If Oscar ever cited performances in shorts, there’s no doubt Charlie Chaplin would have won the 1918-19 Best Actor award for Shoulder Arms. Even though his two-reel service comedy about WW1 trench life was rollicking slapstick, a ‘low’ genre frowned upon by the prestige conscious Academy, it received virtually unanimous acclaim, proving Hollywood’s single biggest morale booster for privates during the war. Meaning, if nothing else, Shoulder Arms would’ve surely nabbed a short subject award. By the close of the decade, Chaplin was the world’s most famous star, and had been celebrated as the screen’s most accomplished comic genius for years. But he had yet to make his first feature, and thereby qualify for serious Oscar consideration.
With that in mind, it’s possible the Academy would have finally gotten around to honoring another too long neglected genre icon – Western star William S. Hart. As with John Wayne after him, Hart was considered a limited actor and criticism from certain quarters concerning the standardization creeping into his trademark good-bad man persona had become loud enough by 1918-19, to induce Hart to attempt broadening his range by dabbling in modern dress comedy and gangster melodrama. In addition to these roles far afield of Hart’s usual purview, he also appeared in the ambitious Riddle Gawne, about a feud between two ranchers that spans decades. But Hart’s biggest hit of the year would come with Wagon Tracks, in which he played a frontier scout leading a caravan of prairie schooners across the desert. Critics admired the picture’s aspirations toward the epic, and it proved so popular at the box office, that Paramount was induced to buy the rights to The Covered Wagon, with the intention of exploiting its similar premise. Having come out with guns a-blazing, Hart’s stature in 1918-19 was such that he was even invited to join the other ‘Big Four’ as a founding member of United Artists. All these admirable attempts to expand his range, together with the cowboy star’s clout within the industry, would, I believe, have been enough to finally lasso him a long overdue Oscar. At the expense of arguing with myself however, I think Hart had deserved an even bigger award haul a couple of years earlier, for his masterpiece Hell’s Hinges. So, I’ll skedaddle over to someone else for my own Oscar preference this year – Richard Barthelmess, who would himself go on to become one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Barthelmess was still a bit green in 1918-19. He’d first garnered attention only a couple of years earlier in War Brides, his casting a favor to his mother, who’d been star Nazimova’s English coach. He’d been steadily ascending since as a romantic lead at Paramount, frequently playing opposite Marguerite Clark, Mary Pickford’s closest rival at the time. Paired with Dorothy Gish in several of her comedies, the actress recommended Barthelmess to director D.W. Griffith, who was looking for a more robust replacement for his current leading man Robert Harron, who was under threat of being drafted into the army any day. Becoming a member of Griffith’s stock company and being so closely associated with the revered director, it’s possible Barthelmess would have wangled at least a nomination as Best Actor, upon receiving his first fawning critical notices as the tragic ‘Yellow Man’ in Broken Blossoms. As Photoplay noted in a September 1919 profile, “… until then a premier juvenile of possibilities, (Barthelmess) suddenly showed himself as an actor of some subtlety…” Considering that the teens encompass the highest percentage of missing silent films, resulting in a sparse field of competition for 1918-19, a real nadir in Hollywood history, I’m frankly inclined to stick with Dick as the Best Choice myself. And not solely for lack of other options. Though he would continue growing as an actor in the coming decades, his performance in the movie was strong enough to have warranted an award win in an otherwise lackluster year, making it a clean Oscar sweep for Broken Blossoms.
In the movie, Barthelmess plays Cheng Huan, a Chinese Buddhist sent to spread his religion’s message of peace and tolerance to the war-torn Western world. Soon beaten down by the racism and xenophobia he encounters, he’s instead left a disillusioned opium addict in London’s Limehouse district. The only thing left that fires his finer senses, is a local waif, Lucy (Lillian Gish), who he frequently sees passing by his shop window. Beaten senseless one night by her boxer father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), Huan takes the girl in and mends her wounds. Following many days of bliss, he finds that Battling has dragged Lucy home and killed her. Outraged, Huan shoots the brute, before taking his own life.
