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


Margaret Perry said...

This is a beautiful post. You've made me want to see a film that I've always known about but never thought to watch - thank you. It sounds in some ways similar to the daughter figure in Charlie Chaplin's THE CIRCUS. I look forward to watching this film - thanks again for the recommendation.

strbuk said...

Margaret, your post makes writing the blog worthwhile. I hope you find the film as memorable as I have.


Joel Williams said...

Great write-up..you've made me want to see this.

strbuk said...

Thanks Joel, I hope you did see it, and IF you did what did you think?

LĂȘ said...

I read that when the film premiered, journalists and other people were deeply nauseated with Lucy's sufferings. It still happens today, but I feel we're too exposed to violence to be chocked with the film. Yet, you're right: it can be ssen as a real horror movie.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Barry P. said...

I agree with your assessment of Broken Blossoms as a horror film. While not a horror movie in the traditional sense, it definitely elicited a visceral response from me as I watched the brutality inflicted on Lucy in the film. Hard to watch, but a brilliant film. Good post!

Silver Screenings said...

Whoa! This sounds like one not to miss. Thanks for reviewing!