(United Artists; D.W. Griffith)
In early 1919, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith formally merged their combined cachet to form United Artists, in the interest of producing and distributing their own films. While industry wags sneered that ‘the lunatics had taken over the asylum,’ UA immediately found itself with a dearth of new product to put on the market. Both Pickford and Chaplin were still under contract to First National, while Griffith owed several films to Paramount, before he would be free to direct any new movies for UA.
Quickening his filmmaking pace to fulfill these standing obligations, Griffith adapted Thomas Burke’s short story The Chink and the Child in a record eighteen weeks after much preparatory rehearsing. When Paramount balked at the finished film however, convinced it would die a slow death at the box-office with its uncompromisingly tragic ending, Griffith bought back the rights to distribute it through UA. He engaged a legitimate theater, New York’s George M. Cohen, and arranged a repertory season of his films, opening with Broken Blossoms. His faith in the film was justified when it’s combined critical and commercial success promptly established the fledgling UA as a force to be reckoned with.
Broken Blossoms was widely regarded as a work of art when released, and the unprecedented praise it was pelted with would have assured the film’s overperforming in award competition had the Academy existed at the time, easily prevailing in the Best Picture prizefight. In D.W. Griffith: American Film Master, Iris Barry acknowledges that, “Few pictures have enjoyed greater or more lasting succès d’estime.” Film historian Kevin Brownlow agreed in his Behind the Mask of Innocence, relating “The reviews were all outstanding… Griffith produced a film hailed instantly as a classic, as the most beautiful production ever made.” Julian Johnson, in the August 1919 issue of Photoplay called it “The first genuine tragedy of the movies.” While author Lewis Jacobs, in his Rise of the American Film, recalled, “Not even The Birth of a Nation had aroused such widespread adulation. Once called the “Belasco” of the screen, Griffith was now acknowledged as “the Shakespeare of the movies.” Going on to note that even “The conservative New York Times was no less enthusiastic: (declaring) It is a masterpiece.” So, I’m calling the race now in Broken Blossoms favor. The movie no longer lives up to the contemporary hype, dating more than the spectacles and rural romances Griffith turned out during this rich period of artistic flowering. But it remains so unlike anything else the director ever did, in terms of theme and temperament, that it rates being classed as something quite separate and apart. As author Richard Schickel observes in his DW Griffith: An American Life, “…in the context of Griffith’s career, (Broken Blossoms became) a singularity, a signpost on a road not taken… (for) neither before nor later did Griffith do such a fully realized mood piece.” Moreover, given its remarkably sensitive and daring depiction of interracial romance, it’s difficult to believe the movie was made by the same rabid reactionary who had so vehemently inveighed against the notion of racial intermixing just a few years before, in The Birth of a Nation.
At the beginning of Broken Blossoms, the idealistic Chinese Buddhist Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) is sent as emissary to spread his religion’s message of peace and love to the violent and war-torn Western world. Some years later, we find Huan a failure, having turned into a debauched and disillusioned denizen of Limehouse, a wharf front of London, where the dregs of society tend to drift. Frequently, Huan finds himself enrapt by the appearance of Lucy Barrows (Lillian Gish), a wistful little waif who stops outside his shop to admire the dolls in his window. Having been beaten nearly to death one night by her abusive father, violent local prizefighter Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), Lucy stumbles into Huan’s shop in a stupor and faints. Over the next few days, Huan nurses the girl back to health, dressing her in his finest silks and treating her like a princess. Getting wind that his little girl is being kept by a Chinaman, an incensed Burrows ransacks the shop while Huan is out, and drags Lucy back home where he beats her to death. Returning to his destroyed home, Huan tracks down Burrows and shoots him. Carrying Lucy back to the place where she had known her only happiness, Huan commits suicide beside her lifeless body.
With a third wave of Spanish influenza sweeping across the globe upon the film’s release, a sense of despair seemed to have settled over the country. As it would be with COVID-19 almost a century later, formerly thriving theaters lay deserted by audiences scared of catching the bug, while the movie industry itself found its rosters robbed of a host of promising talent, fated to become footnotes in film history. As the nation turned to mourning and recovery following the Armistice, the pro-war propaganda pictures that had long been popular box-office, swiftly began losing their appeal for peacetime audiences. So, given the prevailing mood, Griffith’s tragic romance, about a Chinese pacifist and a battered London waif, arrived at just the right time for shell-shocked moviegoers to embrace its conciliatory message of peace. “Foreshadowing the popular mood which would sweep the world after the war to end all wars,” as Brownlow observes, Broken Blossoms “…arrived at the perfect moment.”
