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Considered one of D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish's most important film collaborations, Broken Blossoms (1919) centers on a young girl, Lucy (Lillian Gish), who is horribly abused by her boxer father "Battling" Burrows (Donald Crisp). Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) is a young Chinese man who longs to teach Buddhist ways to the violent West epitomized by the combative American sailors he sees in China. But once he emigrates to the rough London Limehouse district, Huan soon gives up on that dream and passes time smoking opium until he finds a creature truly in need.
"The Yellow Man" as Griffith dubs him in the politically incorrect terminology of the day, is moved to act by Lucy's vulnerability and cruel treatment at the hands of her father which lands her beaten and weak on Huan's shop stoop. Huan is the first person to treat the girl decently, sheltering her in his home, dressing her in beautiful robes and giving her a baby doll to cuddle. When a friend of Burrows finds out about the relationship between the two and reports back to Burrows the boxer is outraged. He drags her back to his home and takes out his fury on Lucy in a horrific fit of violence breaking down the closet door where the petrified girl hides. The scene is still considered one of the greatest in film history. "My God, why didn't you warn me you were going to do that," a shocked Griffith reportedly said to Gish of her startlingly visceral performance.
The film preached tolerance and peace in a brutal world and was a notably intimate, modestly-scaled three-person drama compared to some of Griffith's previously spectacular melodramas.
Broken Blossoms was first recommended to Griffith by Mary Pickford who told the director about the short story "The Chink and the Child" in author Thomas Burke's collection Limehouse Nights.
Griffith shot the film in just 18 days, without breaks and often working at night. Crisp was also working on a film at another studio and could only shoot his scenes after regular hours and on weekends. Though he had initially hoped to shoot the film in the Limehouse district, Griffith settled for a Hollywood sound stage.
According to The Films of D. W. Griffith by Edward Wagenknecht and Anthony Slide, the finished film was "so depressing that for some time he could not bring himself to look at it." Though Griffith stuck closely to much of Burke's story, he diverged in significant ways. In the original story Huan kills Burrows by putting a venomous snake in his bed (Griffith harbored a deep fear of snakes) while Griffith's showdown between the rivals is more cinematic and far less exotic. In keeping with Griffith's very Victorian, romantic viewpoint, Lucy is purely innocent, unlike the more sexualized heroine of Burke's story who first meets the "Chink" in a whorehouse where she has been deposited after her father has locked her out of the house.
Gish was 23 at the time Broken Blossoms was made, but convincingly played a 15-year-old child (12 in Burke's book). Gish initially protested playing the role, thinking she was too old and too tall to convincingly play a child. Gish called Broken Blossoms "poetry on film" and that poetic quality was due in large part to the iconic silent film actress's fragile presence. She began the film wearing a medical mask after developing a case of the 1918 Spanish influenza that killed some 50-100 million people worldwide, many of them healthy adults. Gish boned up for her part by studying children in orphanages. She was also the one who struck upon one of her characters most distinctive characteristics, using her fingers to push up the corners of her mouth so that the dejected Lucy could feign a smile to satisfy her cruel father.
Gish's ethereal gentleness also made her Griffith's actorly ideal in films such as Hearts of the World (1918) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). She was so often abused or threatened with attack in her films that one critic of the day cheekily proposed a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lillian Gish. But in testament to her adaptability, even when working under other directors Gish was a marvel, shining in a post-Griffith string of notable M-G-M productions La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928).
With his good looks and mix of masculinity and sensitivity, Barthelmess was the most popular of Griffith's screen heroes. In 1920 he broke away from Griffith to start his own company with director Henry King called Inspiration. His films including, Tol'able David (1921), maintained Barthelmess's star presence.
Broken Blossoms was made with the help of Adolph Zukor who gave Griffith a $250,000 advance. But Zukor so disliked the finished film that Griffith ended up paying Zukor's money back in order to have Zukor sign the film over to him. Griffith released the film with much drama, selling tickets for three dollars each, which was an extremely high price for movie admissions at the time. After premiering in several cities at the three dollar rate, Broken Blossoms was widely distributed by United Artists, the first film release of the studio formed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Griffith.
Critics and audiences hardly bore out Zukor's hatred of the film. Broken Blossoms was an enormous success, hailed by The New York Times as "a masterpiece in moving pictures." The film's distinctive look, including Griffith's hand-tinting of the film, was also heralded. Much of its style was the result of cinematographer Billy Bitzer and the innovative work of photographer Hendrik Sartov who used a soft-focus technique in which gauze was placed over the camera lens and then burned away where necessary to create the desired dreamy, glowing effect.
Broken Blossoms also secured the fame of Gish, Barthelmess and Crisp. But the film's success did not guarantee Griffith could operate without limits. His next three films (The Greatest Question, 1919, The Idol Dancer, 1920, The Love Flower, 1920) were made for Associated First National in order to raisemoney to complete his next masterpiece, Way Down East (1920).
Considering Broken Blossoms's instantaneous authority as a true film classic, it was a genuine miscalculation to remake the film. And yet, a British company attempted a remake in 1936 using D.W. Griffith's screenplay. Griffith initially even consulted on the film, until he recognized the inferiority of the production and bowed out. The film was virtually ignored upon its release.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Producer: D. W. Griffith
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith based on a short story "The Chink and the Child" by Thomas Burke
Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Production Design: Joseph Stringer
Music: Louis F. Gottschalk and D.W. Griffith
Cast: Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows), Richard Barthelmess (Cheng Huan), Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows), Arthur Howard (Burrows' manager), Edward Peil, Sr. (Evil Eye), George Beranger (The Spying One).
by Felicia Feaster