the REEL WORLD: 1919

Broken Blossoms

One of director D. W. Griffith's most critically acclaimed films, Broken Blossoms is far smaller in scope than his most famous ones, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. It tells the story of Cheng Huan, a Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess), and his interactions with Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), an abused English girl.

The film opens in China, with Cheng Huan's witnessing the roughhousing of some English sailors, and planning to go to England to teach the violent uncivilized English about Buddhism. When he arrives in England, he settles in Limehouse, a hopeless slum, and, failing in his efforts to educate the apathetic English, opens a small shop and becomes an opium addict. When a couple of pompous English missionaries announce that they are on their way to China to convert the heathen Chinese, he smiles sadly and wishes them luck.

Griffith intersperses Cheng's story with that of the fifteen-year-old Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), illegitimate daughter of "Battling" Burrows, a vicious prizefighter (Donald Crisp, in a terrifyingly brutal performance). Burrows is capricious and violent, regularly beating the meek Lucy for little or no reason.

Every day, Cheng watches Lucy fondly as she walks by his shop. One day, she stumbles in. Her father has beaten her nearly senseless. Cheng takes pity on her and carries her up to his apartment above the shop, where he gently cares for her, dressing her in beautiful silks and giving her food. At one point, in an electric moment, he looks longingly at her and comes just a little too close. They both know that he has crossed a line, and he immediately retreats.

One of Battling Burrows' friends comes into Cheng's shop and asks him for something that he must go to another shop to get. While Cheng is away, Burrows' friend sneaks up the stairs and sees Lucy in the apartment, and immediately goes off to tell Burrows. Burrows is enraged, and charges into Cheng's apartment to reclaim what he regards as his possession. He destroys the apartment and drags Lucy home to begin the most harrowing scene of the film. Lucy hides in a closet, screaming and flailing wildly, until Burrows breaks the closet door down with an axe and kills her. (Gish later noted that she went into such a frenzy for this scene that a passerby heard her cries and, panicked, burst onto the set to try to rescue her.)

Cheng enters the Burrows' house and sees Lucy dead on the floor. He shoots Burrows dead, then carries Lucy's body home to his destroyed apartment and kills himself with a knife.

This is a bleakly beautiful film, richly atmospheric and Victorian. William Shriver's excellent review compares Griffith to Dickens, and notes the film's unique and influential visual style, so evident later in film noir.

Griffith is of course widely known now for the racism evident in The Birth of a Nation. There are several aspects of Broken Blossoms that seem racist to a modern audience, most notably the film's alternative titles (The Chink and the Child or The Yellow Man and the Girl), the constant reference to the Chinese man as "the Yellow Man" in the title cards, and the use of a white man to play him; but Cheng Huan is a well-developed and sympathetic character whose beliefs and actions are treated with respect.

This film is hard to watch, but worthwhile for Gish's stellar performance, Griffith's pioneering visual style, and a story bearing all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This is a very creepy and surrealistic film, often hailed as the best example of German expressionistic cinema. The basic plot is that Doctor Caligari visits a small German town with his cabinet, which contains Cesare, the somnambulist (Conrad Veidt, whose bleak, pained stare is one of the most haunting images I've ever seen on film -- it's quite something to see Veidt in this and then as the German officer Strasser in Casablanca, which was made 23 years later). Their arrival coincides with a series of murders, and eventually Cesare kidnaps a woman and runs away with her. The Movie Reviews UK review of the film gives a much more complete summary that I won't duplicate here.

Everything about this film is disturbing and unsettling, from the effect that Caligari and Cesare's arrival has on the town, to the bizarrely distorted sets and wildly unconventional camerawork and lighting, to the final discovery of Caligari at an asylum. See it, see it, see it.


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Emily Way (emily@vex.net)
Last updated October 20, 1998