Having returned from abroad after two years, and still coming down off the high of his recent heady epics, Griffith did the unexpected, surprising everyone by choosing to change course. He drastically scaled down the size and scope of this follow up film, to focus on an intensely intimate story, with only a handful of characters and sets. Perhaps intending to negate the bad karma he’d put out with his own wartime propaganda, Hearts of the World, the director expanded upon his source material, so that Broken Blossoms could, in tone and tenor, stand as a powerful indictment of the collateral physical and psychological carnage wrought by the recent global conflict. According to Edward Wagenknecht in The Films of D.W. Griffith, “Cheng Huan’s noble Chinese idealism and the idea of his mission to the West are original with Griffith,” not existing in Burke’s original story.
Reconceiving his main characters as embodiments of this grander theme he had in mind, Griffith sets up a diametric triangle between violent boxer Burrows, a voracious beast who represents the warring spirit set loose upon the world, peaceful dove Huan, the pacifist and conscientious objector, or as Kevin Brownlow described him in Behind the Mask of Innocence “a student priest, who leaves his country to bring the message of Buddha to the warring nations.” And bruised and battered Lucy, who stands in place for all the casualties of war, collateral damage caught in the crossfire, representing, according to critic Arthur Lenning, “the innocent waif sacrificed in the moral and emotional slaughterhouse of the world.” Cinematographer Karl Brown, who worked on a few process shots in the film, perceived the main characters in his Adventures with D.W. Griffith, as “…a vision of archetypal beings out of the long inherited memory of the human race… creatures of a poetic imagination.” Brownlow concurs that “every effort… had been bent to remove the film from reality. No Chinese was so gentle, no Cockney waif so beautiful, no boxer so violent…”
It would be some years before the jingoist din of drums and marching parades had died down enough for other movies to begin reflecting on the war in hindsight. So, Griffith’s film stands unique as one of the few to have captured the timbre of the times in the immediacy of the moment. Consequently, Broken Blossoms remains one of the most moving pleas for peace and understanding to emerge from the ashes of the first World War. As Iris Barry stated, “this fairy tale of nonresistance in opposition to violence spoke of international tolerance.” Much like his good will Chinese emissary, Griffith then, with olive branch in hand, intended this film to convey his own message of brotherhood and coexistence to a war-ravaged world that could have definitely benefited from it just a few years earlier. As Schickel assesses, “…the film as a whole is still another plea for understanding amity among the peoples of the world…” Joe Franklin carries this perception forward in his Classics of the Silent Screen, seeing Broken Blossoms as “…asking eloquently (and pitifully) for understanding between different races and different beliefs.” The opening and closing gong that brackets the picture, imparts a cyclical sense of poetic closure, seemingly intended as both a wakeup call and death knell, the film drooping in sorrow for the collective worldwide loss.
As Brownlow points out, “The fact that Broken Blossoms was shot as World War I came to an end had a (direct) bearing on the treatment.” While the war itself is addressed directly only once in Broken Blossoms, when a London bobby reads the casualty list in the newspaper and remarks, “Better than last week – Only forty thousand casualties,” the entire movie, full of harrowing scenes of brawling sailors, boxing matches, domestic battery, racial violence and child abuse, is infused with a spiritual malaise borne out of four years of combat.
Censors had always criticized movies for being too violent, but through the accumulative brutality in Broken Blossoms, Griffith shows that art is simply a reflection of life and couldn’t begin to hold a candle to the real atrocities perpetrated during wartime. Using Battling Burrows’ boxing as a metaphor for battle, to the director this brutal sport is a microcosm of the greater fighting perpetrated on a massive scale by nations during wartime. Mounting Battling’s boxing matches for maximum impact, we watch the excited crowds of munitions workers, themselves dedicated to crafting the armaments of war, cheering the staged violence perpetrated in the ring.
Like the matador bullfights in Blood and Sand, boxing is presented here as though it were a modern-day blood sport, with spectators baying for the red stuff in a way that harkens back to the Roman arena. These scenes are meant to demonstrate how little the war-torn Western world, which holds itself up as a beacon of enlightenment, the shining city upon the hill, has advanced over the centuries, seeming every bit as backward and savage as the developing countries it looks down upon.
