Thursday, September 29, 2011

Broken Blossoms (Griffith. 1919)

"Put a smile on yer face, can't yer?"

After seeing, and really enjoying, D.W. Griffith's Way Down East - I was actually incredibly excited to seek out another film by the legendary director. Luckily, the 1077 Films to See Before You Die is filled with movies that Griffith had a hand in. Unfortunately for me, I decided to watch Broken Blossoms.

I do not want to give off the wrong vibe right away - this was not in any way a bad movie. It tells two separate stories and then eventually interlocks them into one tragic love story. A young girl live in the slums with he alcoholic, prizefighting and extremely abusive father. She is frequently and brutally beaten on screen in ways that were considered controversial for the time.

There is also an Asian man who has decided to move to England and teach the ways of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxons. He eventually succumbs to an addiction to opium and resides in the back of his shop in the same aforementioned slum.

As fate would have it, these two paths would cross and the two fall in love with each other. The girl's racist and psychotic father becomes enraged at the thought of his girl with a "Yellow Man". The is where the story turns tragic (or tragically predictable) and all the characters end up losing what they love in the end in a variety of ways. The message being that people should be willing to accept each other regardless of color or creed.

This is a funny sentiment for Broken Blossoms because the man who plays "the Yellow Man", Richard Barthelmess, is not in the least bit Asian. No matter how hard he squints his eyes and hunches his back, there is not a person on the planet who would think Barthelmess is from anywhere near the Orient. I have to admit that this was extremely distracting for me. His performance was an over-exaggeration of stereotypes at the time.

On the other hand, Lillian Gish, as the girl, was superb. I am starting to think that she might be my favorite silent film star. Her performance was emotional and heartbreaking. She was so fragile and frail looking with horrible posture and a general lack of confident body language. Her eyes were often the most noticeable thing on the screen, not only for their beauty, but because there was so much pain and fright in them.

There is one scene in particular that stands out in Broken Blossoms. Near the end of the film, the girl locks herself in a closet to escape the abuse of her father. As the maniac uses a small axe to take the door down, the camera focuses on the poor girl. She is defenseless, out of places to run, claustrophobic and fully aware of her upcoming fate. Critics were originally appalled by this emotionally gripping scene, but it has become one of Griffith's most famous moments as a director. He was able to present and tackle one of the most brutal subject matters in the world.

Broken Blossoms is not a bad movie. In fact, I liked it. I was just disappointed by how small of a scale the film was on. Griffith himself was unhappy with the final product saying that he "can’t look at the damn thing; it depresses me so". This is a decent work from a director capable of much more. Brave? Yes. Gripping? Yes. Special? Not really. Way Down East is a much better movie.

Broken Blossoms: C+

*NOTE* - If you have trouble finding Broken Blossoms you should try searching for it by the original name, "The Yellow Man and the Girl".

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