With a solid career dotted, in retrospect, by more decent than striking performances, the “rather bland and unexciting” Barthelmess, as Richard Schickel describes him in D.W. Griffith: An American Life, was never considered a very dynamic actor. Nor is he regarded as one of the iconic stars of the silent period, though he sustained his career for a longer timespan than most of his contemporaries. He successfully crossed the sound barrier, even being nominated for the very first Best Actor Oscar, for playing a boxer himself, if one turned doughboy in The Patent Leather Kid. After this strong start, Barthelmess hardened his squeaky-clean image to play more craggy, tough characters, in tune with the hard-bitten Depression era, and had the good fortune to land in many interesting cult films and near-classics during the early ‘30s.
Having starred as country boys, back-to-back, in Griffith’s Way Down East, and Henry King’s Tol’able David, Barthelmess came to represent the all-American ideal in the early ‘20s. So it’s surprising how often he’d go on to be cast as an wide array of ‘ethnic’ types over the course of his career. His dark looks allowed him to play Cuban in The Bright Shawl, Italian in The Beautiful City (1925), Spanish in The Lash (1930), Native American in Massacre (1934), and Chinese again in Son of the Gods (1930). Griffith himself would subsequently cast Barthelmess as Mexican in Scarlet Days, in lieu of another seemingly unsuitable up-and-comer Dorothy Gish had recommended, by the name of Rudolph Valentino. Before he’d settled on Barthelmess’ casting in Broken Blossoms, Griffith had begun rehearsing veteran character actor George Fawcett in the lead. And as Barthelmess commented in a May 2, 1945 letter to Barnet Bravermann, quoted by Arthur Lennig in The Film Journal (Fall-Winter 1972), “I can state that after having watched Fawcett rehearse. . . I merely went into rehearsals myself and copied every mannerism that Fawcett had given the part. I couldn’t have done better, as Fawcett was a fine actor.” According to Kevin Brownlow in Behind the Mask of Innocence, Griffith also took Barthelmess to Los Angeles’ Chinatown to absorb the atmosphere and better get into character.
All the same, Barthelmess, a white actor in yellowface, seems miscast in Broken Blossoms for all the obvious reasons. Among Hollywood stars at that time, only Sessue Hayakawa, though Japanese himself, could have done the role anything approaching justice. As is, Barthelmess’ unconvincing makeup detracts from our full, unadulterated appreciation of his performance now. In Seductive Cinema, archivist James Card goes as far as to argue that this “major aesthetic error… militates against one’s acceptance of the film today as a great work.” Like blackface, it was a holdover from the stage, owing more to theatrical tradition than the screen.
According to Brownlow (Behind the Mask of Innocence), “Instead of wearing makeup, Barthelmess achieved the narrow eyes by wearing a tight rubber band underneath his Chinese skullcap.” But Card criticizes the actor further for playing “the lead as a traditional stage Chinaman,” with his “eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands tucked into his sleeves and made to walk hunched over with teetering steps. All… nineteenth-century theatrical cliché.” Implying he does all but spout words of wisdom like Confucius out of a fortune cookie. Either way, the heightened realism demanded by the camera badly exposes the artifice. Barthelmess stands out most offensively in the opening scenes, where, as Card notes, “Griffith made the mistake of surrounding (him) with real Chinese, none of whom looked anything like the chief protagonist.” (Seductive Cinema). As he mingles among the extras, the inauthenticity of Barthelmess’ appearance clashes uncomfortably. Following this unfavorable first impression however, where there’s clearly something intrinsically off about him physically, the problematic makeup becomes considerably less distracting. As Broken Blossoms unfolds, Barthelmess’ characterization becomes increasingly real to us. Viewers begin to see past the false face he’s put on, much as Lucy begins to look past his race, into the beauty of his soul. Once Barthelmess begins moving through Griffith’s studio sets, captured by the camera with the ethereal air of the otherworldly, his manipulated features actually begin to blend into the equally stylized, overall visual design. With a little artistic license, we can accept him as a representation of the thing he’s playing, an abstract placeholder here for the real thing itself, like those silhouettes and cutouts meant to represent the ship masts and dockyards surrounding him. By subsuming his emotions, through limited physical movement, Barthelmess’ “convincing restraint,” according to Iris Barry in D.W. Griffith: American Film Master, actually seems more realistic to modern eyes, than the overly demonstrative gesticulation movie goers tend to associate with silent acting. While some historians have criticized this underplaying, wanting more from the performance, I don’t believe Broken Blossoms would work as well without Barthelmess’ simmering slow burn throughout most of the picture. It makes the ending all the more astonishing, when the actor impressively unleashes all his emotions in a torrent of wounded fury.