The scenes of child battery Griffith stages, between the boxer and his little daughter, are even more painful to watch than his big prize fights. A master of editing for dramatic suspense, the director builds the tension between the two characters in a manner that makes it seem as though they were roped into a ring, warily circling one another, Lucy desperately trying to placate the bullheaded Burrows, as he steadily builds up a head of steam. These traumatic confrontations are nail-biting, and as tautly sustained as any of Griffith’s classic races-to-the-rescue.
Whereas editing is used in his epics to build rhythm and play on the time element, here our hackles are raised simply by locking Lucy and Battling in such tight quarters together, where she increasingly has no hope of escape. So much so that she unthinkingly barricades herself further and further into the interior, like the besieged Camerons in The Birth of a Nation, or the Huguenot family in Intolerance, until she’s cornered herself in a confining little closet to evade her tormenter.
Along with the violence of war, Broken Blossoms touches on those other social ills that foster animosity among people of different nations, serving to inflame the hostilities that lead to armed conflict. Such as the sense of xenophobia Burrows expresses toward foreigners, the titles stating that “Above all, Battling hates those not born in the same great country as himself.” Which would have had particularly loaded meaning at the time the movie was made, given all the nationalistic, anti-German feelings fueled by WWI. And the movie directly equates the villain’s bigotry with his incipient racism, by redirecting his ire toward Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan. Many silent movies about Asian characters, or those set in the ‘Mysterious Orient,’ quote Kipling’s “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” as an object moral lesson concerning culture clash and racial incompatibility.
Where Broken Blossoms distinguishes itself, is in approaching this theme from an alternate perspective, pointing out the similarities between seemingly disparate cultures, rather than their stark differences. Griffith’s camera lingers over the Japamala prayer necklace of a Buddhist monk to draw our attention to its resemblance to Catholic rosary beads, for instance. While the titles subtly reword familiar Christian platitudes, with, “the Buddha says: ‘What thou dost not want others to do to thee, do thou not to others.’” This stresses the point that Chinese Huan, with his commitment to ‘turning the other cheek,’ is adhering more truly to Christian virtues than the actual missionaries we see cross his path, who, according to author Schickel, represent “in Griffith’s terms yet another “meddler” or “uplifter” like those depicted in his earlier films.” We’re shown how all religions seek to make the world over in their own image, imposing their beliefs upon others, rather than coexisting peaceably. Ships passing in the night, the Christian missionaries head East, while Buddhists, like Huan, migrate West. Each are unshakably certain in their convictions that their god is the one true God, and only wholesale conversion to their faith capable of curing the world and bringing about everlasting peace.
The unconscious racism and religious intolerance these seemingly devout missionaries betray while speaking to Huan, reveals that they know nothing about the land they’re setting out for, or the Chinese people they intend to convert. Considering the twenties would become the golden age of Christian missionary work in China, Broken Blossoms is daring in presenting comparative theologies in a way intended to equate them, forcing viewers to ask themselves who is really qualified to preach to whom, when all men prove imperfect vessels, setting forth from positions of implicit bias.
In addition, Broken Blossom’s open and accepting stance toward immigrants like its leading character, was novel and courageous, at a time when anti-Asian animosity was gaining heavy traction in the yellow press and politics. Movies of the era reflected a suspicious view of the Chinese as shady launderers, cat eating cooks, or nefarious white slavers, reinforcing racist ideas of a ‘Yellow Peril’ – an unfounded fear of armed encroachment upon the West Coast by Japan, China, or other lands across the Pacific. Drummed up by literature and movies, like the Hearst-funded serial Patria, such paranoid fearmongering would result in the passage of the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1925, with the intention of severely restricting Asian immigration, as the Chinese Exclusion Act had in the century before it.
Though the casting of whites in yellowface tends to blunt the force of Broken Blossoms today, weakening its attempt at positive racial representation, Griffith at least deserves credit for framing the subject of white supremacy in a negative light. The war appears to have modified (for a time at least) the racism he’d earlier advocated in The Birth of a Nation, which had openly exhorted whites to unite in defense of their ‘common Aryan birthright’ against minority advancement.
