“Broken Blossoms” (1919)

This movie bill sounds kind of bipolar.  (Image source)

This movie bill sounds kind of bipolar. (Image: Silent Toronto)

I decided to upload this version of the famous D. W. Griffith movie because it has no soundtrack.

Without one, it feels a lot like real life, even today, despite a few dated details here and there and the unfortunate decision to cast a European as the Asian main character Yellow Man.

That name sounds terribly racist, but he was a “Chink” in the original story, which apparently had a heavy “Yellow peril” theme.

Griffith changed that, for the movie, into a promotion of tolerance.

Lucy and the Yellow Man.  (Wikipedia)

Lucy and the Yellow Man. (Wikipedia)

I wish, though, that he had used Sessue Hayakawa, the one and only well-known Asian star in silent-era America (we’ve already seen him here, heavily made up, in The Wrath of the Gods).

Perhaps Hayakawa might not have done it, though. For one thing he was Japanese, not Chinese.

For another, there’s a very strong Western distortion of the Asian culture. And to Western eyes, Yellow Man’s failure as a missionary is understandable, if tragic, but it probably looks totally dishonorable from an Asian point of view, especially when combined with his intense passion for a 15-year-old white girl.

Anyway, that casting choice is my only complaint about Broken Blossoms.

Many reviewers are dissatisfied with the film’s pacing or perceived out-of-dated feel. For me, the acting, editing and lighting all work together, and the entire movie has the pace of real life.

This actor also played loving Mr. Morgan in "How Green Was My Valley."

This actor also played loving Mr. Morgan in “How Green Was My Valley.”

Donald Crisp doesn’t fare very well with any reviewers and yet he does a superb job. It’s so difficult for an actor to portray ugliness.

Crisp becomes a violent brute. Even his body language terrifies you…setting you up for Lillian Gish to play with your emotions in possibly the best performance of her career.

Another reason for going with the version below is that I can set a viewer rating on this.

Broken Blossoms has violence, child abuse and other adult themes that are a hard to take even today, but the underlying reason why I decided to make it R rated is Gish in that closet. They probably all needed therapy after that scene was shot, and the viewer does, too.

It’s excellent…but for mature audiences.

Gish in a closet

It is said that when the scene was shot, there was an assemblage of silent, listening people outside the studio, awe-struck by Lillian’s screams. Griffith, throughout the scene sat staring, saying not a word. Her face, during the final assault and struggle, became a veritable whirling medley of terror, its flashing glimpses of agony beyond anything ever shown before or since on the screen. When it was ended, Griffith was as white as paper. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to do that?” he asked, shakily. “What impressed us all,” writes Harry Carr (he had become Griffith’s assistant) , “was that all her reactions were those of a child.” Carr further remembers that she had been to several hospitals, to study hysteria, and to enquire how one would be likely to die from beating.”

— The Wellington Film Society review of Broken Blossoms

Yeah, I can see her doing that. An amazing actress!

Ladies and gentleman, don your hard hats…it’s Broken Blossoms time!

Categories: Saturday Silents

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