The following is my entry for the Silent Cinema Blogathon hosted by me at my blog In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Click here to read the other entries being exhibited during this event.
“It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears.”
In the annals of cinematic history nobody has made a larger impact on film than D.W Griffith, the eminent director from the silent era who is primarily remembered for his prolific work with his most frequent star, Lillian Gish.
The famed D.W Griffith and Lillian Gish partnership began in 1915 when they made the triumphant masterpiece The Birth Of A Nation. After the success of their first film the two collaborated together in an array of perennial classics that have since become cinematic staples.
One of their most notable efforts came in 1919 when Lillian Gish starred in the emotionally charged melodrama Broken Blossoms, a film that is considered lower scale compared to their previous works, but is more intimately effective in comparison due to being filmed in controlled studio environments.
Broken Blossoms might be considered less ambitious than Griffith’s earlier films, The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance, but the story itself is built on a subject that is profoundly heavy for it’s time and delves into the cataclysm of human crises, physical assault and extreme poverty, a theme that would have been disappointing for audiences in 1919, but as time progressed the films substance has become largely common today with domestic violence serving as a major form of crime.
Lillian Gish is the star attraction in this heart rending story set in the seedy Lime House District of London. Here she plays Lucy Burrows, a frail waif who resides with her brutal and calumniating father ( Donald Crisp ). After enduring a long series of continuous abuse and physical assault from her boxing father, she eludes her formidable existence and painfully steps out into her poverty stricken decrepit neighbourhood.
Minutes later she collapses on the floor at the shop owned by Cheng Huan ( Richard Barthelmess ) a Chinese immigrant who left his native country seven years earlier. Cheng is familiar with Lucy and had his days brightened up by the sight of the young girl drifting aimlessly around town, but now Cheng provides her with a congenial exotic room upstairs of his shop and nurses her back to health. Unfortunately for Lucy, her father discovers that she is with a foreigner and tragic consequences ensue.
Broken Blossoms may not have reached the zenith that The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance attained but the film is still a cinematic masterpiece. It contains a story that is delicate, fragile and very intense at the same time while it centres on a theme that is disturbing and provocative but still rings true today.
Silent film is for an acquired taste. For many people it is a period in cinema that is extinct. Fortunately that assumption is not true, especially with productions like Broken Blossoms that live on to the present day through it’s complexity and visual style that makes it a spectacular picture.
Only D.W Griffith with his artistic flair for directing can craft a memorable film like Broken Blossoms. Griffith who was known for his innovative use of style, staging and cinematography certainly succeeded here. The finished production with it’s dark shadows, drug addicts, alcoholics and villains that find pleasure in the dysphoria of others all epitomize the seedy, dangerous Lime House streets of London and make Broken Blossoms resemble a Film Noir.
Apart from the magical efforts by D.W Griffith’s, the film spotlights a stellar cast which include, Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp. Gish who was a virtuoso of motion pictures is phenomenal in the role as Lucy Burrows, the young girl who lives a sordid lifestyle of abuse from her abominable father and yearns to escape from the harsh realities of life. Eventually she finds love in the peaceful sanctuary of Cheng Huan played by Richard Barthelmess and together the two share an intimate relationship until the ghastly presence of Battling Burrows intrudes in on what was once an affable environment.
The character of Lucy is complex and requires a seasoned veteran like Lillian Gish to be able to perfectly execute the formidable stages of a fifteen year old girl who endures plenty of hardship, physical abuse and humiliation, and Gish done just that. She delivers a poignant and touching portrayal by demonstrating frightful expressions and raw emotions without resorting to histrionics.
Despite the strong rejection from Adolph Zukor who detested the film by stating it to be morbid, Broken Blossoms is an indelible silent classic that stands the test of time even 96 years after it’s release.
While filming the closet scene, Lillian Gish‘s performance of pure terror was so realistic that D.W. Griffith was compelled to shout back at her and urge her further. A passerby heard this going on and, convinced that something terrible was going on, had to be restrained from entering the studio.
Filming took 18 days and nights. Donald Crisp‘s scenes were filmed at night because he was directing another film during the day.
The only makeup Richard Barthelmess used in order to appear Oriental was a very tight rubber band stretched around his forehead, pulling his facial features slightly upward. The rubber band was cleverly concealed beneath his cap.
Lucy Burrows: “Don’t do it, Daddy! You’ll hit me once too often – and then they’ll – they’ll hang yer.”
Battling Burrows: “Put a smile on yer face, can’t yer.”
Lucy Burrows: “Don’t whip me – don’t! Please, Daddy! – Don’t.”
Lillian Gish: Born Lillian Diana Gish on October 14th, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. Died: February 27th, 1993. Age 99, in New York.
Richard Barthelmess: Born May 9th, 1895 in New York. Died: August 17th, 1963 in Southampton, New York.
Donald Crisp: Born George William Crisp on July 27th, 1882 in Bow, London. Died: May 25th, 1974 in Van Nuys, California.