Such violent hate speech is replaced in Broken Blossoms with a plea for universal brotherhood, going deeper than both national boundaries or superficial differences of skin color. “It is a plea for tolerance as pertinent today as it was sixty years ago…” notes Anthony Slide in 50 Great American Silent Films 1912-1920. “Broken Blossoms makes a gentle, heart-rending plea for brotherly love.” One that remains quite relevant, with anti-Asian hate crimes having skyrocketed since the start of COVID-19. Harking back to the notion of ‘racial disgrace and dishonor,’ which sent The Little Sister sailing over that cliff in his earlier epic, in Broken Blossoms, it’s bigoted villain Battling Burrows who’s explicitly described as being incensed by the thought of his little girl placed in a compromising position by a ‘yellow’ man. The titles have him fuming in disgust, “You! With a dirty Chink!” And by displacing such prejudice onto the bad guy, rather than being espoused by the ‘heroes,’ as it was in The Birth of a Nation, it becomes just another moral failing to be hissed and booed by the audience.
So full of self-righteous racial animus, in the midst of America’s notorious Red Summer, which the popularity of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had helped contribute to, Burrows’ reactionary behavior is the movie’s definitive means of passing judgement on such bigotry. Consequently, Broken Blossoms would seem to represent a complete sea change in Griffith’s own way of thinking, expressing sentiments unseen in the director’s work since at least his early short The Chink at Golden Gulch (1910). And though his conversion would be short-lived, lasting only until Dream Street two years later, by which time his Chinese characters had fully reverted back to stereotype, with Broken Blossoms Griffith even subverts his trademark ‘Ride of the Klans’ at the end, so that it’s the ethnic hero racing to rescue an imperiled white girl from the menacing hands of a man of her own race.
Since the movie’s sympathies here fall strictly on the side of the young lovers, audiences are openly encouraged to identify with the interracial couple. Making Broken Blossoms the rare film of the period to treat its mixed-race theme with anything approaching genuine tenderness and feeling. As Brownlow points out, “Griffith knew that his audiences would expect The Cheat treatment as soon as it laid eyes on the Oriental…” So, he instead flipped their preconceived expectations by making a “film in which the white man is the brute and the Oriental the apotheosis of gentleness…” As Griffith fully intended, by forcing viewers to observe Lucy’s father relentlessly beating her time and again, they become increasingly outraged, wishing to protect her as strongly as Huan does. Feeling any treatment would be preferable to what she receives at the hands of her abuser, audiences were less primed than they normally would have been to question the thought of an overprotective Chinaman taking a white girl into his bed.
To further disarm moviegoers who might potentially be put off, Griffith frames this Dickensian melodrama in terms of his own Victorian mindset. Which allows him to stress the chaste purity and spirituality of Huan’s love. As Richard Schickel puts it, “at most the Oriental is seen in genteel longing for a love he knows to be forbidden.” While Lucy is depicted as being too young to understand his interest in her. The director was so preoccupied with taking off the sexual edge, so that this love story wouldn’t seem threatening to white audiences that, as Marjorie Rosen pointed out in Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream, he failed to question that his film presents an adult man in love with an underage girl who still plays with dolls. Though according to Edward Wagenknecht, “Burke’s Lucy is twelve as against Griffith’s fifteen,” it’s a fact likely to make viewers far more uncomfortable now, than the long-shattered taboos surrounding miscegenation.
For Broken Blossoms, the director built an impressive recreation of a bustling Chinese port city and certain sections of Limehouse on the backlot. But by restricting the majority of the movie to only a few sparse, indoor sets, Griffith was able to tightly control the visual design to a degree heretofore unprecedented in his films. Despite the presence of Chinese technical advisor Moon Kwan, Griffith’s approach to his atmospheric onscreen spaces became increasingly imaginative and reliant on poetic license. Heavily draped in fragrant incense, the established ambiance hangs in the air like an opium cloud. With velvet fog, backdrop paintings that suggest the impressionists, manipulated light and shadows, mist and smoke pots, the director prefabricated within the studio walls a highly artificial, entirely self-contained moviescape for his characters to inhabit.
