexually attracted to Lucy.  Yet she remains a child who, innocently, seeks the warmth and tenderness from an adult she has lacked throughout her life.  This misunderstanding is best illustrated in the superbly played scene, intercut with Burrows’ boxing match, where Cheng expectantly approaches Lucy as she lies on the bed playing with a doll.  Instead of the reaction he anticipates from her, she is initially confused and then becomes afraid, at which point he appears to realise and accept that their relationship will never be anything more than platonic and he instead kisses the sleeve of her gown.

The film also benefits from being beautifully shot.  Although Griffith had initially intended to travel to London to film on location in Limehouse itself, the film was eventually shot wholly in his studios.  The Limehouse settings are beautifully realised (although perhaps more reminiscent of a slightly earlier era).   As well as cinematography by the always excellent Billy Bitzer, Griffith brought in photographer Hendrik Sartov who developed a soft-focus technique in which gauze was placed over the camera lens.  The film is also skilfully tinted.  According to Lillian Gish, this came about by accident as Griffith was rehearsing a stage show to precede the movie’s opening, when the film was accidently screened while the coloured stage lights were still switched on, giving the film a startlingly tinted appearance.  Griffith, ever one to recognise a valuable innovation, immediately had the film redeveloped with specific tinting, sepia for the scenes of the miserable hovel where the Burrows live, blue for the misty and dank outdoor shots and a gorgeous pink for the intimate interior of Cheng’s room.  

 But key to the film’s success was the stunning performance by Lillian Gish in the central role as Lucy Burrows.  Although 23 at the time the film was made she is wholly onvincing as a 15 year-old.  She apparently prepared for the part by studying children in an orphanage, and it was Gish herself came up with the idea for Lucy’s most distinctive characteristic, that of using her fingers to push up the corners of her mouth into a smile to satisfy her father’s command to ‘put a smile on your face’.  But there are many other moments where she perfectly captures Lucy’s character and predicament, for example when we first see her entering the house as she nervously tries to gauge what mood her father is in or when, after accidently burning his hand, she is stricken in terror, anxiously wringing the cloth in her hands. However, it is the scene in which she locks herself in the cupboard that carries the greatest impact, as she hysterically circles in the confined space like a terror-stricken trapped animal.  According to Gish, after her unrestrained and visceral performance in the scene Griffith was stunned and finally whispered “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that.”  Gish’s performance as Lucy certainly rivalled anything she would do subsequently in films such as Way Down East (1920) or The Wind (1928). 

 As Cheng Huan, and despite the yellow-face make-up, Richard Barthelmess also put in a good performance with his portrayal of a man whose idealism is long faded but who, just for an instant, gets the opportunity to do something worthwhile.  He apparently prepared for the role by walking the streets of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, picking up the behaviour and mannerisms of the locals.  Persuaded to follow a career in acting by family friend Alla Nazimova, Barthelmess would go on to become one of the most popular and bankable stars of the 1920s, starring in films such as Way Down East (1920) and Tol’able David (1921).  Although he successfully made the transition to talkies he was never to recapture his earlier popularity or success. 

The only weak point among the leading cast belonged to Donald Crisp whose portrayal of the brutish Battling Burrows I felt was somewhat overly–caricatured, almost cartoonish at times.  However, he did provide the necessary sense of menace against which Lillian Gish’s Lucy could react to.  English-born Crisp was already a veteran of some 85 films by the time of Broken Blossoms and had a long association with Griffith, appearing in such films as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  In the 1920s he turned to directing films, most notably The Navigator (1924) with Buster Keaton (although Keaton directed a lot of the film without Crisp’s knowledge).  But by the 1930s he had returned to acting, with supporting roles in many notable films including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935),  The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) National Velvet (1944) and The Man From Laramie (1955) until his retirement in 1963. 

Lastly, a word about the musical accompaniment.  Donald MacKenzie’s playing of the organ was superb and could not be faulted.  However, I couldn’t help thinking that while some film genres are well suited to organ accompaniment, particularly comedies or dramatic action/adventure types, the intimate drama of Broken Blossoms wasn’t necessarily one of them. 

And just one final word, enjoyment of this film was spoilt by a couple of people talking constantly (and who bizarrely then left before the film had finished!).  Recalling a question someone once asked, “Is it ever OK to talk during a silent film?”  The answer remains the same; it is never OK to talk during a silent film! 

Broken Blossoms is available on DVD through Kino Video and a couple of versions with different scores can be viewed on line.  In addition, according to Silent London‘s Pamela Hutchinson a copy held by Cinematheque Francaise is currently being restored so may become more widely available in the future.