If one can push past the picture’s retrogressive furtherance of cultural stereotype, there’s no real reason to regard Barthelmess’ performance as demeaning. Even today’s viewers can appreciate Broken Blossoms’ highly unconventional depiction of a Chinese ‘hero,’ as Danny Peary points out in his Guide for the Film Fanatic, a treatment which was years ahead of its time. As in such earlier shorts as The Redman and the Child (1908) and The Zulu’s Heart (1908), it wasn’t unprecedented for Griffith to depict tragic, self-sacrificing ‘ethnic’ heroes as saviors of white children. Broken Blossoms places the Barthelmess character very much in this same tradition.
Watching over Lucy as she’s permitted to roam the streets unchaperoned, for instance, his Chinaman comes across as Prince Valiant, a knight in shining armor invisibly orchestrating events, to ensure a damsel in distress remains safe from unwanted advances. As John Baxter states in Sixty Years of Hollywood, “Barthelmess’ black-clothed Yellow Man, movements as fluid and alien as those of Conrad Veidt’s somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… watches silently as she moves by, unaware of his existence and love.” He even ‘escorts’ her home, following from a discreet distance, to make sure she arrives safely, unaware of the real danger she’s walking into, the second she crosses her threshold.
While the titles and credits refer to him only as ‘The Yellow Man’ (still an improvement over Thomas Burke’s original title, The Chink and the Child), this generalization tends to bolster inherently racist perceptions that all Asians are interchangeable, that they ‘look alike,’ therefore depriving them of their individuality. The sign hung outside this Chinaman’s shop however, identifies him by name as Cheng Huan, and Barthelmess imparts to him a depth of humanity virtually unheard of for Chinese depictions in other movies at that time. Under Griffith’s guidance, he portrays the character in a remarkably sympathetic light.Turn-of-the-century stereotype regarded the Chinese as a demure, passive and submissive people. Even the men were associated with culturally ‘feminine’ pursuits like cooking and laundry. All blushing and bashful, Barthelmess, for his part, goes out of his way to emphasize Huan’s physical delicacy, while draped in silk kimonos, conical hats, and fluttering hand fans. Indeed, Lillian Gish’s oft-quoted opinion that Barthelmess was “the most beautiful man who ever went before the camera,” may have been formed by the almost androgynous way Griffith chose to present him here. In other films, the director might present his leading man in this way to undercut his masculinity, as he did The Rhapsode in the Babylonian story of Intolerance, poet Robert Harron in Hearts of the World, effete Charles Emmett Mack in America, or neuralgic Creighton Hale in The Idol Dancer. Presenting him as sensitive and aesthetic initially, only to later ‘toughen’ him up. But here, Barthelmess’ Chinese character is meant to be the personification of pacifism, so the more he yields to testosterone-fueled impulses, like fighting, violence and physical aggression, the further he is seen to be slipping from his ideals. The thought of violence abhorrent to him, Huan “shrinks in horror,” watching a group of roughhousing sailors, with their salty language, drinking and carousing. Blessed are the peacemakers, but Barthelmess’ small-statured emissary, attempting to play mediator by interjecting himself between the bigger, burlier Americans, merely finds himself caught up in the midst of their melee. Leaving him the only person battered and bruised afterward, for all his good intentions. The picture’s point here is that even seemingly harmless violence like this can escalate, prove catching like a wasting disease that infects everyone in the end.
Carried by these transient wayfarers passing through, casual warlike ways appear to have been exported around the globe during the recent world war, along with the other commodities of Western culture. Though this traumatic event leaves him “Convinced more than ever that the great nations across the sea need the lessons of the gentle Buddha,” given Huan’s dress and delicate physical conditioning, it seems doubtful to viewers he’ll prove capable of setting any sort of example Westerners like those rough and tumble sailors would be interested in adopting.
In most movies, Griffith has his heroine start out as an innocent girl, and mature over the course of his films, as she “learn(s) the ways of the hard, cruel world,” according to Danny Peary in Close-Ups. But in Broken Blossoms it’s leading man Barthelmess who instead fulfills that function. Raised in the cloistered air of a monastery, by well-meaning but equally unworldly monks, he’s woefully unprepared to deal with life’s ‘sordid realities,’ when he sets out to minister to the West. Having never been sufficiently exposed to sin and wickedness himself, he hasn’t developed the sturdy moral fiber needed to steer others clear of the wayward path. It’s the blind leading the blind here. And so, disillusioned, he’ll ultimately succumb to those same worldly temptations he sought to ward others away from.