Director Maurice Tourneur, influenced by French theater, had introduced an equally stylized look to film a year earlier with the illustrative, storybook designs of his The Blue Bird and Prunella. And Griffith appears to have been inspired to follow along a similarly experimental line. In so doing, he anticipated, if only in proof of concept, the German expressionism which would artistically predominate American cinema during the next decade. Iris Barry agreed, observing that “(Broken Blossoms) cannot have been without its influence in Germany; we know that it profoundly affected Louis Delluc and his disciples in France…”
Describing the expressionist school in The Liveliest Art, Arthur Knight quotes Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler in observing, “they rarely ventured outside the studio, preferring to create their settings from the ground up, to control every aspect of their productions.” Carrying the point further, Eileen Bowser states, “Broken Blossoms is a controlled film in every respect. Abetted by the influx of German films in the next few years, it had the effect of turning American film-makers away from location shooting. In it, Griffith demonstrated that it was possible to recreate an exotic atmosphere within the studio walls.”
As John Baxter puts it in Sixty Years of Hollywood, “Absent from Hollywood for two years… in Britain and France, Griffith returned to make a film which was unconventionally European in sensibility and style… Broken Blossoms has the dream-like elegance of a Weine or a Murnau work.” David A. Cook goes even further in describing Broken Blossoms’ “distinctly Continental” lighting and photography in A History of Narrative Film, opining that “The logical extension of Griffith’s metaphoric or symbolic style… occurs in the angular perspectives of German Expressionism and the subjective camera technique of F.W. Murnau and Karl Freund… (Broken Blossoms is) simultaneously Griffith’s most richly evocative and tightly controlled film… creat(ing) out of brooding London fogs, smoke-filled opium dens, and the pearl-like delicacy of the boy’s rooms a mise-en-scène worthy of – and probably contributory to – the studio-produced Kammerspielfilm of the German cinema.”
Griffith presents a war-time London that’s meant to be more impressionistic than realistic, softening the movie’s bruising wallops greatly, so that the picture can legitimately be described as ‘beautiful’ and ‘poetic,’ despite its violent content. As Joe Franklin pointed out in Classics of the Silent Screen, “For all its tenderness, it was an ugly story, demanding as much sensitivity and understanding as its audiences could give it. More than that, it needed the very special visual treatment that Griffith gave it.” And such artistry goes far toward carrying the movie beyond melodrama, or as Schickel phrases it “… rising above modest origins to attain memorability,” giving it the finish of a lyrical elegy.
Broken Blossoms was purposely marketed as one of America’s first conscious ‘art’ films, a special event to be experienced outside the everyday program release, a film to be placed in the same class as poetry and painting, elevating it into rarified realms worthy of Shakespearean sonnet. Anthony Slide felt that “It is poetry on film, poetry in the visual images and poetry in the titles.” And Lewis Jacobs further notes that “The Literary Digest concluded that “… on that night (of the opening) the screen umped five years… with the showing of Broken Blossoms a new art arrived, an art as important as music or poetry… Said The New York Morning Telegraph more effusively – Such art so real one can think only of the classics, and of the masterly paintings remembered through the ages; so exquisite, so fragile, so beautifully and fragrantly poetic is Broken Blossoms.”
Requiring a very delicate hand, so as not to blunt its finer qualities, Broken Blossoms indeed comes across as a very fragile work, which would fall to pieces at a harsh word of criticism. As Joe Franklin eloquently states, the movie “… is almost as fragile as its sensitive title. It is a film very easily shattered both by insensitive audiences, and by the inadequate presentation it is often given today.” As related in Behind the Screen, a diffusion screen was used in front of the lens to produce soft focus effects, and during the movie’s original road show engagements, additional colored beams of diffused blue and pink light were bathed upon the screen by special projectors, to further enhance the iridescent shimmer of certain images, an idea Griffith personally patented for seventeen years. Per Franklin, “its tinting and toning were an integral part of the whole; gentle rose hues, savage reds, rich blues for the night scenes, and other tones matching every mood and nuance… (Seeing a black and white print) is tantamount to seeing but a pale shadow of what the film originally was… But in its original form (Broken Blossoms) still weaves that same magic spell…”
What makes the movie’s visual quality further stand out, is its innovative use of miniatures and cutouts, which were actively incorporated into the film in a mixed media manner. With this artistic canvas, comprised of moving parts, certain compositions actually suggest the silhouette style of pioneer animator Lotte Reiniger. Occasionally, a cutout sail will be maneuvered before a frontispiece comprised of boats or dockyard pilings, arranged in the immediate foreground, with a painting serving as scenic backdrop. The scene fades before the effect can become too obvious, but it creates a filmy, multi-plane tableau that imparts a greater sense of depth and dimension beyond that routinely experienced in films of the time. On other occasions, it appears as though figures were moving through living paintings. Which isn’t so surprising considering Griffith closely modeled the visual concept of his Limehouse after the paintings of British artist Charles Napier Hemy.
