“Broken Blossoms” (1919) is a fascinating look at what was best about the silent film era, as well as some of its nagging questionable attitudes. D. W. Griffith’s film, based on a story called “The Chink and the Child” covers everything from child abuse to prostitution, racism, an inter-racial love story, religious hypocrisy, murder, and suicide. Lillian Gish is Lucy, a girl in her early teens whose brutal father, played by a scary Donald Crisp, routinely beats her. Richard Barthelmess plays a Chinese immigrant who tries to help.
The claustrophobic sets illustrating London’s Limehouse district seem to entrap both the leads who are victims of their separate circumstances. It is a wretched story; there is nothing happy or escapist. Wonderful irony is displayed when a minister proudly tells the gentlemanly Chinese man that his brother is going to China to “convert the heathen,” to which Barthelmess with wry expression replies, “I wish him luck.” He is far too civilized to point out that he has seen much in the Limehouse district to question the Anglo-Saxon’s ability to civilize anybody else.
Lillian Gish’s wide, expressive eyes and intense body language are a marvel. She moves almost like a dancer. It was a common trait for silent film actors, in an effort to pantomime, to use their whole bodies when conveying emotion. Actually, Barthelmess’ deeply hunched posture in an imitation of humble supplication throughout the film must have left him with a terrific backache.
Particularly striking is the scene where Gish, who locks herself in a closet to get away from her father in a rage, tears around the confined space like a crazed and desperate animal, terrified and screaming (silently of course) as Crisp hacks away at the door with a hatchet.
Stumbling about the dark, narrow alleys after being beaten with a whip by her father, Lucy collapses in the shop owned by the Chinese man. He gently cleans her wounds and cares for her. In the narrative, Griffith refers to the Chinese man as “the Yellow Man,” and Lucy calls him “Chinky.” Neither Lucy nor Griffith have bothered to learn his real name, though his shop window says “Cheng Haun.”
Griffith clearly intends to represent this Chinese character with deference and respect, yet he is always referred to by his skin color and not his name, and the character is played not by a Chinese actor, but by a Caucasian. Like Lucy and Cheng Haun, perhaps Griffith is also snared by his circumstances. “The Yellow Man” treats Lucy with love bordering on adoration, but in one scene his passions get the better of him. He resists his desires in the end, and as the narrative tells us, keeps his love for her “pure and holy.” Is his propriety based upon his judgment that Lucy is too young, helpless and traumatized? Or, is it because she is white? What is the reason for his forbearance that makes him noble in Griffith’s eyes and in the eyes of the audience of 1919?