When we pick up with him again, “some years later,” he’s been beaten down by life, “The Yellow Man’s youthful dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life.” Having adopted a newfound cynicism, his great soul seems to have withered, and Barthelmess appears shrunk and shriveled in the part. Hugging his own gaunt form for comfort and reassurance, his back bowed like Lucy’s, he appears as if he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, his own cross to bear. As it was with so many other indigenous peoples the world over, it’s ‘The Yellow Man’s’ grand illusions that are left shattered here, by First Contact with the Western world. His high-minded ideals, the forsaking of his non-violent principles, have become the blossoms left broken, ground into dust.
Having reneged long ago on the sacred mission entrusted to him by the Buddhists, this prodigal son now spends his time frequenting opium dens. And Barthelmess is great in these scenes, stressing the changes that have come over the character in the interim. Now just another dreg of society, he freely pollutes his once holy temple by consorting with loose women and huffing on his opium pipe, smoking away the pain in an attempt to forget how far he’s fallen from grace. Wracked with guilt over his failure to live up to his own high standards, he squanders his time gambling on games of chance. This pacifist once horrified by his first exposure to violence, now forcibly separates the squabbling men accusing each other of cheating at cards, without giving their altercation a second thought.
As conceived at the outset, Barthelmess’ Buddhist, all meek and mild, is meant to be abiding by those very tenets the West more closely identifies with its own Christian religion. Which leads to the actor’s most richly ironic moment, where his now disillusioned Huan encounters a young Christian missionary setting out for China, to ‘convert the heathen,’ with all the same burning religious zeal he once possessed himself. Having become more tolerant and accepting, from exposure to the suffering of Limehouse’s downtrodden, Huan has developed a healthy agnosticism that leaves him bemused at the missionary’s avowed sense of moral superiority.
It’s Lucy who recalls him to full, responsive life for the first time in many years, serving as his muse and inspiration. She’s a lifeline rekindling his faith in humanity and appreciation for all the finer things he believed he’d forsaken. Despite her bedraggled state, to Huan, this cruelly mistreated and uncared for waif seems a vision of loveliness in an otherwise cruel and ugly world. Like Barthelmess’ crippled war vet, in the original version of The Enchanted Cottage, Huan is able to see beyond his loved one’s winsome plainness, directly to the beauty within (“The Beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart.”). Or as Arthur Knight paints a picture of him in The Liveliest Art, “Barthelmess dreamily holding a flower in Broken Blossoms bespoke a wistful longing for beauty.”
The movie adopts a soft-focus visual quality whenever Barthelmess is onscreen, reflecting those shimmering ideals his character initially holds. At other times, the way the camera lingers over the actor makes Barthelmess glow like some ephemeral being, vague and not quite there, perhaps a guardian angel, sent to lift Lucy up above the sordidness of her sorrows. As he watches her play with one of the dolls from his collection, Barthelmess make it clear that Huan’s imagining her as his wife and the mother of their own child (“He dreams her prattle, her bird-like ways, her sweet self – are all his own.”). Pretending the three of them are a happy little family, allows him to piece back together, for a brief time at least, the “Broken bits of his life in his new home.” Huan’s plush, upper floors, ornately decorated in traditional Chinese fashion, appear the last living link to the man he once was, and it’s here where he’ll devoutly build a shrine to Lucy, from which she can be worshipped in the way he feels she deserves to be. By mending this blossom, ground into the dirt and tossed in the gutter, restoring her like one of his broken dolls, he can likewise piece together the shards of those crushed dreams believed long discarded.