Occasionally, there may be one source of light, like a lamp, in the foreground, surrounded by fish netting, while the slow-moving tugboats in the midground are thrown in shadow beneath an overcast sky. The director’s masterful use of chiaroscuro transforms these shipyards into an exotic port of call, the same way Josef von Sternberg would, in his Docks of New York a decade later. As Peter Cowie elaborates in his Eighty Years of Hollywood the “…early scenes, in “a great Chines treaty port,” are filled with the velvety, almost phosphorescent lighting effects later hailed as revolutionary in the films of… von Sternberg.”
According to critic George Sadoul, the director’s use of fog and shadows, to create greater tonal density, was influenced by the inky, inchoate photography of Tourneur’s own lost, London-set Sporting Life released the previous year, and which had also been peppered with professional prizefight scenes. The dock, over which “The cloaking river mist,” settles like pea soup, creates a fogbound London out of an earlier era. And as characters cross the wharf front, the hazy cinematography tends to blend things together, giving the movie the look of a mood piece suited to the balmy clime.
Perhaps most markedly, Broken Blossoms was ahead of its time in the way Griffith used the camera to visually externalize his lovers’ feelings, creating an aura of romance, similar to how the German Expressionists would find new ways to extend their own characters’ thoughts and emotions into tangible space. “By 1919 the motion picture was learning fast how to deal freely with ideas and feelings” according to Iris Barry. Lewis Jacobs further notes, “impressionistic photography” (gauzes and soft-focus effects), then new enough to be startling … were supported by a sustained use of the camera to evoke moods, feelings, pictorial qualities. The “soft-focus” suited the tenderness of the tale.”
As stated in the excellent PBS documentary Father of Film, along with longtime cameraman G.W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, Griffith brought in portrait photographer Henrik Sartov, “a specialist in mood lighting and soft focus, or “impressionistic,” photography” according to David A. Cook, to give certain scenes an airbrushed, ethereal air that is lovely to look at. In his book, Schickel expresses the belief that the contribution of “Sartov, who has a “special effects” credit on the film… was also obviously larger than this co-photography credit implies. For neither before nor after did Bitzer shoot anything that had the quality of Broken Blossoms.”
According to Anthony Slide, “Griffith blended his ties with literature and Victorian morality … to bring a new romanticism to the screen.” And Cook goes on to refer to “the film’s dreamlike atmospheric context – its mood drenched mise-en-scène.” Dreamily filmed scenes like those of the lovebirds in their serene nook above Cheng Huan’s emporium, would deeply influence the look of screen romances in the decade to come, setting a higher standard for cinematography. According to Wagenknecht, “It was a studio film, which had wide influence upon subsequent production.” Emphasizing “a new style of lighting and photography…” Iris Barry agrees that “In the development of the American film, Broken Blossoms marked a distinct stage.”
In London, both Huan and Lucy are introduced with delicately shaded irises and misty-eyed lenses that impart a faraway, wistful air to them, befitting the innocence and idealism embodied by these crushed romantics. But Griffith’s creative approach to romanticism is most striking in his conception of Cheng Huan’s chambers. Lit with ornately decorated Chinese lanterns that cast shimmering shafts of light and shade all about, the Chinaman’s mystical curiosity shop is made to seem a direct portal to the mysterious East. Such ambiance imparts his space with the semblance of an enchanted realm, far removed from everyday reality. His inner sanctum possesses an iridescent glow of wonder, all the secrets of the ages waiting to be unveiled to worthy initiates. As Wagenknecht notes, “Burke does not tell us how Cheng got his living in Limehouse,” so this original concept is also unique to the picture.
When Lucy, struggling through the streets in a stupor after another beating, stumbles over Cheng’s doorstep as if fate were drawing them together, she may as well have trespassed into his own waking dream. “With perhaps a whiff of the lilied pipe still in his brain,” Huan even mistakes her initially for a figment of his imagination. More accustomed to gazing upon her apparition outside his shop window, while smoking his hookah, he suspects he may still be floating in an ecstatic state, when he wanders across Lucy’s prone form lying on the floor. She might be an angel fallen from heaven as if in answer to his most fervent, unspoken prayer.
