The most elemental and uncluttered of D.W. Griffith's major melodramas, BROKEN BLOSSOMS (or THE YELLOW MAN AND THE GIRL) is the tragic story of a Chinese man who falls in love with a Cockney waif. Within its 90 minutes, Griffith does more to atone for the racial intolerance he betrayed in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1914) than he managed to do in his three-and-a-half-hour...read more
The most elemental and uncluttered of D.W. Griffith's major melodramas, BROKEN BLOSSOMS (or THE YELLOW MAN AND THE GIRL) is the tragic story of a Chinese man who falls in love with a Cockney waif. Within its 90 minutes, Griffith does more to atone for the racial intolerance he betrayed
in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1914) than he managed to do in his three-and-a-half-hour epic INTOLERANCE (1916). In a 1952 survey conducted by the British film magazine Sight and Sound, BROKEN BLOSSOMS was cited as one of the 20 best films of all time. When the publication repeated the survey a decade
later, the movie received not a single vote.
An idealistic young man named Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) moves from his native China to London's Limehouse district, where he hopes to introduce the area's roughnecks to the pacifistic teachings of Buddhism. Instead, he becomes isolated, lonely, and disillusioned. Battling Burrows (Donald
Crisp), a prizefighter and a drunkard, lives in a mean flat where he regularly terrorizes and beats his 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Lucy (Lillian Gish).
One day, after a particularly brutal beating, Lucy wanders into Cheng Huan's small shop, where she collapses. The shopkeeper, who has long been smitten by the fragile beauty and bruised sensitivity of the waif, carries her to an upstairs room. There, he establishes her in her own bed and, for
several days, adoringly treats her like a princess while her father is out of town training for his next boxing match. At no time during this period does Cheng Huan attempt to make physical advances toward his guest.
His fight won, Burrows, who has learned of his daughter's whereabouts, appears at Cheng Huan's shop in a rage. Seeing that the "dirty Chink" is out, Burrows drags Lucy home, where he beats her to death. When Cheng Huan returns to his shop and finds Lucy gone, he becomes distraught, grabs a gun,
and heads for the Burrows hovel. Too late to rescue his beloved, he confronts her killer and shoots him dead. Then he gathers up the girl's body and returns with it to the upstairs room in his shop. After spreading Lucy out on the bed, Cheng Huan lights a ritual candle and commits suicide.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford brought the story, "The Chink and the Child," to Griffith's attention in 1918. Gish didn't want to play a child, but Griffith insisted. After being bedridden with a potentially fatal case of Spanish flu, Gish began rehearsals wearing a surgical mask. Her playing
of the famous scene in which Lucy locks herself in a closet to evade the whip and fists of her brutal father staggered even Griffith, and prompted a Variety reporter who was visiting the set to "lose his breakfast," according to Gish. "The scene of the terrified child alone in the closet could
probably not be filmed today," wrote the actress in her 1969 autobiography. "To watch Lucy's hysteria was excruciating enough in a silent picture; a sound track would have made it unbearable."
Griffith completed shooting in 18 days. When Paramount balked at releasing such a downbeat story, Griffith bought back the rights and had the picture distributed though the newly formed company, United Artists. BROKEN BLOSSOMS went on to be a major success with both the public and the critics;
Photoplay magazine called it "the first genuine tragedy of the movies."
The first reel of BROKEN BLOSSOMS has the sunny, factual look of a cheery travelogue--we are in the East, where everybody is happy. As soon as the movie lands in fogbound London, where everybody is unhappy, a more impressionistic mood of poetic pathos is established and never betrayed. This
feeling is enhanced by the dreamy manner in which Griffith presents his expository material. A memorable image of Cheng Huan leaning against a wall in abject solitude is returned to again and again, while interspersed footage delineates his day-to-day life. A similar strategy is employed to place
Lucy in context.
Barthelmess, made up with little more than a tight elastic band under his cap to simulate Asian features, gives a remarkably delicate performance keyed to almost motionless melancholy. Gish's daring performance, widely considered to be one of the silent cinema's finest, is a little more
problematic. The hint of retardation she brings to her characterization of Lucy suggests that Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon may have learned a trick or two from her. And Lucy's habit of faking a smile by turning up the corners of her mouth with her fingers, a classic bit of business Gish had
improvised on the set, has not aged well.
Perhaps Griffith made a mistake in the way he rethought Lucy for the screen. Griffith authority Edward Wagenknecht reports that the girl in "The Chink and the Child," although only 12, is actually less naive and dispirited than Gish's 15-year-old. Though a total sexual innocent, the original Lucy,
Wagenknecht tells us, not only is (chastely) kissed by Cheng Huan--in the movie he merely moons over her--but "she returns his kisses 'impetuously, gladly.'" The Griffith-Gish Lucy might have benefited from some of this warmth and exuberance. If her life-spirit had been more animated, her death
would have been more tragic.
Griffith was slated to direct the 1936 British remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS, but disagreements regarding casting (at one point, he wanted Gish to repeat her role) caused him to be replaced by John Brahm. The remake starred Dolly Haas and Emlyn Williams. (Violence.)