In racist melodrama of the day, it was standard practice to have ethnic types who trespassed into white society ‘unmasked.’ No matter how cultured they seemed on the surface, once the thin veneer of civilization was stripped away, the base nature of the primitive ‘brute’ subsisting beneath, would be exposed for all to see. In Broken Blossoms, this concept is purposefully turned on its head. Indeed, it’s boxer Battling Burrows, representative of the Western, white world, who’s depicted as the uncivilized beast, rather than the peace-loving Chinaman. Or, as Kevin Brownlow states, Broken Blossoms is the rare “film in which the white man is the brute and the Oriental the apotheosis of gentleness…” The contrast between the two is established from the outset. As Lewis Jacobs observed in The Rise of the American Film, “Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman appears as sensitive and fragile as the story wants us to believe… he is a vivid character in contrast to (Donald Crisp’s) large, restless, energetic Brute.” Indeed, the extreme closeups of Huan as he fleetingly advances on Lucy with wicked intentions, are directly intercut with images of boxer Burrows in the ring, literally fighting his opponent. Suggesting Huan is, symbolically, sparring with his own shadow self, successfully beating down and mastering his carnal impulses. Furthering this visual link between the men, Griffith later repeats Huan’s extreme closeup verbatim, when Burrows surprises his daughter in the Chinaman’s bed, and likewise stalks menacingly toward her. The difference of course is that the Chinaman treats her like a princess, where her white father treats her like dirt. Barthelmess’ pacifist occupies the opposite extreme on the masculine spectrum than case studies like Burrows, whose boxing matches are staged in a way intended to recall that sailor free-for-all from the beginning. Further emphasizing how Western-style violence has become endemic. As author Schickel says, “The refinement of (Huan’s) sensibility in the movie version makes the contrast with the stupid, violent and deeply prejudiced Burrows the more vivid. He is intended as an example of Eastern virtue, and, implicitly, as a living criticism of Western values.” It’s through Barthelmess’ Huan that we’re shown it takes more strength and fortitude to restrain oneself, and not fight back, than succumb to the sort of macho, alpha-aggressions embodied by Burrows. Whose violent, untempered impulses, when escalated to the world stage, suggest the sort of aggressive posturing that had recently led to war. Those who cannot create, destroy, and the dramatic tension of Broken Blossoms vibrates along the collision course set between the pacifist character’s appreciation for all that is cultured and beautiful in the world, and Burrows’ embodiment of mankind’s most belligerent, destructive and warlike impulses.
So, when Huan returns home to find his world in ruins, Burrows having killed the one thing of beauty left in his life, Barthelmess’ plangent howl surpasses, on a visceral level, the famous homecoming scene in The Birth of a Nation, with its own anguish over war’s destructiveness. Having snapped upon seeing the crushed blossoms of his shattered dreams scattered all about him, Huan appears to revert to the ‘primitive’ by shooting Burrows. But rather than part of his predisposed nature, his fateful, final act is instead a complete perversion of it, proving this peaceful dove to have been fortune’s fool all along. “Cheng is a pacifist, so one might have expected a pacifist finale…” Brownlow complains in Behind the Mask of Innocence, but this is, of course the film’s grand irony. Though it initially feels like poetic justice watching Burrows finally receive retribution, viewers can derive no lasting satisfaction from it, since we sense that in murdering him, Huan is really killing his own soul, that better nature that was committed to non-violent means of resolving conflict. Having vainly sought the higher road, he finds the only answer to violence to be more violence.
Which is why he turns the knife on himself at the end, in his final act of self-violence, knowing those who live by the sword, are fated to die by it. This philosophical man of peace, who tried to live his life according to the precepts of pacifism, meets his tragic end in a messy murder-suicide, before a shrine dedicated to the gentle Buddha. By succumbing to his impulse for revenge in this way, instead of turning the other cheek, Huan has, in effect, become the same sort of vicious beast Battling always embodied. Corrupted by exposure to the Western world, he’s ultimately infected and destroyed by the very violence that once so sickened him.
“Tol’able David aside,” Anthony Slide notes in 50 Great American Silent Films 1912-1920, “(Broken Blossoms) probably presented Richard Barthelmess with the greatest acting role of his career, and the young player grasped the opportunity to give a sensitive and beautiful portrayal.” In Sixty Years of Hollywood, author Baxter concurs, “The film’s set-pieces are made for Miss Gish… but Barthelmess, in a role demanding the most rigid restriction of mannerism and movement, is its true star.” “The soul of sensitivity and contemplation,” according to Peter Cowie in Eighty Years of Hollywood, for good or ill, Barthelmess’ meditative, reserved, introspective performance here would set the style for classic Hollywood’s depiction of the Chinese national character onscreen, at least up to WW2. Laying the groundwork to attempt increasingly more rounded, multi-faceted, if still problematic representation in, amongst others, such movies as The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932) and The Good Earth (1937), a part Barthelmess was briefly considered for.
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