For her own part, Lucy, half-dead upon her arrival, feels to have crossed over the threshold, gone to a better place, when she awakens under Huan’s tender care, experiencing the rapturous joy of happiness for the first time in her life. As Wagenknecht points out, “Lucy’s passage from the “home” where she has known only cruelty to the Oriental refuge which Cheng Huan’s loving-kindness sets up for her is a passage from hell to heaven.” For the briefest of periods, in one another’s presence, the pair is given a sublime foretaste of the sweet hereafter, a heaven here on earth. As in later films, such as Seventh Heaven, this swoony air of rarified romance can only be reached by means of upward ascension, climbing as close to the celestial stars as it’s possible to get. Like the humble garret in Borzage’s later film, it’s Cheng’s upstairs sanctuary which raises the lovers above the squalor surrounding them on ground level, lifting them up in the clouds where they belong.
As with Pirandello’s Enchanted Cottage, in these rooms, love wields a transformative effect on both, as each becomes conscious of the other’s inner beauty, which the rest of the world has been blind to. As if seeing one another for the first time when they initially cross paths, Cheng rubs his eyes to make sure they’re not deceiving him, while Lucy opens her own fluttering lids as she slowly comes to. Though others dismiss the tattered girl as an unfortunate street urchin, Cheng places her on a pedestal, dressing her up like a princess. While he’s regarded with suspicion in racist Limehouse as ‘Just another Chink storekeeper,’ once having rescued her, Lucy imbues Cheng with all the valor and noble spirit of a fairytale knight in shining armor. For a brief period of time they blossom in one another’s presence, revealing their full potential.
While these tender moments possess a dreamy quality that is breathtaking to behold, once the film shifts to the low dives, gin sodden bars and boxing rings inhabited by Battling and his cronies, the cinematography adopts the gritty, realistic look of those milieus. Schickel elaborates, “The contrast between the squalor of Lucy’s hovel and the elegance of the apartment above the Yellow Man’s shop, which becomes her refuge, enforces the contrast between his values and her father as no amount of melodrama can… A visual contrast is enforced; everything involving Burrows is shot in almost documentary style, while everything involving the Chinese rescuer is diffused, softened.” Hence, the soft-focus, impressionist photography reserved for the lovers, battles for screen time with the abrasive, graininess of the scenes with Battling, placing these duel visual styles on an eventual collision course.
So, inevitably, Battling’s violence invades even the little corner of heaven where the young lovers believed they could find sanctuary from the harsh realities of the rest of the world. Resultingly, their cozy little nook is sacrilegiously smashed to smithereens by the boxer, as if bombarded and shelled into rubble by an enemy army. Schickel believes “… the complete devastation with which the picture concludes is without precedence in the Griffith canon, probably without precedence in any major film by anyone else up until that time.”
Like that lone butterfly wondrously decorating the scorched earth at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front, the last living thing of beauty in an otherwise barren, war-ravaged hellscape, Broken Blossoms’ floral metaphors are meant to reflect the shattered disillusionment of a post-war world, both Cheng and Lucy fallen petals representing an entire lost generation. Similar to that flowering branch seen trampled in the titles, they’re the movie’s real broken blossoms. Fragile blooms of rare beauty, budding with promise for a brighter tomorrow, like the “Hopeful Geranium” from Intolerance, they’re indifferently crushed, left to wilt and wither, when they should have been carefully cultivated by a world that appreciated their worth.
Broken Blossoms would be the final film Griffith made in Hollywood before relocating his company to Mamaroneck, Long Island. And despite initial doubts concerning it’s commercial appeal, the movie’s unexpected financial success, on such a modest budget, would allow him to equip his new studio. It couldn’t have been a more auspicious start. In Eileen’s Bowser’s estimation, “With Broken Blossoms Griffith proved himself once more the leader of the film world, and the critical acclaim that greeted this film surpassed any he had previously received.” As assessed by David A. Cook, “One critic wrote that Griffith “had far exceeded the power of the written word…” This praise was well deserved, for Broken Blossoms is (his) most highly integrated film, as well as his most personal and poetic.”
Reviews of movies past to present