Broken Blossoms is a 1919 silent film film directed by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp. The film paints an intimate portrait of Cheng Huan (Barthelmess), a kind hearted Chinese man, and his love for a poor abused girl named Lucy Burrows (Gish), as well as the brutality of Battling Burrows, a sadistic prizefighter.
Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) leaves his native China to spread the word of the Buddha in the western world. His optimism fades as he is faced with the brutal reality of London’s gritty inner-city. However, his mission is realized in his devotion to the “broken blossom” Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), the beautiful but unwanted and abused daughter of boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp).
After being beaten and discarded one evening by her raging father, Lucy finds sanctuary in Cheng’s home, the beautiful and exotic room above his shop. As Cheng nurses Lucy back to health, the two form a bond as two unwanted outcasts of society. All goes astray for them when Lucy’s father gets wind of his daughter's whereabouts and in a drunken rage drags her back to their home to punish her. Fearing for her life, Lucy locks herself inside a closet to escape her contemptuous father.
By the time Cheng arrives to rescue Lucy, who he so innocently adores, it is too late. Lucy’s lifeless body lies on her modest bed as Battling has a drink in the other room. As Cheng gazes at Lucy’s youthful face which, in spite of the circumstances, beams with innocence and even the slightest hint of a smile, Battling enters the room to make his escape. The two stand for a long while, exchanging spiteful glances, until Battling lunges for Cheng with a hatchet, who returns the sentiment by shooting Burrows repeatedly with his handgun. After returning to his home with Lucy’s body, Cheng builds a shrine to Buddha and takes his own life with a knife to the stomach.
Production and styleEdit
Unlike Griffith’s more extravagant earlier works like The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is a small-scale film that uses controlled studio environments to create a more intimate effect.
The film was adapted from “The Chink and the Child”, a story from Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights. Griffith came upon the story by way of actress Mary Pickford who saw the similarities between Griffith’s and Burke’s artistic style. The title is derived from a line in Burke's story, "the spirit of poetry broke her blossoms all about his odorous chamber."
Preliminary work on the film began in November 1918, and production ran smoothly; the limited action and entirely indoor execution made for a rapid principal shooting of only eighteen days (Barry, 28). The six weeks of rehearsal time allowed Gish and Barthelmess to explore their characters and develop a relationship. Griffith was known for his willingness to collaborate with his actors and on many occasions join them in research outings.
The visual style of Broken Blossoms emphasises the seedy Limehouse streets with their dark shadows, drug addicts and drunkards, contrasting them with the beauty of Cheng and Lucy’s innocent attachment as expressed by Cheng’s decorative apartment. Conversely, the Burrows' bare cell reeks of oppression and hostility. Film critic and historian Richard Schickel goes so far as to credit this gritty realism with inspiring “the likes of Pabst, Stiller, von Sternberg, and others, [and then] re-emerging in the United States in the sound era, in the genre identified as Film Noir".
Griffith was unsure of his final product and took several months to complete the editing saying “I can’t look at the damn thing; it depresses me so.”
Broken Blossoms premiered in May 1919, at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York City as part of the D.W. Griffith Repertory Season. According to Lillian Gish's autobiography, theaters were decorated with flowers, moon lanterns and beautiful Chinese brocaded draperies for the premiere. Critics and audiences were pleased with Griffith’s follow-up film to his 1916 epic Intolerance. Contrasting with Intolerance’s grand story, set and length, Griffith charmed audiences by the delicacy with which Broken Blossom’s handled such a complex subject.
- “ Reviewers found it ‘Surprising in its simplicity’…the acting seemed nine days’ wonder -no one talked of anything but Lillian’s smile, Lillian turned like a tormented animal in a trap, of Barthelmess’ convincing restraint. Few pictures have enjoyed greater or more lasting success d’estime.”
The scenes of child abuse nauseated backers when Griffith gave them a preview of the film; according to Lillian Gish in interviews, a Variety reporter invited to sit in on a second take left the room to vomit. She said Griffith himself was sickened while directing her in the closet scene.Template:Fact
The 'closet scene'Edit
The most-discussed scene in Broken Blossoms is Lillian Gish’s “closet” scene. Here Gish performs Lucy's horror by writhing in the claustrophobic space like a tortured animal who knows there is no escape. There is more than one anecdote about the filming of the “closet” scene, Richard Schickel writes:
- “It is heartbreaking – yet for the most part quite delicately controlled by the actress. Barthelmess reports that her hysteria was induced by Griffith’s taunting of her. Gish, on her part, claims that she improvised the child’s tortured movements on the spot and that when she finished the scene there was a hush on stage, broken finally by Griffith’s exclamation, ‘My god, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that?’”.
The scene is also used to demonstrate Griffith’s uncanny ability to create an aural effect with only an image. Gish’s screams apparently attracted such a crowd outside the studio that people needed to be held back.
- Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows
- Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan
- Donald Crisp as Battling Burrows
- Arthur Howard as Burrows' manager
- Edward Peil Sr. as Evil Eye
- George Beranger as The Spying One
- Norman Selby as A prizefighter
- ↑ Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: an American Film Life. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 1984. ISBN 0-87910-080-X, page 189
- ↑ Williams, Martin. Griffith: First Artist of the Movies. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-19-502685-3, page 109
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: an American Film Life. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 1984. ISBN 0-87910-080-X, page 391
- ↑ Williams, Martin. Griffith: First Artist of the Movies. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-19-502685-3, 112
- ↑ Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: an American Film Life. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 1984. ISBN 0-87910-080-X, page 394
- ↑ Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: an American Film Life. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 1984. ISBN 0-87910-080-X, page 395
- ↑ Barry, Iris. D.W. Griffith: American Film Master. New York: Museum of Modern Art Press, 2002. ISBN 0-87070-683-7, page
- ↑ O’Dell, Paul. Griffith and the Rise of Hollywood. Manchester: Castle Books, 1970. ISBN 0-498-07718-7, page 127
- ↑ Barry, Iris. D.W. Griffith: American Film Master. New York: Museum of Modern Art Press, 2002. ISBN 0-87070-683-7, page 28
- ↑ Affron, Charles, Lillian Gish, Her Legend, Her Life (Scribner, 2002), p. 129.
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: an American Film Life. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 1984. ISBN 0-87910-080-X, page 392
- ↑ O’Dell, Paul. Griffith and the Rise of Hollywood. Manchester: Castle Books, 1970. ISBN 0-498-07718-7, page 125
- ↑ Williams, Martin. Griffith: First Artist of the Movies. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-19-502685-3, page 114