Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Broken Blossoms

To me Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl is a horror film, and I don't know if I can adequately say how important a film I believe this is in an article such as this. (for a scholarly take on the film read this excellent 1981 piece by Julia Lessage)  In our time people love zombies, vampires, aliens, and buckets of blood.  Films containing those things are classified as "horror" films, but they are really just roller coaster amusement rides in false fear. Broken Blossoms with its utter brutality, a brutality that exists for far too many children in this world, is real horror. That the film with all of its unvarnished issues was even made in 1919 seems unusual and may be the reason the film still has such impact some ninety-three years later. That and the sad reality that much of what is portrayed in the film has not substantially changed. I often wonder what people from the more "sheltered" parts of the United States thought when they saw this film way back then.

Lucy, finding joy at first and at last

Even today with our jaded life view Broken Blossoms can be a difficult film to view. The ugliness that people perpetrate upon the innocent is always hard to watch. It's the kind of thing that makes us shudder, and makes some of us turn away. Lucy (Lillian Gish, featured today August 15th in TCM's Summer Under the Stars) is a child of London's slums who has lost her mother. She finds herself caring for a boxing father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), who is not only unappreciative but completely brutal in the treatment of his daughter. He terrorizes her both physically and emotionally leaving her unable to even smile of her own accord. Yet incredibly this film examines not only child abuse, but also racial prejudice, and the differing roles "masculinity" plays in Western society. In contrast to the misogynistic Battling is "The Yellow Man"  (portrayed by Richard Barthelmess) a genteel Chinese Buddhist who comes from the Orient to spread kindness and peace to the "civilized" west. (the debate about the propriety of a while man portraying a Chinese man must wait for another time). What ensues is the life and death struggle for decency and joy in the life of Lucy between her loutish father and her Oriental admirer. You'll find no sappy Hollywood ending here.

Watch this D W Griffith masterpiece, even when what you see makes you want to look away, because the film is so utterly visually stunning. Some of the scenes were hand tinted to enhance the mood Griffith wanted to viewer to experience (some of these effects were even created by the burning of gauze on the camera lenses) I could obviously go on at great length about this film but this blog is just a tease to give you the motivation to watch a silent film, perhaps for the first time.

Finally a genuine thank you to TCM for showing Broken Blossoms, the first silent film I ever saw and the one which caused my silent "love affair". Don't expect to see it and file it in the back of your mind though. Its images and the tale it tells will be with you for days.

Little Lucy, lost in unfathomable thought

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Not Cats, Mata Hari

How lucky can I be? I have been given the opportunity to write about something I love almost as much as I love my kitties, classic film. This month Turner Classic Movies repeats its annually anticipated event "Summer Under the Stars" (also known as SUTS). I have chosen two films to write about in the SUTS  Blogathon which is generously hosted by Michael Nazarewycz (Michael's blog is here) and Jill Blake (and you can find Jill's blog here.) Be sure to check them both out! Today's entry in the blogathon is the MGM Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari  (1931) which is on TCM  Friday August 10th at 8:45AM EDT (a day dedicated to the films of the illustrious Lionel Barrymore who also stars).

  Greta Garbo as the seductive spy Mata Hari

Hollywood has often take liberties in its treatment of historical figures, this is something that is actually made easier in the case of Mata Hari  (Indonesian for "eye of the day") since much of that exotic dancer's life is veiled in mystery and misinformation. What is known about Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" Zelle's life is that she was born in the Netherlands and studied to become a teacher. When she was harassed by the headmaster of her school she was removed to the home of her uncle where she answered a newspaper advert for a wife placed by Rudolph MacLeod, an officer in the Dutch Colonial army. They were married and moved to Java where the marriage proved to be no bargain for the young Margreet. Bored and disillusioned she  began studies of the native culture which included exotic dancing lessons. After many alleged affairs, syphilis, and disaffection from her husband and children she moved to Paris which is where her storied life began in earnest. (you can read more about the life of Mata Hari by clicking the link on her name)

 The real "Mata Hari" dressed scantily in jeweled brassiere  and little else

The movie Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo was not the first, nor the last, treatment of the glamorous spy's life. What she and Garbo have in common is an almost animal eroticism. Garbo was of course beautiful, which few would say about the real Mata, but they shared that ability to become the only person one sees in the room. That the real Mata was executed for "spying" is certain, that she had affairs with many officers during WW1 is certain as well, but the circumstances of her fall and redemption in the MGM movie are purely speculative. Still, to see virginal nuns weep for the heroic Mata as she is led away to her demise is almost poignant. It is nearly as moving, though in a completely opposite way,  as the world weary and dominating Mata's soul stealing seduction of Ramon Navarro in front of a Russian icon of the Virgin Mary, a scene which was censored/altered in some quarters.

 Mata (Garbo) manipulates a hapless General Shubin (Barrymore)

Be sure to be on the lookout for Garbo's scenes with frequent dependable co-star  Lewis Stone who is the "master of spies". But, perhaps the real treat of the movie is the over the top portrayal by Lionel Barrymore as Mata's tortured and obsessed Russian officer lover. His jealousy over her serious infatuation with heroic Russian pilot Navarro (and Mata's love for the pilot) prove to be both of their undoings.

Not to be taken too seriously this movie is a complete pleasure from Garbo's erotic dancing (allegedly done by a stand in) to her ultimate and courageous end. (one in which she tries to spare the unlucky Navarro as much pain as is possible) Once this movie starts you cannot take your eyes from it. From the incredible designs of Adrian to the naive depictions of Parisian intrigue during WW1 it's a perfect over the top 1930s melodrama. It will suck you in and have you dancing too. Enjoy!

Mata's (Garbo) touching farewell to the blinded Lt. Rosanoff (Navarro)